Todd Wheatland’s wide world of content adventures

In Interviews by Peter Gearin

Having been a significant figure on the global content marketing scene for a long time, Todd Wheatland is still up for a challenge.

It’s no surprise that one of Australia’s most prominent content evangelists, Todd Wheatland, is comfortable taking risks. Fresh from graduating from school in Perth, Wheatland embarked on a year-long adventure as an exchange student in Lima, Peru – 15,000 kilometres from home.

“It’s generally considered the year Peru fell apart,” Wheatland says. “Intense terrorism activity, inflation well on the way to 7500 per cent. There was a period towards the end of my time there when much of the food supply of the country was disrupted, and you’d spend a couple of hours a day queuing up for the United Nations relief supplies of flour or powdered milk. There was no meat, and electricity and running water were rationed.

“To experience a country in freefall when you’re 18 and to know that eventually you were leaving to come back to Australia … It seemed very removed; it was more like time travel or space travel than skating around on the same planet. It definitely gave me a whole new meaning of scepticism and capitalism, in their extreme forms.”

Through necessity, Wheatland says he was forced to become fluent in Spanish within three months. He still speaks Spanish better than he does French, despite having spent the best part of a decade with his family living in Paris while working at outsourcing and consulting group Kelly Services.

“I literally knew no one who spoke English,” he says of his Peruvian experience. “There was no internet. It was too expensive to call home. All TV was dubbed in Spanish. You’d cry in the shower a bit and then pick up your dictionary and work out how to say ‘I’m hungry’ and get through those phases.”

Wheatland has been an influential figure in the world of brand storytelling since before the term “content marketing” existed. As well as being responsible for marketing at global firm Kelly Services, Wheatland is best known for his time at King Content, where he was a shareholder, managing director and global head of strategy. He later became a chief adviser for Isentia when the media monitoring company acquired King Content in 2015. He was still there when King Content’s doors closed in 2017, and helped place former clients and employees with other agencies.

“From a personal perspective, I was very concerned for staff,” Wheatland says. “I was pleased that the vast majority of people found a new home within a few weeks. For me, it’s actually a great indicator of the health of the market and the way it values people with deep experience in this space.

“I don’t think the future of the great content agency is in more volume production, whether that’s words or video or audio. It’s not about more; it’s definitely about being able to orchestrate an outcome.”

“I think the way content works now is probably more like it used to be.”

Since the early 2000s, Wheatland has risen to prominence as a keynote speaker, podcast and event host, consultant and mentor to executives at large and small businesses looking for advice on strategy and growth. These days he’s mainly involved in high-performance startups. Much of his time is devoted to running a technology company he co-founded, JARO, which has developed a software platform for sporting groups and organisations.

“There are another six companies [for which] I’m an adviser and investor in Europe, the US and Australia,” he says. “What they have in common is they’re either in marketing, film or HR, and they tend to have a technology focus. I’ve always been a fan of tech, particularly SaaS.”

Another common thread, of course, is content. “I would say all of the businesses I’m working with have a very strong content position, or are working towards it,” Wheatland says. “Content is absolutely the means through which we’re driving a lot of our growth.

“I’m still a massive believer in content. I think the way content works now is probably more like it used to be. If you think back to the early days of social, even pre-social, the majority determining factor [of success] was the quality of the content itself and its relevance for the person you’re trying to get it in front of. It was about understanding audiences and the power of getting free distribution if you had good content. Those were the golden days of content.”

Path to contentment

Wheatland believes content marketing has become a “fairly fragile philosophy”, even compared with how it was three years ago.

“Take the philosophical continuum between delivering things of awesome value for free at one end, and at the other end is selling shit. There’s certain types of content – problem-solving, educational, entertaining stuff – that is really all about you [the consumer]: ‘We’re just here because we understand you’. Then you step along from that to “we’re giving you this stuff, but we actually want to have you spend time on this because we want to observe what you’re doing. We want to see what else you’re reading, and we want to see what else you click on. And then we want to make observations around people like you so that we’ll become better at selling to people like you.’

“As you keep stepping further and further away from that pure end of the spectrum, you get more into ‘maybe we should have our logo on every page’, or ‘maybe we should put a few banner ads on this site’, or ‘maybe we should gate a lot more content so that you have to give up an email address for the really good stuff’. Until, ultimately, you’re just putting out [sales] brochures.

“For me, there’s a purity and almost a karmic value to great content marketing that isn’t beholden to the expectation that we’re out for a buck … that we’re going to trade you for something out of this.”

“Marketers will always try to find shortcuts, of course. There’s still going to be people who do shitty, stupid things.”

