Matt But­ter­worth re­ports from SXSW

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T his year was the 10th an­niver­sary of Twit­ter’s break­ing out at the South by South­west (SXSW) con­fer­ence in Austin, Texas. This lifted the con­fer­ence from a small-time tech event to the me­dia dar­ling for what would be­come Web 2.0.

Ever since, mar­ke­teers, dig­i­tal na­tives and tech­nol­ogy in­ven­tors have at­tended each year to chase the lat­est tech and in­no­va­tion break­throughs, and this was my 10th year in at­ten­dance. Ev­ery­one in the Mid­dle East seems to do the Cannes thing, but for me SXSW is far more im­por­tant. It is a real op­por­tu­nity to look for­ward. While it is good to take a ret­ro­spec­tive look at the year gone by, which is what I feel Cannes does, I per­son­ally much pre­fer un­der­stand­ing cre­ative and tech­nol­ogy trends. These can give our clients a real in­sight into the fu­ture of our world and how it will af­fect them. How­ever, there was a tinge of dis­ap­point­ment and sad­ness that I couldn’t re­move from my brain dur­ing the week.

2017 was the first time I looked at the event through my new Mid­dle East­ern lens. Hav­ing now resided in the re­gion for nearly a year, the first thing I no­ticed about this year’s SXSW was the lack of pres­ence and vis­i­bil­ity from the Mid­dle East among at­ten­dees and speak­ers.

The one ex­cep­tion was Yousef Tuquan, vice-pres­i­dent of brand mar­ket­ing and loy­alty at Jumeirah, who pro­duced a mag­i­cal, in­sight­ful and pro­gres­sive take on Saudi Ara­bia en­ti­tled ‘Arabs Be Like’. I left feel­ing hope­ful and en­er­gised by his op­ti­mism after he show­cased how to­day’s Mid­dle East is an in­cred­i­bly rich and di­verse place. It is a land of con­tra­dic­tions that ex­ists along­side some of the high­est so­cial me­dia us­age in the world. Jed­dah and Riyadh are the cities in the world that use Snapchat more than any other, and 510 mil­lion daily views make Saudi Ara­bia the high­est per capita con­sumer of YouTube glob­ally.

Even though we have a world-class dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture in place – with ini­tia­tives like Smart Dubai, Expo 2020 on the hori­zon and Saudi Ara­bia’s 2030 vi­sion – we all ac­knowl­edge that the re­gion is many years be­hind in terms of tech­nol­ogy, in­no­va­tion and pro­gres­sive dig­i­tal un­der­stand­ing, es­pe­cially in our world of mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Even more rea­son, then, for more mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als to at­tend SXSW and be part of a world that is con­stantly chang­ing.

How I wished Mo­hamed Alab­bar had been there to talk pas­sion­ately about dot­com en­trepreneuri­al­ism and help to awaken the tech­no­log­i­cal sleep­ing gi­ant that is soon to hit this re­gion.

Still, I tried to find some­thing that I could bring back to the re­gion and that could give me real in­sight and mean­ing around the po­ten­tial of this fan­tas­tic place I now call home. After all the anti-Mus­lim Trump rhetoric and find­ing my­self proudly work­ing in a pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim re­gion, I de­cided to at­tend ‘A Global Mus­lim Start-up Ecosys­tem Emerges’. This session broke out of the par­a­digm of rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion and dis­cussed ways in which iden­ti­ties should be pos­i­tive. With 1.7 bil­lion Mus­lims, in the world, of whom nearly 700 mil­lion are un­der 30, Mus­lims are al­ready an in­te­gral part of the mod­ern world, up­wardly mo­bile and ta­lented in many un­ex­pected places.

Re­search has found that nearly 96 per cent of all peo­ple would pick a white fa­mous male to rep­re­sent for­ward think­ing and busi­ness acu­men, and yet there are 1.7 bil­lion Mus­lims in the world. When we de­fine en­trepreneur­ship, we see some­thing else, usu­ally Steve Jobs. This has un­doubt­edly led to a lot of prob­lems in the Mus­lim world and the peo­ple on the panel agreed that it needed to be chal­lenged.

But Launch Good is the to­tal hero of Mus­lim start-ups. It is es­sen­tially a bil­lion-dol­lar reli­gious start-up that has wit­nessed a re­birth in ‘ac­tion’, a sort of re­nais­sance of a mod­ern Mus­lim com­mu­nity. It has funded projects like Launch­good.com/ceme­tery, a pro­gramme to al­low Mus­lims to unite and re­pair a Jewish ceme­tery, which raised $160,000 in less than a week. Amna Al-Had­dad, the UAE hi­jab-wear­ing weight lifter, started her funding via Launch Good, and now we have the very first crowd­funded veiled bal­le­rina, Stephanie Kur­low. The power of so­cial move­ments and do­ing good is an amaz­ing story that should be cel­e­brated. I know there are hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, more within the re­gion that we should all be cel­e­brat­ing,

It only takes one story to lift every­thing and change per­cep­tions. The re­gion is a like-hearted com­mu­nity, not like-minded. All around the world, and in par­tic­u­lar in this re­gion, we are wit­ness­ing re­birth in ac­tion, a re­nais­sance in Mus­lim mod­ern com­mu­nity that of­ten is not seen in the Western world. I believe this re­gion is about to ex­plode on to the global world of tech­nol­ogy and cre­ativ­ity. It can learn from its Western con­tem­po­raries and en­sure it does not make the same mis­takes. So this brings me back to my first point: the re­gion needs to be more vo­cal and present in the Western world so we can show our true mus­cle power. SXSW is one such fo­rum where the world should see our po­ten­tial. I cer­tainly will be bang­ing the drum at SXSW for the re­gion in the years to come. Keep an eye out for Matt But­ter­worth’s up­com­ing fea­ture in Cam­paign on what else he took away from SXSW.

MATT BUT­TER­WORTH Man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, Mul­lenLowe MENA

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