Simon chats with Luke Wheatley, Head of Creative at Flight Centre.
Flight Centre Travel Group is one of the largest travel agencies in the world providing expert travel service at competitive prices.
You can contact Luke Wheatley here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/luke-wheatley-813b9a3/
Simon Dell: So, I’m welcoming this week Luke Wheatley. Now, Luke is the Head of Creative Content and Digital Marketing, so he’s got the trifecta, at the Flight Centre travel group. He is the lead creative across multiple Flight Centre brands. He’s also had an interesting past which I’m going to ask him about as Head of Theatrical Acquisitions and new product development roles as well, as well as a Senior Marketing at Ripe, where he was designing and executing strategies for Subway. Welcome, Luke. How are you?
Luke Wheatley: Hello, I’m great. How are you?
Simon Dell: Very good, indeed. I’m going to get right into the question that we were talking about just before we started, which was your QUT guest lecturer spot which you dragged into by Edwina Luck. I was just wondering whether you could give us a quick recap; cram that lecture down into a few minutes and tell us what you were talking about.
Luke Wheatley: It’s the old elevator pitch. It was, those who take no for an answer get told no. And the basis of my presentation was that if you have a good idea, you’ll find a way to make it happen. I went through the process in my presentation on how I got a TV show not only started but I created it, produced it, and sold it internationally. My whole presentation was about that I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was willing to give it a go.
Simon Dell: Cool, and well-received by the kids of QUT?
Luke Wheatley: I think so, yeah. I stayed back for about an hour and chatted to quite a few of them. Funny enough, one or two have come back into the offices and talked to me. One student in particular was lucky enough that when they came in, we had a film crew filming a video for us and she became a line producer on the day and did quite a bit of producing for them.
Simon Dell: Wow. That’s a great opportunity.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah. I mean, we’re all about opportunity not only at Flight Centre but even within myself. I strongly believe about giving people opportunity, and I really look for people with that spark who just want to make a difference.
Simon Dell: Talking of those kind of people, and this might put you on the spot because you may have to say something nice and not mean it now, but two podcasts ago, we had a young lady who used to work for Flight Centre in your area by the name of Ashton Rigg.
Luke Wheatley: I know her very well; went to Hong Kong with her.
Simon Dell: There you go, and now she works at YouFoodz. She’s obviously spoke very highly of Flight Centre, but she gave us a bit of an insight as to what she did there. It’s going to be interesting to hear it from your perspective as well. The first thing I actually want to ask you is, because with most of the guests I have in here, we try to go back to the early stages of what got you doing what you’re doing in the first place. And I noticed your first job out of university was new product development, wasn’t it?
Luke Wheatley: It was. So, I’m always someone who’s just looking for things to do. So when I was at university, I was studying down Lismore, living in Lennox Head, love surfing, grew up surfing. So I thought, “If I’m going to study at university, I might as well link it to my hobby.” So, traditional Luke kind of status is that I was born doing university. So, I started looking for a job as well as doing uni. My first job was, funny enough, Thursday Plantation, which is where I did new product development, but my first job was creating labels, translating the English labels of all their products into about 26 different languages, from French, to Spanish, to Italian, to Hebrew, so many different languages. That was my job. And I did that for about a year.
Simon Dell: You weren’t using Google Translate, were you?
Luke Wheatley: No. I wasn’t.
Simon Dell: You don’t speak 26 languages, do you?
Luke Wheatley: I definitely do not. I speak poor English the best of times, but I am the type of person, again, that I just found ways to make it happen. I found the right people to talk to. So, I found people all around the world who could speak English and whatever native language that I was looking for, and they helped me. So, I created relationships with people all around the world, and asked for their advice, and asked them to translate for me.
Simon Dell: That’s an interesting thing, because about 3 months ago, I launched a website in English and Japanese, and it was translated here in Australia into Japanese. And then I went to Japan and met the people who were working with that business. Their judgment of the Japanese was — I think the phrase they used was, “It’s right, but it’s not right.”
Luke Wheatley: Yep, I get it.
Simon Dell: Did that happen a fair bit? It’s hard to get that dialect.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah. I was lucky enough to get people who spoke… I was looking for people who their first language was that language, so they were translating correctly. So, it would be correct phrases that would work in those countries. So I did for about a year until I’d finished university and had my first job, which was — they kept me along and said, “You’re alright. Let’s see if you can do this.” I did new product development, which was really interesting.
