Once again, the question of how relevant SXSW is for brands and marketers persists as the festival gets bigger each year. (Stay tuned for more on this in our interview with the festival’s director Hugh Forrest). This year, so far, President Obama’s keynote encouraging the tech community to solve the nation’s problems seems to have made the biggest impact – somewhat unsurprising in a US presidential election year.

Some of the brand and agency leaders I spoke to had big plans for SXSW, others had very limited participation in the event. But the question that seemed to come up most often was — is SXSW's value in being exposed to new ideas and people or can brands make a tangible impact on sales and adoption by coming to Austin in March?

Shiv Singh, SVP, global head of digital & marketing transformation at Visa

What is the underlying insight that’s driving Visa’s marketing transformation?

For Visa it’s very simple, as payments go more digital, we want the same level of success in the digital world as we have in the physical world around payments.

How has Visa's audience changed?

Historically our partners would mostly be issuers, retailers and merchants — now it also includes the tech giants of the world, startups and developers. Visa historically hasn’t talked to them, but now we partner with them on products and services.

What is Visa doing at SXSW?

We’re showing a connecting car that we created in partnership with Honda at our Visa’s Everywhere Lounge. It allows payments in the car. If you drive to a parking spot, you’re used to getting out and paying. Imagine just driving up and being able to pay automatically.

Also as part of our Everywhere initiative, we invited the startup community to answer our marketing and business challenges. We had 400 startups participate last year and all three of our winners were African-American. TechCrunch covered it because there is much emphasis on gender and ethnic diversity in Silicon Valley.

This year we are launching it again at SXSW — but we are doing things a little differently. There will be a SharkTank-style competition that kicks off the main submission. Last month, we opened the Visa network’s API for the first time , so any developer or startup can access the API to create unique, powerful experiences for their own business.

Also, at the Everywhere Lounge, we have a biometrics bar. So if you want to drink, you ‘pay’ for it with a retina scan or fingerprint to show all the ways payments are evolving.

Is SXSW a good place for brands to make a marketing investment?

We used to use SXSW as a proxy to whom to reach our 200m consumers at Pepsi. At Visa, we’re trying to reach the developers here, so it works well. We are also trying to reach the actual merchants and banks and web designers who are showing up.

We all know how overused the word 'innovation' is at SXSW, but what does it mean to you?

There are two distinct areas. There’s product innovation around payments, but there’s also evolving how we engage consumers. There are a few ways to do this. When it comes to marketing, the question is, how can we market in a digital world where our consumers have no time for us. With the Everywhere initiative, we are opening this up to outside influence to help us drive better marketing innovation.   

We’ve also established a 10% rule within marketing and communications. This means 90% of investments will be measured with rigor and discipline as it should be. But for 10% of the investments, it won’t be held to this standard so that we can experiment and learn.

Tell me about the new editorial design of Visa.com.

 We redesigned Visa.com to look like magazine website because storytelling is so imporant to drive business actions. We launched in the US in September and now we’re rolling it out around the world over the next 12 months, so it will be in 131 countries. We have an editorial board and we have weekly/daily editorial meetings. The way we structured it, I’m the executive sponsor but working very closely with the PR and marketing teams. It has both editorial and product elements. At Visa, we’re trying to reach the developers here, so SXSW works well. We are also trying to reach the actual merchants and banks and web designers who are showing up. How do you draw visitors to the site?

We get 45m to 50m unique visitors to Visa.com. So when we went through the reimagination to a storytelling platform, it was less about attracting new visitors and more about better serving the ones we are already attracting. We run stories about our business that also drives business actions like signing for credit cards, downloading white papers, registering for Visa Checkout or accepting our cards.

Jason Schlossberg, president/chief creative officer of Kwittken

"SXSW is 30 this year, which is quite telling. The event has truly matured, for good or bad - depending on your point of view. It seems less like a place where you will stumble upon the next great thing and more like a place where the next big marketing initiative/push finds you.

SXSW Interactive has evolved into the technology version of Miami Art Basel. It's all about the parties and access, rather than a place you go to find inspiration or new ideas. Having said all of that - I still had a great time. I feel like this pic [hero image] says it all."

Amy von Walter, EVP/head of global communications at Toys “R” Us

Amy von Walter announced earlier this month she was leaving Best Buy to become EVP/head global communications at Toys “R” Us, reporting directly to CEO Dave Brandon. She gave a talk at the W2O Pre-Commerce Summit on what is was like growing up Asian-American in a white adopted family and a mostly white part of the country.

What did you learn at Best Buy and why did you decide to make the change?

von Walter:
Best Buy was an amazing experience and we took a business that was really struggling. We now have an amazing management team that’s not only stabilized but is helping us figure out how we’re going to grow. Being part of that transformation process, helping to create a new culture and break down silos was incredibly rewarding.