Wheatland says many businesses find it challenging to keep the faith in their content strategies when the people who were responsible for its growth either change jobs or leave the company. “Often, it will be handed through to people coming from sales backgrounds, or the company itself will be going through a crisis, and they’re like, ‘We have this thing, how are we going to milk it? We’ve got 100,000 people on our database – how are we going to turn that into money right now?’

“For me, content is a commitment to the audience, and that commitment doesn’t waiver. It’s ultimately what defines you outside and inside [the company] – this is what you are. This is something true and solid and consistent. You’re there and, yes, you’re serving your audience. But your audience doesn’t necessarily have a 100 per cent overlap with your customers.

“The authenticity and uniqueness of an organisation that really listens to its community are permanently at risk. The person who is embracing that content’s vision has to be the custodian of the customers’ or the prospects’ best interests. That’s a discussion that has a lot of credibility in some organisations sometimes, but rarely all the time.”

In a world where privacy concerns are becoming prominent, consumer targeting is itself being targeted and “pay-to-play” social media channels face greater scrutiny (and likely regulation), Wheatland is optimistic content’s stocks are starting to improve. “It’s now back to a point where we’re already seeing SEO surge again, in terms of search-generated traffic,” he says. “I’m seeing some great work being done in communities, and there’s a whole layer of the internet outside of social that is now getting a bit of air again.

“Marketers will always try to find shortcuts, of course. There’s still going to be people who do shitty, stupid things. But I think for a small microsecond in the pathway of man, we’re having a little swing back in outcomes towards people who are actually trying to do the right thing. And I think that’s good.”

The way forward

Wheatland’s passions run beyond content strategy. He enjoys creating content, too. After studying marketing at the University of Western Australia, he got into writing, photography and making documentaries.

“I moved into filmmaking in the mid ‘90s, studied briefly at AFTRS [the Australian Film Television and Radio School] in Sydney and did some docos for the ABC,” he says. “I was very, very passionate about documentaries, in particular. Then I had a horrible realisation that I had met pretty much every person who was trying to be a full-time documentary maker in Australia and they were all slowly starving to death.

“So I fell back on to my field of study, which is marketing. That’s when I first started working with Kelly in Sydney. I stayed with Kelly, on and off, for a really long time in Australia, Asia and Europe.”

He says he didn’t go back into documentaries until five years ago, when he started advising a US-based documentary company. “The business around it is very interesting,” he says. “I love that it’s a play of storytelling and filmmaking – the art of collectively diving into a story. I did a documentary conference last year and the number of people who want to talk afterwards about their favourite documentary … there’s literally people coming up [to you] and crying.”

Wheatland, who shares a home on Sydney’s northern beaches with his Kiwi wife and their two teenage children, says he tries to find life balance through photography and travel. “I have personal, or non-commercial, creative outlets,” he says. “It’s absolutely something I’m keen on for my own sanity.

“I’ve also taken on a massive roster of work right now. You can get absorbed into the intellectual stimulation of business. [Working in] great businesses and helping people connect with their vision is all great and exciting work, but there’s definitely a part of your soul that needs replenishing. In my case, the quickest way is a solitary creative pursuit.

“I find people fascinating. I love the dynamics of social interaction, and I’m much more a one-on-one person in terms of my relationships.”

wheatland B2B marketing leaders forum

Wheatland presenting at the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum in Sydney in 2017.

“I have some interesting ideas about things I would like to have happen. I don’t have a single burning thing, but I believe in enjoying the journey.”

Wheatland is uncertain what his professional future holds. “I’ve gone through phases where I’ve had a clear agenda and known exactly what I want to achieve,” he says. “Working [for the Australian government] in Spain many years ago was absolutely something I wanted to achieve, and I spent time cultivating and working towards achieving that. I can be very focused in that process.

“In general, I pretty much go with my gut. I don’t have any master plan right now, for example. I have some interesting ideas about things I would like to have happen. I don’t have a single burning thing, but I believe in enjoying the journey.”

He says travel has helped shape his professional thinking, giving him opportunities he might have missed. Aside from his shock post-school education in Lima, Wheatland went on a year-long family trip to the US and Europe when he was eight. The experience not only helped develop stronger family bonds, he says “it messed me up for life” because of his insatiable desire for travel.

“I definitely blame my parents for instilling a craving of internationalism and globalism,” he says. “I’ve always tried to look at how to scale things, and sought out the things in common rather than those that separate. I think they’re useful approaches in both human relationships and looking at ideas that can and have become businesses – ones that resonate with people everywhere.

“Learning Spanish created opportunities that directly opened up friendships and relationships. Speaking local languages, you definitely develop a great sense of empathy and credibility with different people. And I think that’s something I’ve been really grateful to be able to give my children as well.”

Links & references

Brand Tales’ article on the demise of King content

Brand Tales’ Q&A with King Content founder Craig Hodges in 2016

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