Simon Dell: What sort of company were they? Sorry, just to take a step back there.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah, it’s a natural health company. They started off being just tea tree oil, the largest tea tree oil company in the world. They produce and sell tea tree oil. Funny enough, they became huge during the war where every soldier at World War II — it could’ve been World War I actually, so don’t quote me on this, but they gave every soldier 10 mils of tea tree oil to help with foot rot in the trenches. That’s when they all came back, tea tree oil became this huge phenomenon in Australia which helped the company.
When I joined the company, they owned quite a few other ones. So, they did some amazing herbal remedies and all different types of natural health across different parts of the body. Really interesting. So, I worked at natural new product development. My job was thinking, “What can I do with all these herbs?” And I’d work with chemists, and researchers, and I’d be the person who would annoy them and say, “I’ve got this idea. What would happen if you merge this herb with this other one?” because I was a student at the time, and just having to study, and having to stay awake, I was looking for natural remedies on helping me study and focus.
So, we’re looking at, how do we merge things like Echinacea which assists in stopping you feeling sick with other stimulants like Vitamin B, for example? It was really interesting.
Simon Dell: Obviously, you had, at that point, a fairly limited understanding of what all these things did. Was that something you just picked up really quick, that you were just mixing them up in the office?
Luke Wheatley: I was working with chemists. I would go and bother them.
Simon Dell: They’d look at you some points and going, “That’s not going to happen.”
Luke Wheatley: All the time. I was that person. I was 21, 22, thought I knew everything. I clearly didn’t. But I loved knowledge, I loved studying and understanding things. So, once I’m into something, I’m 100% into that topic. So, I’d read during the night about different herbs, and what they do to the body, and then I’d go down and talk to the chemist who had 20 years’ experience on me.
And just because I’ve read one story, I’d try to push my idea and they’d be like, “Yeah, that’s really nice but you haven’t read this, this, and this. This is why we can’t merge these two.” So you know, I really enjoyed it. They were great guys, but it was one of those things where I learned also that just because you’ve read a few things doesn’t mean you know everything.
Simon Dell: I guess that’s one of the things that they talk about with creatives and with entrepreneurs as well, is that level of curiosity, finding out how things work. I’m reading the book by Walter Isaacson at the moment, the Leonardo Da Vinci book, and that stands out with him. I remember reading Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs. Those kind of people are always asking, “Why can’t you do this?” or “Can we do this?” or “Can we mix this with this?” And I guess that curiosity is something that not a lot of people have but more people should have.
Luke Wheatley: I would agree with you, and I’d love to be mentioned with those amazing names. But I don’t think I’m at that level. I think there’s a lot of people out there who are curious, and I think old businesses aren’t looking for those type of people. One of my least favourite sayings is, “We’ve always done it this way.” If someone says that to me, it really irks me because I always think, “There has to be another way” or “What else can we do?”
That’s something that I’ve taken throughout my life. I grew up on a boat with my family on a yacht, we cruise around the world on a yacht, so my upbringing was a little bit different as well. So, I grew up very much having to deal with different problems that probably a normal child would. I studied correspondence, but we were travelling around the world, so we were out of sea a lot of times and had to deal with real problems that would come up. We had to learn problem solving very quickly.
Simon Dell: You can’t really get your personal space there when you’re living with your family that close all the time, can you?
Luke Wheatley: No. Absolutely not. I think that’s where my love of diving, snorkelling, and surfing came from, just to get away from everyone.
Simon Dell: And obviously, the travel as well which you’ve sort of looped back to now, hasn’t it?
Luke Wheatley: I have. It’s quite weird. I’ve always had this passion for travel. And not to sound corny, but Flight Centre has this philosophy. I have many philosophies, but one of the major philosophies, if you ever come to our building, you’ll see that it says, “Open the world for those that want to see.” That’s their philosophy. I take that to heart. I think that’s a beautiful driving philosophy for the company and for the people who work there.
For me, what that means to me is it means that if I can inspire someone to travel to another destination, hopefully, that would change their mind and change their perspective of the world. And again, not to sound too corny, but it hopefully changes the world for the better.
Simon Dell: I’ll probably come back to the Flight Centre because I’ve got some questions about that Flight Centre brand. I want to get an understanding, because after you left the Thursday Plantation company, where did you end up after that? Was this the Head of Theatrical Acquisitions?
Luke Wheatley: Yes. That’s where I got to.
Simon Dell: How on earth did that happen?
Luke Wheatley: There’s always a path getting there. I was living down Lennox Head, loving life, surfing and working at a natural health company, but I have a huge passion and interest in film as much as I do in travel. I wanted to work in film, and I started talking to some people and started reaching out. A job came up in Brisbane for Australia’s largest independent film distributor, who I’d never heard of before, called Magna Pacific. And if you Google them now, they don’t exist because they were bought out about 6 years ago and they’re now owned by Beyond Entertainment.