What was the draw to Toys “R” Us?

von Walter:
 I’ve been incredibly blessed when it comes to my career and I feel like this was that next opportunity for me. It is an iconic brand, there is joy innately in toys and babies. And so, the ability to take my experiences from Best Buy and apply those to Toy “R” Us really appealed to me.

Your talk on building confidence was really inspiring. What was the story behind it?

von Walter:
What really inspired the talk was, I’m in this career transition and so much of the environment we build as a communications leader is a culture of development and coaching. And I have a wonderful mentor in [Best Buy CCO] Matt Furman and he’s instilled this great sense of coaching and development in me. So I’ve really tried to pass that down. And over time I’ve realized many of the conversations I have with my employees aren’t necessarily about the skillset but these intangibles that no one has ever taught us.

What are the trends at SXSW that you’re following?

von Walter:
Social media continues to evolve - it’s evolved from a 140 characters into a much more visual medium with Periscope and Snapchat, so I think staying on top of these emerging trends is important for the communications business. It seems less like a place where you will stumble upon the next great thing and more like a place where the next big marketing initiative/push finds you. Becky Brown, VP of global marketing and communications and director of the digital marketing and media group at Intel

You’re a proponent of brands creating beautiful content. How should brands think about content.

In order to do branded content and to get into this whole conversation, you have to think of content as a practice and have the right partners. Second, we have evolved our thinking on this. When started Intel IQ, our digital magazine, and at first we didn’t know how to deal with that and we were hiring writers. Since then we evolved to two writers and an editor-in-chief and we use it as a core part of our social conversation.

Intel — along with Toshiba — won the Cannes Lion in 2013 for “The Beauty Inside” campaign. But you’ve shifted gears on your content since then?

We do love great content, but we’re putting a different filter on how we do it. The filter is how our technology has a role in that story. We did Xgames integration with ESPN around snowboarding. As the snowboarders came down, we could see the height and speed of the experience and we developed content about athletes. It was all so core to the sports experience. As another example, last year we did a program called the Maker Challenge. We realized this could be an interesting reality TV series so we partnered with Mark Burnett to do a TV series America's Greatest Makers on Turner.

Bob Pearson, chief innovation officer at W2O Group

“Here are key trends that are really resonating at SXSW 2016:

Virtual reality — it's about three years away from becoming mainstream. Imagine the next social world emerging as a pair of goggles allows people around the world to communicate, play games or do work. It's the equivalent of Facebook back in 2004. It's not as much the power of what you can see inside goggles...it is more that we'll be relating with the rest of the world while we play ping pong against a new friend from Malaysia or we do a conference call globally and all see the same presentation and interact.

Digital health — technology and health are morphing together with speed.  Whether it is transforming mental health outcomes or understanding how to leverage Watson Health, the talent of both industries is finally emerging.  This new era is finally becoming real.  Otsuka, for example, is figuring out how to identify and help people, providers and payers combat mental illness. 

Security — we are woefully unprepared for security risk.  The hackers of the world are innovating faster than companies are today.

The power of SXSW — no matter how much technology progresses, human beings need to meet to bounce off each other and see the world's problems or opportunities with new eyes. These are a few key trends or insights that have hit me during the last few days."

Manny Kostas, global head of platforms and future technology at HP

You’re an advocate for an integrated process across product, marketing, sales and the post-purchase customer service. How do you make this happen?

At HP, we’ve looked to establish a common language on how the customer goes through their journey. We have one framework and one language and we use a firm Daggerwing to help us with this. There are things you to have to consider, for instance, whose facts are the facts, meaning which data do you use? That’s a bigger debate once you get past the framework and taxonomy. No matter how much technology progresses, human beings need to meet to bounce off each other and see the world's problems or opportunities with new eyes. Former Huntsworth CEO Lord Chadlington

Former Huntsworth CEO Lord Chadlington spoke at the Pre-Commerce Summit, primarily about his current role as a political advisor. He told attendees that 50% of the world doesn’t have Internet access. He predicted more change is on the horizon, in particular in countries that already are relatively well-connected like China, Kenya and Bahrain.

When asked about the rise of GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, Chadlington said research shows that social media has made people feel more involved in political life than ever — but while voters feel empowered, they also feel the establishment is too private and inaccessible. “People want it broken down, that’s what Trump represents,” he said. He said the polling in this year’s presidential primaries has been so off because the era of tribal politics is over and ballot decisions are often made within 24 hours of visiting the voting booth.

Todd Defren, CEO of Shift Communications

"Having never been here during the conference before, I may not have much value to add, but what I am hearing on the street is that ‘SXSW is scaling down a bit in terms of brand presence; it is trying to find its footing again; a middle ground.’”

Interviews edited for length and clarity.
Photo credit: Jason Schlossberg​