The Hugh Forrest AMA is happening on 14th November 2018 at 8:15AM PST (11:15AM EST)
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer for South by Southwest (SXSW). Scheduled March 8-17, 2019 in Austin, this event brings together more than 70,000 industry creatives from across the United States and around the world. These creatives are inspired by nine days of panels, presentations, brainstorming, networking, deal-making, socializing, creating, innovating, and fun.
Forrest was named “Austinite of the Year” in 2012 by the Austin Chamber of Commerce (along with fellow SXSW Directors Roland Swenson, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro). In 2014, Forrest and these other SXSW Directors were named Austin Entrepreneurs of the Year by Ernst & Young. He recently received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Kenyon College, his alma matter.
In addition to his work at SXSW, he has previously served on of the National Advisory Board for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is currently part of the Board of Directors for Austin Habitat for Humanity and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Austin-based accessibility company Knowbility. Additionally, he is a trustee for the Austin Awesome Foundation.
Before joining the SXSW team in the dark ages of 1989, he founded a small monthly alternative publication called The Austin Challenger. He also wrote for several other newspapers and publications, including the Austin Chronicle, the Texas Sports Chronicle, the West Austin News, Willamette Week and the Seattle Weekly.
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Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer for South by Southwest (SXSW) – Transcript
The AMA with Hugh was held on November 14th, 2018. This transcript has been edited for punctuation, grammar, etc.
Good morning! I’m excited to be here today.
Hugh, good morning! What was your driving force for launching SXSW?
Not sure if it can be classified as the driving force, but SXSW was patterned after an event in New York in the mid-1980s called the New Music Seminar. So, that provided a lot of inspiration for what we aimed to do in Austin.
How did you become co-founder of SXSW?
As to how I got involved with SXSW, I came on board in 1989. I’m not technically the co-founder, but someone recently told me I should call myself the founding employee (because I was the first employee). Briefly, I got hired because I had a computer — and the then-small SXSW organization didn’t have a computer before me. Early lesson in the importance of having the right hardware at the right time.
What is the single best channel for your marketing at SXSW?
While things have changed a whole lot for the organization over the last 30 years, word-of-mouth publicity is still very, very important. Word-of-mouth publicity is how we first grew the event in the late 1980s. It is still how we grow the event now. So, the community saying good things about the event to others in the community is still very much the root of our marketing success. I hope that is the question you are asking.
What are 2-3 top trends you are excited to see “take the stage” at the upcoming SXSW?
Artificial intelligence will be big this year (as it has been for the last few years). We will also see continued growth / interest in all things blockchain. And, health-related content continues to grow in popularity. What I think will be a little different in 2019 (as compared to trends from previous years) is the concept of a tech backlash and / or digital distrust. This is something that has gained a lot more force in the last 12 months. So, I think we’ll see more and more discussions along these lines this coming March. In other words, “tech hasn’t solved all our problems like it said it would — in fact, tech has created lots of new problems.” These kinds of conversations should be pretty intriguing in the context of an event that has largely celebrated tech over the last two decades.
What advice would you give to creative people (music/design) who have been pursuing their craft for some years, but haven’t yet gotten ahold of a steady and wider audience?
You can’t underestimate the value of patience and persistence. Sometimes it takes a lot longer to realize your dreams than you think it will. But if you keep forging ahead, eventually you will get to where you want to go. That is certainly the case with a lot of what we have done at SXSW. Meaning, the things we wanted to do with the event took many, many years to come together. But when they finally did come together, the results were pretty significant. I am a firm believer that slow growth is good growth.
Do you think that “breakout app” of each SXSW will continue to take a backseat to wider trends or general shifts in the future landscape? (Not sure there can be one breakout app anymore.)
I think it is harder and harder for one app to take over the event (like Twitter did in 2007). Harder and harder, because SXSW is so much bigger now than it was 10 years ago. However, I remember thinking that before the 2015 event. Then Meerkat came to Austin in March and pretty much stole the show. True, Meerkat is no longer — but you can draw a straight line from what they were doing then to a lot of what Facebook Live does now. Point is, a lot of factors have to come together exactly the right way for there to be a breakout app at SXSW. But when these factors do come together, then the end result can be pretty powerful.
Did you(and/or the rest of your team) ever contemplate renaming “SXSW” to something different?
Not really. The SXSW name is something that caught on immediately (for a variety of logical and illogical reasons). And, at this point, I don’t think it would make sense to give up all the equity / value that we have built into that name.
Since SXSW just takes place for two weeks out of the year, what is done during the ‘off season’ from a marketing/advertising perspective? Does everything shut down, or are there continued efforts to keep people engaged / grow audiences / etc.?
