Balancing between “Academy” and “Industry”
As Peppercom’s “Director of Digital Strategy,” I have three main roles. About a third of my time is spent doing academic work. In that capacity, I’ve traveled to a variety of academic conferences to present my ongoing research; written for several academic blogs and journals; played an ongoing role in maintaining a community of media studies academics called “the Futures of Entertainment” and helped plan its annual conference; co-edited a collection on the current state of the U.S. soap opera called The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (with C. Lee Harrington at Miami University and Abigail De Kosnik with UC-Berkeley) through the University Press of Mississippi; and co-authored a book called Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society, forthcoming next spring (fingers crossed) with NYU Press. And I’ve even been able to teach a class (on the U.S. soap opera) through my affiliation with Western Kentucky University’s Pop Culture Studies Program.
I spend another third of my time largely doing what people in marketing and corporate communication circles like to call “thought leadership”: speaking at “industry” conferences, writing for online trade publications (and sites like Fast Company), talking with journalists, “networking,” etc. on one front, and doing more concentrated work tied to Peppercom’s business on the other: meeting with potential new clients, participating in new business pitches, leading internal workshops for trade industry groups or companies, etc.
And, finally, I spend a third of my time consulting with Peppercom’s clients, leading projects, etc.: most often tied to providing strategy for their online communication but also researching issues from their audiences’ perspective. Of course, this is the most important part of my time from the company’s perspective. I’ve had the opportunities to work with clients from Whirlpool, T.G.I. Friday’s, T.J. Maxx/Marshall’s, and the BBC to Siemens, Steelcase, Cengage Learning, and Puget Sound Energy.
Peppercom’s perspective is that the time I spend on academic work helps fuel my thinking and keeps me tapped into research that will ultimately benefit the company through the consulting I provide and my participation in industry publications/speaking events. Even when writing on topics like soap opera that have little to do with our clients, we’ve achieved agreement that my maintaining an active participation in the academic community and pursuing research of my interest without any editorial “intervention” from them is essential for my work. And, in return, it allows me access to research and ways of thinking that many in the marketing industries aren’t tapped into.
This “academic outside academia” approach has its benefits. I work from home when I’m not on the road. I still teach and research without concern about academic tenure, or the politics of academia, or committee work. And I’m personally excited by translating work I’m doing in the academic space to other audiences and (I hope) make a positive intervention in the media and marketing industries. This gives me the chance to collaborate with a lot of people I wouldn’t have necessarily have met within the academic realm and to bring those ideas back to bear on my research and thinking.
Such a role also has its challenges, though. The work that I do of direct benefit to Peppercom always takes precedence (of my own volition): consulting with clients, bringing in new business, etc. That means that I plan my academic work around my consulting work and, when deadlines collide, precedence goes to “billable work.” My role can also bring heavy periods of travel. Thus, planning time to teach can become tricky (but not unmanageable), and balancing press deadlines with client needs can lead to conflicting deadlines. Then, there’s an extra amount of work that you have to dedicate to staying “tapped in” when you’re not at a university every day.
The biggest challenge of all in the humanities can be balancing the perceptions some might have of working in the corporate sector. Certainly, many areas of research could be challenging from a “corporate” job: for instance, writing about a major media company you’ve worked with. Some might see this perspective as providing the chance for a more nuanced take on the media industries, but others could dismiss your work as a whole as “compromised” or “tainted.”
I’ve found a great community of traditional tenure-track academics who treat me as a colleague, and I’m deeply grateful for that. And I’m working for an employer who has demonstrated great flexibility and respect for the work I do in academia. That doesn’t mean it’s a cure-all approach for doing academic work. However, I think those coming out of media studies programs benefit from access to positions like this. I believe it leads to a much richer field with increased vantage point into our culture/media landscape. And I hope that such “collaborative intervention” with media and marketing professionals might lead to industry practices that are richer, more inclusive, and more equitable.
However, as the classic saying goes, if you want these positions, often “they haven’t been created yet.” My work with Peppercom is a role that I have built in collaboration with the firm and that has evolved over the past few years and my tenure in the marketing and communications world. Such positions can only work if and when you find the right partner for you: an employer who gets what you do but doesn’t want to take editorial control over your work (and if you take as seriously what they need from the relationship).