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Career Spotlight: Tom Webster, Edison Research

Since we have a huge chunk of Tom Webster’s writing to go through, what’s a little more? Let’s go.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Tom Webster: I’m Senior Vice President of Edison Research, where I’ve been for over 14 years (wow.) As one of the few Edisonians who doesn’t work in the main office (I travel a lot, and work from my home in downtown Boston), I’m a bit of a Minister Without Portfolio, I suppose. Our digital audio practice is certainly part of my remit, but my main role is as the “Chief Explainer” of our research to the outside world. I present our data to clients, to agencies, and at conferences all over the world. Thought leadership is pretty much 100% of our marketing strategy, so I try to speak wherever and whenever I can. I’m super fortunate that my wife, Tamsen Webster, is a brilliant “idea whisperer;” she works with speakers, executives, and companies on finding the thread of their ideas and making them stronger — so I have a free at-home speaking coach ;).

As far as life plans are concerned, I enjoy being involved in consumer insights, and don’t think I’ll ever stray that far from being passionate about the voice of the customer. I’m currently working on my second book, and I think there will be some creative endeavors down the road (another podcast or two, for sure) that will keep me engaged. One of the things that I love about my role at Edison is that I get to touch a lot of different projects, especially on the “diagnosis” and design phases, which means I am constantly trying to solve a wide variety of problems in a wide variety of industries. But Podcasting has certainly been a passion of mine for nearly 15 years, and I really love where the space is right now, and its potential.

HP: What does your career arc thus far look like?

Webster: Bizarre, in some ways, in its relative stability. Of my 25-ish years of professional life, 20 have been with just two companies, which they tell me is fairly strange. My first real “I actually want to work here, and don’t just need a job” job was with a market research company that served the radio industry, where I really cut my teeth (do people actually cut teeth?) as a media researcher. That was an invaluable experience for me—not only in terms of my craft, but also for what it taught me about how to treat and manage people. My bosses in that job, Frank Cody and Brian Stone, hired me for one role, which I sucked at. But their philosophy was to figure out what people actually were good at, then have them do those things—and they let me do that. I was a VP by age 29, and I owe that to Frank and Brian creating a role for me that played to my strengths (which I didn’t even know at the time) instead of berating me for my weaknesses. There are probably 100 things you can be good at in business, and I’m only really good at 4 of them. Frank and Brian built a role for me around those 4 things, and I’ve been in research ever since.

I left that job to co-found a startup in London which wound up burning out after a year and a half or so. When I returned to the States, I decided to go back to school full time, getting my MBA, to fill in some of the gaps I felt I had to at least be passable at if I were going to continue a career in marketing. I got a concentration in consumer insights in 2004, and then joined Edison shorty thereafter. I actually almost joined Edison in 1999 — the President and co-founder, Larry Rosin, was someone whom I’ve respected enormously throughout my career, and the chance to finally work with him and the incredible team he and Joe Lenski built was hard to pass up. As a unit, the Edison team is amazing at the 96 things I suck at, and they’ve both been incredible role models to me for doing things the right way. My wife started her own business two years ago, and more than once we have talked about a difficult business decision, and asked ourselves, “What would Larry do?” That’s always been the right answer.

HP: Throughout your life, what did a career mean to you?

Webster: I have an uncharacteristically short answer to this: it is very important to me to plant a flag for quality. Both of the two companies I mentioned spending 20 years with were prestige brands in their industries, and to me, a career is standing for something you believe in, being known for that thing, and for that thing to be of value. Edison certainly stands for a thing I believe in, and my career satisfaction stems directly from my modest role in telling that story to the world.

HP: When you first started out being a human, what did you think you wanted to do?

Webster: I grew up in a very small town in northern Maine, and really didn’t become a “human” in the grown-ass semi-aware sense until I finished college. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I am eternally grateful that my parents sacrificed so much to send me to Tufts, an experience that very nearly blew my mind in terms of the quantity and quality of ideas I was exposed to. After getting my B.A. in English Lit, I was well and truly convinced that I wanted to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. I went to grad school at Penn State, taught rhetoric and composition to the first-year class (time to abolish “Freshmen,” yeah?) and fancied myself an Academic. I fell out of love with the “publish or perish” mindset, however, and figured out pretty quickly that academia wasn’t really my speed. The powerful play goes on — I’ve just found a different way to contribute my verse.

HP: Could you walk me through a little more about how you see Edison’s role in the world — and, like, the way your job has impacted your relationship to the knowability of things?

Webster: Larry and I talk about this a lot — our unofficial motto is that we’d rather be last and right, than first. Period. This doesn’t mean that we are needlessly slow, by the way — as a small company we are pretty nimble. But it does mean that what drives Larry, what drives me, and what drives all of us at Edison is the creation of new information — to understand something a little better than we did the day before, and to go to bed at night knowing we did it as well as it could be done. I’m often asked by journalists and analysts to forecast things — where will we be in the future? What happens next? I resist those inquiries. Edison’s role in the world — in podcasting, in media, in our Election research — is to be the most reliable and credible reporter of what *is*, not what will be. In terms of epistemology (top marks for being my only interviewer to ask me *that* one) I’d describe myself as being from the school of Pyrrho — a true Skeptic. That’s not a cynic, nor a pessimist. Merely one who believes that nothing can be known — not even this. We can only get close. And my belief in Edison’s role in the world is simply that I know we take the greatest pains possible to get as close as we can.

HP: What are you listening to right now?

Webster: I’ll get in trouble with numerous clients for not mentioning their shows, so this is a bit of a minefield question. I listen to about 20 hours of podcasts a week. I’d say half are music podcasts, which we need more of! I eagerly download and listen multiple times a week to the Anjunadeep Edition, a deep/progressive house music podcast that helps me write. I am a huge sports (and NBA in particular) nut, so I listen to Jalen and Jacoby, The Dan Le Batard Show, pretty much everything The Ringer does, and some NBA specific podcasts like The Lowe Post and The Woj Pod. My news comes from Up First, Planet Money, and Marketplace. I’ve known Mark Ramsey and Jeff Schmidt for years and years, and the collaborations they have done on Psycho, The Exorcist, and now Jaws are what audio should aspire to, IMHO.

Ultimately, I love The Show. I don’t think podcasting has given us The Show yet. It’s gotten close. And it will.

Thanks, Tom.