Lancaster’s radical literary studies forever informed one graduate’s approach to advertising during his time at Bailrigg.
Ahead of a presentation to industry peers on digital advertising, Tim Johnson (Cartmel 2001, Graduate 2002) remembered his Lancaster studies: “the presentation was about the flight of ad revenue from print to digital. Publishers had scrambled for replacement revenue, plastering their websites in programmatically traded ads, which was triggering backlash from readers who used apps to block them. I used a couple of quotes to boil this down, one current from the Economist, the other ‘Advertisements are now so numerous they are very negligently perused’, from Samuel Johnson around 250 years earlier.”
Tim studied English Literature as an undergraduate, before completing an MA in Contemporary Literary Studies and Cultural Studies,“I’d loved my first degree but graduated with a 2:1 knowing I could do better”. The Department of English had created a joint MA with the Institute for Cultural Research by this point and the combination appealed to Tim, who benefited from a Cartmel college grant and worked in the nearby Boot and Shoe to help pay his way. He graduated with distinction and immediately moved to London, working at the niche but prestigious London Review of Books as a subscriptions assistant, “basically data entry but a fascinating place to do it”.
The LRB’s content was familiar after Lancaster, which made it easier to strike up a rapport with subscribers. Tim made a subsequent move into the advertising department and honed his persuasiveness. “It was a real acceleration skill wise; I was given training, a list then told to get dialling. I had to be tenacious and handle a lot of knock backs”. Specific aspects from his time at Lancaster helped though “literary debates about ‘who speaks’ prepare you for things like group dynamics and being an active listener. Tim found that fast talking/hard selling stereotypes about advertising didn’t hold up: “awareness, nuance and detail about the conversations you’re having were crucial, just as they were reading texts at Lancaster’.
As the complexity of the advertising ecosystem has sprawled, literature at Lancaster has remained a touchpoint for Tim. “If you look at the controversy around Facebook’s data and Cambridge Analytica, it’s clear there are very complex data science mechanisms in action. At the heart of it though, it’s still about stories. It’s been said that no advert, no matter how brilliant can force you buy a product. Even if you’ve hundreds of data points on a person, they still have to respond to the story you’re selling”. Tim spends most of his reading time on emerging digital practice but insights from Lancaster still permeate: “Looking at the increasing polarization of online audiences, you remember characters from Hardy harbouring resentment and how that directs them. You can’t always add that in a report! But it’s still insightful”.
Literary echoes from late 19th and early 20th century literature also struck Tim when evangelism for big data in advertising was peaking. “There was this Brave New World moment where we were told inefficient, analogue systems would become redundant, revenues would climb and consumers would thank us. I’d learned the benefits of introducing quality data work to somewhere as chaotic as literary publishing but there was this feeling that data driven advertising was less ‘listening to’ than ‘listening in on’, which raised red flags”. Instead of delivering greater connection, understanding and relevance, much digital advertising backed by data management platforms came to make users feel “more snooped on, more misunderstood and less secure”. It’s an alienation that parallels the encroaching standardization and empiricism of life in Victorian and Modernist texts. Remembering that, as well as other evangelisms of the age has informed the odd buying decision for Tim too “you can be promised Greenwich Meantime but end up with phrenology.”
Writing in Wired recently, Tom Hulme - an influential partner at Alphabet’s VC arm - said the school focus on STEM subjects should shift to storytelling instead. As coding becomes an increasingly automated process, graduates with storytelling skills will be the ones with the edge. Tim welcomes this sentiment: “In my postgraduate year especially, I talked with students from physics, psychology, electrical engineering...we’d find surprising common ground in what we were reading, anything from confirmation bias to quantum objects”. Tim believes these Forster-like moments of ‘only connect’ have more potential to solve the challenges of sustainable publishing, rather than a siloed STEM/humanities perspective.
Tim ended up running the LRB’s first U.S office, based in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He later moved to The Nation as Associate Publisher for the 150 year old political magazine, before moving into advertising strategy. Lancaster’s academic impression remains with him.
“I remember talking to a colleague years after graduating, about our separate university experiences. Their take was that they were glad they went but that university was all about the social side: ‘no one ever says ‘I really remember that amazing lecture’. I thought was a shame. I loved the Sugar House’s indie Thursday’s more than anyone but that only made me groan all the louder one term when I realised one of my favourite lecturers was scheduled for 9am Friday. You couldn’t miss it.”