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Over 11,000 attendees are expected to flock to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, drawn by the conference's growing reputation as a sort of Burning Man festival for digital technology. Among the armies of developers, techies and designers are a growing cadre of advertising pros from both the brand and agency sides. They're looking to polish their image with Web tastemakers, find clues to the next hottest piece of tech and recruit digitally savvy talent. That there are non-stop parties doesn't hurt, either.
"What's great is it's this unique place where this trifecta of culture actually meets: interactive, film and music," said Bonin Bough, director of social media at PepsiCo, the lead sponsor of SXSW. "We believe digital is a huge representation of culture and this is the biggest manifestation of that."
It's a sign of the times that a conference boasting such esoteric sessions as "Google Hackathon: HMTL5, Chrome and Android Accessiblity" would garner the attention of the branding world. "We believe technology can help ignite great ideas and we plan to use our time [there] to make discoveries that we may not have come across otherwise," said Tyler Murray, head of the digital practice at Saatchi X, the shopper-marketing arm of Saatchi & Saatchi.
SXSW, which in 1994 branched into interactive and film from its roots as a music festival, has solidified its position in recent years as the place where the latest tech trends are launched. Three years ago, Twitter started at the festival, quickly signing up the early adopter crowd who used it to find which parties were hot and which panels sucked. Last year, current social media darling Foursquare took the wraps off its iPhone app at SXSW.
Brands, including Microsoft, which signed on this year as a platinum sponsor, use the conference to burnish their credentials with an audience that might otherwise be a tough sell. "If you believe in the consumerization of technology, South by Southwest is one of the most important events in the world," said Chris Bernard, user experience evangelist at Microsoft.
"The rise of peer influence and online word of mouth as influential factors in brand loyalty are factors that most large brands can't ignore anymore," said Christoper Barger, director of global communications and technology at GM.
Many digital agencies are scouring the junkyard for usable parts: people. SXSW has become a Mecca for developers, user-experience experts and strategists, making it a rich environment for agencies in need of talent. "If you want to staff up with social media people or developers, this is the place," said David Armano, svp at Edelman Digital. Edelman has 10 people in Austin, including a recruiter, for what Armano calls "spring break for geeks."