Australia: Where the bloody hell were you?

Alex HayesAustralian businesses constantly bemoan the brain drain and loss of talent overseas, but Mumbrella editor Alex Hayes asks what are we doing about promoting the country as a destination for the best creative and digital minds in the world to come and live?

The town of Denton in Texas has 125,000 souls, two universities, and its main employer at the moment is truck builder Peterbilt. However, it is desperately trying to bolster the contribution of creative and digital types to its economy as it looks to the future.

I learned all of this whilst enjoying a coffee with the city’s mayor, as could any of the 32,000 plus digital and creative and digital entrepreneurs that passed the stall at SXSW Interactive’s trade show.

Inspired I went wondering the enormous trade hall for Australia’s version – but there wasn’t one to be found.

The town of Denton had a bigger presence at SXSW than Australia

The town of Denton had a bigger presence at SXSW than Australia

Between the drones, crazy robots doing some useful and many useless things – as well as two men having a virtual swordfight – a NASA showcase with real astronauts talking about space (geek heaven) I came across stands for many countries pushing their charms.


There was New Zealand with a large and promient stand, Singapore had a very decent showing, likewise the Scandinavian countries, France seemed the most popular with crowds surrounding it every time I saw it while Italy, Brazil, the UK, Ireland, Germany, even the city of Manchester were all humming along with reps talking to interested punters.

City of Manchester's stand

City of Manchester’s stand

So the absence of Australia seemed jarring to me given the amount we hear from the digital professions about the scarcity of talent coming through here, and how hard it is to lure overseas experts to fill the skills gap.

I don’t think Australia punches below its weight for digital talent – anecdotally someone told me leading digital agency R/GA is now more than 20 per cent Australian – the real issue is keeping hold of them here. Something that would be a lot easier if we had more people coming from abroad to share ideas and skills.

Now, we all know how important the digital economy is going to be to sustain reshape Australia as the resources boom peters out – so why weren’t we at one of the premier global showcases?

The NZ stand

The NZ stand

Wondering if it might be cost prohibitive to run a stall I inquired what New Zealand had spent on theirs – the outlay was under $20,000 for four days, and they were getting dozens of people per day signing up for more information about the country and emigrating to it. It was funded by the immigration department but featured digital, music and film bods – the core competencies of the festival.

Eventually I did stumble on a small stall where Australian Music was being promoted – although as Sounds Australia’s Millie Milllgate told me it was a bi-product of wanting to run an Australian music party as part of the festival. It wasn’t set up to do much except to drive people to its BBQ in a park on the Friday to watch some of Australia’s top bands play. Free ponchos were the freebie being handed out there.

The Sounds Australia stand -  Australia's only official representation

The Sounds Australia stand – Australia’s only official representation

There wasn’t exactly a great showing from Aussie startups in that section of the festival either – none made the finalists of the startup competition – but perhaps that might have been because of the costs of getting to Texas. I suspect it probably shows not enough is being done to promote and showcase that vital sector in Australia either.

But the lack of any official representation really jarred with me. Why isn’t AusTrade, or some similar private sector body, doing more to raise the profile of the digital industries here and attracting talent?

Astronauts and space suits were some of the attractions on the NASA stand

Astronauts and space suits were some of the attractions on the NASA stand

As a relatively recent immigrant myself I can attest to the ease of which you can sell the lifestyle here, it’s the lack of promoting opportunities that seems to be the biggest stumbling block – and sometimes a reluctance to look outside self-propelling oligarchies in some of our bigger companies for fresh blood that makes it tough.

I’m not claiming a stand at SXSW is a silver bullet to solve these issues – but some sort of visible presence at these kind of events would at least show some willing to tackle the issues head on – and start raising awareness. Marketing 101.

Tourism Australia has done a great job over the last few years of luring visitors to these shores – but who is going to step up and get people who want to make a meaningful contribution to stay?

If Australia is to truly pivot and provide world class services then it has to start with attracting some world class talent to our shores to help lead the way, and persuade talented locals they don’t need to leave the country to realise their potential.

The talent and potential are there – but who is going to push the cause?

  • Alex Hayes is editor of Mumbrella

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