For where we are now as a company and a brand, there really isn’t too much of an off-season. Post event, we spend a ton of time engaging with our registrants and clients to try to get feedback (positive and negative) about what happened in March in Austin. Then by mid-June, we have pretty much turned the corner from the previous year and are focused on the event next spring. Given the current size / scope / scale of SXSW, the organizational work to put the event together requires 9-10 months of planning.
What is your personal favorite thing about SXSW generally, and can you share one favorite memory?
My favorite aspect of SXSW is seeing / feeling / watching digital creatives from around the world come together in Austin. These folks bring a special kind of energy to the city — and it is an honor to have played a small role in helping to bring them together. As for favorite memories of the event, there are so many! But, the one I always go back to is the Frank Warren keynote from SXSW 2008. His passion for community and for authenticity brought tears to most of the audience. Then the Q&A for his session featured an on-stage marriage proposal. To this end, I’m so excited that Frank Warren will be speaking at SXSW again in 2019. Check his stuff out at postsecret.com (if you are not familiar with his incredible work).
In your view, what is the best way for a startup to make the most of the event? Our CEO is speaking in the blockchain track and we’ve applied for the Startup Spotlight, anything else you’d recommend exploring? Can’t wait – SXSW is consistently the most mind-opening conference.
Spend as much time as you can putting together a gameplan for what you want to accomplish at the event. So, figure out what kinds of people you want to meet — and what are the best events where you will most likely meet them. Much,much better to have a gameplan for SXSW than going into the event just hoping that something great will happen. And you always have the option of ditching the gameplan if / when a better opportunity comes along. This advice pretty much goes for anyone who is attending SXSW. In other words, having a strong gameplan will give you the best chances of achieving the results you want to achieve.
Can you share more specifics about “slow growth is good growth?”
Slow growth helps you build a more solid foundation for eventual success. From my personal experience at SXSW, I hated the years that we weren’t growing very fast. But in retrospect, those years better prepared us for the growth we eventually were lucky enough to achieve. Moreover, once that growth phase starts . . . most of your time is spent managing the growth. So again, enjoy (and make the most of) the slow times while you have them!
Why is SXSW based in Austin?
SXSW is based in Austin simply because this was the home city of the founders. Although, perhaps a better answer is as follows. Austin is (and has always been) a very, very creative city — so it makes sense that an event which is based on the power of creative thinking grew and eventually thrived here.
Which type of events are a niche now, but are you expecting to gain a huge growth in popularity within the upcoming five years?
This question is a really interesting one. I think a lot of niche events don’t particularly want to grow to become larger — because that growth often threatens what makes the event so compelling in the first place. Moreover, I think we often get too focused on size with regards to conferences / festivals / events. What I think people are always looking for is a great platform to network and create new connections. Often, smaller events are better than bigger events at providing this kind of platform.
What do the next 2-3 years look like for SXSW as far as new initiatives? Your own label? Investment fund? Blockchain?
Another great question there. Something I think a lot about is how technology such as VR will impact the event space. While VR technology still has a long way to go to begin to capitalize on its potential, it’s not unreasonable to imagine an RPO-like future where we can put on a headset and be transported to a virtual space that seems as real as what we currently understand as physical space. When that kind of technology becomes available, will it make events like SXSW less relevant? I’m not sure. My gut is that people will always, always, always want real face-to-face / human interactions — the kinds of interactions you are able to enjoy in March in Austin. On the other hand, the future could play out in many different ways.
Curious on how you balance human vs. tech?
In a world that will be increasingly driven by artificial intelligence, the ultimate value that humans can always bring to the equation is massive creativity. Creativity is what humans have that computers don’t. And, that’s what I think events like SXSW do really well — we celebrate and foster (and hopefully inspire even more) massive creativity.
When do the marketing/advertising efforts start to ramp up? Three weeks before? Three months before?
This has now morphed into very much of a year-round effort. Why? Because there is so much more involved now with planning a trip to Austin for SXSW (as opposed to what was needed 15 or 20 years ago). So, it’s important to remind people year-round that they need to start this planning process. But, it will all be so much easier in the future when we can convene via a lightweight virtual reality headset. Ha / joking there (I hope).
Any plans to do more local/regional events under the SXSW brand?
Over the last 15 years, we have tried doing a lot of local / regional events. For instance, the SXSW V2V event that occurred in Las Vegas for three years. We’ve had a lot of fun and a lot of great experiences doing these local / regional events. But we haven’t quite figured out the right formula for success. I am pretty sure we’ll keep trying to do smaller events outside of Austin — and I think we will eventually figure out the best approach. As always, keep tinkering with the formula until you finally get it right.