Balancing between “Academy” and “Industry”

August 23, 2011
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Balancing between "Academy" and "Industry"From my time as an undergraduate studying pop culture, I knew I wanted to study how people communicate through and with the media. That work took me to graduate school, but–rather than the “tenure-track” approach, I am now working for Peppercom Strategic Communications in a role that bridges between “the academy” and the media and marketing industries. The editors of Antenna were interested in my sharing what such a “non-traditional academic” role entails for media studies, so what follows is my attempt to explain what it is I do.

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).


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4 Responses to “ Balancing between “Academy” and “Industry” ”

  1. Jason Mittell on August 23, 2011 at 9:49 AM

    Very nice explanation of your hybrid status and what advantages (& challenges) it brings. One question that comes to mind is what happens when your academic-minded research runs counter to the expectations & mindset of your clients? While you obviously don’t come from a strict political economy, “advertising is evil” perspective, I’m sure that there are times that you want to raise issues or critiques that don’t quite mesh with the billable outcomes. So how do you & Peppercorn negotiate such points of friction?

  2. Sam Ford on August 24, 2011 at 3:53 PM

    Thanks, Jason, and glad you asked that question. There are certainly times that the way marketing, PR, and corporate communications operates doesn’t always gel with how I think things SHOULD work. Peppercom has made it clear that it’s important to always give our clients the counsel we believe in when we’re asked to weigh in…as consultants soon learn, sometimes clients don’t necessarily do what we advise, but it’s good to say it, nonetheless. I’ve never had to take them up on this, but my bosses have also made it clear that they would never expect me to work on a project that runs counter to my beliefs, if they and I have a difference of opinion.

    On the other hand, I do take a bit of pragmatist, “will it make a difference?” approach. There are certainly times where I’d advocate a client do something differently but know they don’t have the budget, the bandwidth, the understanding, the right people in place, etc., to do it, and I’ve thus not spoken up. I’ve consciously tried to bring ways of thinking into our firm–and to see it disseminate out to our clients–in ways that I think will cause positive change, but I also don’t want to be too preachy, either. So, for instance, I don’t ask for a retraction if a client uses the word “viral;” or throw something if I hear someone say something about “leveraging influencers;” even as I try to educate others on why I think such terms are problems.

    In that way, it’s perhaps like the philosophy many of us would suggest for teaching: that collaboration needs to set a tone where people aren’t afraid to interact with you; that you commit to learning from others as much as you think you have to teach them; and that you don’t shake fingers at people when they do something that run counter to what you think is right (unless it’s a blatant ethical or moral violation), and lose any chance of people listening to you in the process.

  3. Cynthia Meyers on August 25, 2011 at 11:36 PM

    I’m fascinated to hear about this career path. Earlier in the decade I was looking for just such a path but didn’t think it existed!
    Sam, would you mind explaining a little about how you made your way to this point? What kind of degrees/schools? Non-academic work experiences? Networking with whom & where? Also, do you think there are going to be more opportunities like this, or do you think it will continue to be an unusual kind of position?
    I ask about this because my experience was that not having an MBA closed off many possibilities, and having a PhD did not promise to open any. Or have things changed a lot over the past decade?

  4. Sam Ford on August 26, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    No problem, Cynthia! It wasn’t really clear to me at the time where/how I was headed forward. As an undergrad at Western Kentucky University, I was interested in journalism…but I ended up getting more and more deeply into pop culture studies. That’s how I stumbled across the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. And, once I got there, they were experimenting with an “applied humanities” approach, marrying the coursework with projects that looked to apply the “media studies” way of thinking to collaborations with non-profits, governments, media producers and brands, etc.

    That mindset started my thinking about the intersection between academia and the media industries and allowed me the chance, through the project I worked on at MIT, to consult with several companies, attend industry events, make contacts, etc. Really, the job at Peppercom came about through that network. I found out about the job through someone else who was contacted for it, wasn’t interested, but passed them along to me. And–this is key–it was a company who was really looking to collaborate with me in defining the job. I just consulted with them at first and, seeing it was a good fit culturally, we built the position from there.

    I suspect it will remain a bit of an unusual position, but there are also precedents set now. So I think it’s becoming less unusual than it once was. One could point to how anthropologists, for instance, end up with in-house research jobs, etc.

    One key is that online communication has given ways for academics and people outside the academy to connect on similar interests and ideas in a way that wasn’t as easy to happen (especially for those of us not based in NY or LA and not attending similar types of in-person events) a few years ago.