Loved SXSW content. The presentations? Not so much.

God, can you imagine if George Bush was as good a speaker as Clinton? No, wait. Don't imagine that.

The ideas that were actually selling here at SxSW were the ones that were actually sold – by a fantastic speaker.

Now I agree, some ideas are so great they don’t need to be sold. For example, they day they discover a cure for cancer? They won’t need an ad agency. They can take out a classified ad in the Tulsa Weekly-Bugle and the world will know about it within a week. But for those of us with ideas less world-shaking, we will need to sell them.

Fact is, most of the presentations I saw this week kinda blew. The content was great, no question. Pretty much every presenter had something cool to say. (With one exception; one speaker was so 1998 she was puttin’ up slides about how “Consumers can now scan bar codes with their phones!” Dude. Please.)

The big difference in the transmission of ideas comes down to this: Passion. Power. Clarity. Energy.

I don’t care if you’re just on a stinkin’ panel about banner ads, when you have the mike you’ve been given the gift of the attention of 200 people and you’re failing if you do not knock it out with passion, power, clarity and energy. Of the sessions I attended, every single speaker failed. I know, I know, they weren’t all that way. In fact, at last night’s party at GSDM, most people were talking about Gary Vaynerchuk‘s speech. People were blown away by it. Blown away. Damn, I wish I’d seen it. I didn’t, but I heard about it. And you know what? Even if it turns out his speech was content I’m not really interested in, I woulda ended up interested in it because he made me interested.

President Bill Clinton came to speak here at the agency a couple a times (he’s best friends with Roy Spence, himself a legendary speaker). I remember watching Clinton that day and just soakin’ it in, trying to learn everything I could; his intensity; his command of the material; his pacing; his eye contact; his comfort in front of people; his accessibility. It was the full package and, man, it was mesmerizing.

So, if you agree we’re in the business of spreading ideas, of selling ideas, make it your business to learn how to speak publicly. To learn how to put on a kick-ass presentation.


My friend here at GSDM, Jenn Totten, she told me to CTFD. (Calm The Fuck Down, a hip abbreviation I predict will soon to be in the national lexicon.): “You are cranky, but you’re right. The panels were the worst. They all winged it. But I found the solo speakers to be pretty good across the board.” Another agency friend, Lauren Walker, agreed with Jenn. “The solo presenters were great. The panels were ‘eh’ and the discussions just tanked. There were certainly a lot of interesting topics to discuss but moderating a discussion is a fine art. It requires tact and a large knowledge base. Most of the discussions I attended were steered in one direction early on and stayed there. Next time, no discussions for me.”

Dang, I wished I’d been in those cool solo presentations. (BTW, folks. SXSW is very good about listening to feedback, so fill out those survey thingies.)

Final note: I really liked these “Ogilvy Notes” things I saw here and there. I wonder if my own agency oughta do something like this? Maybe have our own artists make big-ass drawings this cool, for those presentations we have to make more than once – like, say, agency themes, case histories, stuff like that. These boards are more interesting, more playful and informal than stupid Powerpoint slides.


  1. I agree Luke. The Ogilvy notes were pretty dang clever infographs. I collected as many as I could.

  2. “The solo presenters were great. The panels were ‘eh’ and the discussions just tanked.” – Somewhat predictable really.

    If you think about a creative project with no owner, no visionary leader and it’s easy to understand why the panels fail. Collaboration is great – essential when things get complicated.- but driving isn’t a team activity.

    • Nicely said, Bruce. Creative visions need visionaries.

  3. Luke,
    I have to say that agree with you 100%. I actualy only had one or two sessions that I wish I would have someone slap me for going. Not to turn this into a post of negatives I did realy get a lot of great content and hearing from people at agencies that are doing great things. I came away with a lot of to-dos for my agency. My hope is that I can affect change enough that one day we could have someone on a stage.

    I have two complaints from SXSW.
    1. The feeling of Elitism from people at large agencies. While the majority of panelist were very humble, I tend to get the sense that some always felt a bit too proud of themselves. It seemed like bragging overshadowed the topic.

    2. Sexy titles didn’t match the content. I was in several sessions expect one topic and got something unrelated and unuseful.

    In the end I was blessed to go. I could been sitting at my desk working, but instead ingot a chance to meet new people and head get some great content.

    I am blessd


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Suggested Reading

There is no shortcut. This is how we learn it. Bit by bit.
View List

Recent Tweets

Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.