With its whirlwind of music, film, advertising and tech, this year’s SXSW festival personified the 2016 media landscape: Noisy.

Brands (and bands) battled for audience attention like cockroaches fighting for a piece of grease. Traveling between venues in the sweltering heat, you could easily reach max saturation, as marketers competed for shares, likes, demographic data and mind share.

It was, as they say, a lot.

But that’s not to say it wasn’t fun.

Over the past three decades, SXSW has become widely known as a way to glimpse the future of media and pop culture. It delivered. For nine days, people from all walks of life came to Austin to both discover and be discovered, soaking in performances by up-and-coming artists while interacting with the latest tech products and innovations.

Within 72 hours, I found myself chatting not only with business development leaders from the bleeding edge of tech, but also with teenagers, YouTubers, academics, print-makers and one luxury handbag craftsman on his way to an artists’ colony. With that kind of crowd, plus hundreds of events — panels, parties, keynotes, demos and concerts — it was impossible not to be inspired.

I arrived wondering where our rapidly changing digital and visual world was headed. A few days later, sleep-deprived, sweaty and with severely blistered feet, I realized I had learned a lot:

 

1. The future belongs to the authentic

There’s a reason Iggy Pop’s concert was completely sold out. He never did.

When the 68-year-old musician bounded onto the stage singing “Lust for Life,” the tightly packed Moody Theater crowd knew they would get the ride of their lives, real and raw, without an ounce of pretentiousness or fluff.

It’s a message brands should heed as well. At SXSW, the best ones did.

Cartoon Network was one stunning example. At their panel, “Disrupting with Post Its and Pencils,” the creative minds behind such shows as “Uncle Grandpa” and “Adventure Time” let the audience inside their heads, and were encouraged by their moderator, Cartoon Network Chief Content Officer Rob Sorcher, to sketch while they spoke. It was evident the network stayed true to its mission, putting creators first and fostering free thinking. Because of this, Cartoon Network not only ended up with a well-attended session, but according to Neilsen, the network also finished 2015 as television’s #1 ad-supported network with kids 6-11.

Being real nets real results.

 

2. The future is visual

Snapchat celebrities (like DJ Khaled, pictured above, and Shonduras), VR film directors, prominent YouTubers —  sessions centered on visual storytelling drew sizable crowds. From how to perfect the craft to how to distribute content in new ways, people were eager to learn and share knowledge.

How eager? The line at the Austin Four Seasons to get into “Instagram and Snapchat Content: The New Hustle,” stretched down the hall and up a full flight of stairs. Even after SXSW staff told people the room was full, about 100 still waited, hoping some seats would open up or the talk would move to a bigger room (it didn’t).

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this — photos and videos are the top drivers of social sharing and interactivity. Still, major brands are lagging in figuring out how to incorporate this mindset into their physical activations, at least at SXSW. For some, it felt completely inauthentic, as if the brands were screaming, “Hey, Young Person! Put on these [choose one: headphones, sunglasses, silly wig — you get the picture] and pleeeease share this branded image with all your friends!” Had they considered why someone would want to share anything? Or were they just ticking a “social interactivity” box on their marketing brief?

One brand that got photo integration right was Toyota, who had set up a row of cameras at the Fader Fort to shoot revelers in 180 degrees, frozen in time. It was fun to try different poses and see how the tech would respond, the favorite being the paused-in-midair jump like in the brand’s “Oh what a feeling!” ads from the 1980s.

My hair flip didn’t look as good as I’d hoped… but the set-up was impressive.

 

Photo by Maria Dal Pan Dias
Photo by Maria Dal Pan Dias

 

3. The future is immersive

With demos and experiences around what felt like every corner, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality were major themes for the week. As our world becomes more digital and more visual, storytelling will continue to shift from passive to immersive.

That idea underscored the Future of Storytelling Summit last Fall in New York, so it was especially fitting for FoST Producer Julia Sourikoff to lead a SXSW session, “Oculus Story Studio University.” In it, Oculus Story Studio Director and Animation Supervisor Ramiro Dau and Oculus Story Studio Creative Director Saschka Unseld explained what they’ve learned structuring VR films, and how that the approach differs from the way other narrative content is created.

More than half of the audience raised their hands when asked who in the room were content creators – every one of them pioneers on the next frontier of visual communication. And they’re not going it alone. Yelena Rachitsky, Producer and Head of Education at Oculus Story Studio (who joined Dau and Unseld on the panel) said it was key for the Story Studio to be a place where creators could learn from each others’ successes and challenges, so the format could continue to scale with speed.

Which brings me to…

 

4. The future is open

SXSW was hot, hectic, dusty and loud. But mostly it was magical, if only for knowing that beyond all the noise, you were walking among the artists, creatives, inventors and innovators who will be among the next wave of disruptors.

Or maybe you’re one of them.