Top Takeaways from the Seattle Interactive Conference

Thanks to my friends at Projekt202, I had the opportunity to attend the 2019 Seattle Interactive Conference #sic2019. With hundreds of talks over the two day event, it was informative, well-run, and buzzing with creative energy. It was more marketing-heavy and less design-heavy than I was expecting, with a lot of focus on branding, both personal and organizational.

My top learnings and takeaways are below.

On Branding and Experiential Marketing

Good Branding Starts from the Inside

The headline around building a brand that matters is that it starts from the inside and flows outward rather than being painted on. Michael Gaston, founder and CEO of, presented a framework for building a brand that resonates with people:

  • What do you want as a company? Is what you want aligned with a large group of people’s need state?
  • What’s your intervention? The thing that no one else does or wants to do
  • What are your values?
  • What change are you driving for?

He took it a step further, saying that the brand must be the heart of your internal business decisions, things like which revenue streams you pursue and which hiring and firing decisions you make.

Decisions should be grounded in the brand, because companies with a strong brand don’t compete. They meet users’ needs.

A company without a brand that matters is a commodity.

You have to compete and follow best practices because you’re competing on unit economics and not focusing on meeting a customer need.

I came away from the talk feeling like Cut’s brand is really just the outward face of their company culture. There’s nothing performative about it.

Start with the Why

In multiple talks, we heard about the importance of grounding any marketing effort in the desired outcome. Thinking about creating a branded podcast? The founders of Larj Media say to start with 3 foundational questions:

  1. What do you want to say?
  2. Who do you want to hear it?
  3. What do you want to come of it?

Similarly, to create exceptional experiential marketing, Nasir Rasheed of Opus Agency taught us to start with the transformation you want to achieve. What story are you telling, and what change are you aiming to bring about?

Lastly, Jordan Barr of Expedia says the first box on his checkbox for personalizing marketing experience is: What are we trying to do with this marketing message? The way you approach personalization will change if you’re driving sales or aiming to impact NPS.

On Innovation and AI

How to Reclaim Innovation

Alain Silvain of Silvain Labs argued that innovation has become fetishized, with an entire economy developed around the promise of newness. Not hard to understand, since biologically we are programmed to respond with a dopamine surge when presented with something new, regardless of its value.

To truly innovate, companies must focus first on identifying a truth and looking for the possibility that exists around that truth. He gave the example of Motown music, whose truth was that there was a connection between black music and pop culture. The possibility was to create music in the way that assembly lines created cars. And lastly, to look for the impact you can make — adding real value to people’s lives. When you get all three together, you get real, not performative, innovation.

The Emotional Future of AI

With that framework in mind, Rana Gujral’s talk about how AI is getting more emotional resonated as presenting a truly innovative product. The truth is that voice assistants are becoming ubiquitous, pervasive, and emotionally intelligent. Another truth is that tonality is very accurate in identifying emotions. It’s difficult to fake in voice what it’s easy to cover up in facial expressions.

The possibility in this is to combine humans’ ability to identify emotion with an ML algorithm’s ability to process massive amounts of data to create an outcome that predicts human behavior based on nothing but tonality and emotion, regardless of the language spoken. With possibilities for everything from health care to debt collection to purchasing behavior, this presentation on the future of AI proves we’re just getting started.

On Internationalization and Personalization

Don’t Show Your Hand

Jordan Barr from Expedia and Anna Maria Tallariti from Starbucks talked personalization, and the state of the art is far beyond greeting you by name in email. Jordan advocated that you don’t need to show a customer everything you know about them in order to personalize your experience. Rather, be contextual and relevant so that your messaging is helpful rather than creepy.

Anna Maria said personalization doesn’t always mean tailoring the experience to the person, but rather giving choices and options so people can customize the experience to their likes. Small things like increasing the options for redeeming rewards go a long way to making someone feel more connected with your brand and like the experience is unique to them.

Design with Translation in Mind

Design principles don’t apply everywhere. Sarah Alvarado, Research Director at Blink, reminded us of the importance of involving team members who are native to your participants’ culture, so that you account for differences in cultural nuance. From colors to content to voice to iconography, what works in one market may not work in another.

Her checklist includes things like:

  • Design with translation in mind
  • Ensure formatting is flexible for dates, measurements, phone numbers, and addresses
  • Build in extra time for UX audits and comparative analysis

On Building High Growth Teams

Of any speaker at the conference, I was most impressed by Jeff Lanctot, CEO of Valor Worldwide, for his comment that the most important thing in hiring growth teams is humble leadership and recognizing your luck. I’ve been in startups a long time and only a serial entrepreneur looks at their career for what it is — hard work, a lot of at-bats, and a lot of luck.

His framework for keeping the leadership team of a high-growth company focused is rooted in discipline and honesty. He says

at each inflection point in the growth of the company, evaluate what decisions the executive team makes and aim to reduce them by half.

To do that, empower other teams to make decisions effectively and decide what your risk tolerance is for mistakes.

The other thing I took away was the importance of purpose in growth teams. He said, “You can’t ask someone to do something and expect it to be done well if you don’t set the purpose for why it matters.” Discipline, focus, and purpose as the cornerstones for leading growth teams.


Seattle Interactive Conference was 2 full days of presentations across 10 concurrent tracks. It was well-organized, well-executed, and highly recommended with a high bar for speakers and relevant, engaging content.




Product leader Inspired by @adilwali, our 2 boys, & the beauty of the PNW. Passionate about gender equality, travel, & weekends at home.

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Ashley Wali

Ashley Wali

Product leader Inspired by @adilwali, our 2 boys, & the beauty of the PNW. Passionate about gender equality, travel, & weekends at home.

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