But back then, this company had gone from a no-name company to in the top 100 companies that are moving ahead thanks to the DVD revolution. And they own the rights to lots and lots of different films. So, I took the job as the lowest of the low marketing person in the team. So, my job there was to release DVDs of films that a lot of people may have heard of. So, I looked after the re-release of films such as Dirty Dancing, Reservoir Dogs, Footrot Flats which is a classic. So, I did all these classic films that we’ve put back on DVD, which was really great when they cut my teeth.
So, it was working with designers, creating what the DVD would look like, the sleeve, the artwork, and then working with people in post-production of what the menu would look like. When you put on the DVD, the menu would come up. I started producing the audio commentaries and trying to work out all the special features. So, it was really great, and I did that for about a year and a half.
Simon Dell: It’s funny when you say that, because when you think back on DVD menus, you just go, “I haven’t seen a DVD menu for god knows how long.” You forget that they had those things, don’t you?
Luke Wheatley: That’s right. So, I did that with the guys. One day, again, it’s all faithful. I think everything is just — you’ve got to put your hand up for things, and that has been my ethos all the way through. So, one day, I’m in a meeting. We have a release schedule. We used to look at the release schedule about 6 months in advance. And at that stage, again, I was the lowest marketing person there. We had these huge films coming out, and everyone’s picking off, “Yeah, I’d like to do this film. I want to do this film.”
And on the release schedule was the TV series that no one had heard of called American Chopper. I hadn’t heard of it either, but somehow, I’d heard the name but I didn’t know about the show. I just said, “Look, can I do that? Do you mind?” And I was the only guy in the marketing team, and all the girls were like, “That sounds really boring. I want nothing to do with it.” And I said, “Oh, well, I’ll do it.” Long story short, I created a marketing campaign. It started off small, but before we released, we were shipping close to 40,000 units day one. It was a huge success for the company.
I still remember walking back into the office one morning, and I didn’t know how big it was at this stage. I knew that it was getting big, and I walk back into the office, and my CEO grabbed me and said, “Do you realize how big this show is?” And I was like, “No. I had no idea.” And he said, “It’s bigger than any feature film we’re releasing right now.” And I was like, “Wow.” And he’s like, “This is going to make the company a lot of money.” And I was like, “That’s great.”
And then he said to me, “What do you want to do?” We had a relationship with a company called Dendy Films, and that’s the reason why I joined the company, was Dendy Films. Because I love, Armali is my favourite film of all time. They released it. And so, I said, “I know you don’t have a marketing manager on Dendy Films and I’d really like to do it.” And it was only the release of the Dendy Films onto DVD. And he said, “It’s yours. Go for it.”
And I absolutely took that with passion. I loved those films, and I released many, many feature films on the Dendy Films brand. And then as luck always has it, the company started wanting to do more and bigger films. As part of Dendy Films, they had a film that’s called The World’s Fastest Indian. I remember going to the company and saying, “Well, we’ve got this film called The World’s Fastest Indian. It’s going to be huge.”
And they were like, “No, it’s not.” “What? What is it?” And until you know the story, you kind of think, “Is it about American Indians? How does Anthony Hopkins tie into this?” Long story short, I did the marketing for the DVD release of that in New Zealand and Australia, which was huge and broke box office records, theatrically and our DVD release strategy was huge.
And then they said, “Right. You have to start buying films for us” and hence the title Head of Acquisitions. So, I ended up travelling the world, going to all the film festivals, reading about three scripts a day, and posting films between $20 million – $150 million budgets.
Simon Dell: Wow, so just a small budget there.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah. For me, the bigger the budget, it just meant the bigger the name. It didn’t mean the story was better. It didn’t mean that I was more passionate about it. I was more passionate about the smaller budget, the ones that had a really good story. It just so happens that the bigger budget ones make more money, unfortunately.
Simon Dell: After that, you’ve gone to Ripe Marketing and you’ve worked for Subway. I often talk with guests about that line, Annie Parker — and I never remember how she phrased it, it’s obvious when you look back on your path as to the route that you took, but you’re never going to see it looking forward. That seems to me to be, just on the face of it, looking at the text on your LinkedIn profile, it doesn’t seem to be the move that I would’ve thought you would’ve made beyond that. Does that make sense?
Luke Wheatley: Yeah, it does make sense. And looking back, it’s always easier. But it wasn’t a strategic move. The feature film industry, I was in that for 6 1/2 years, and I was at a point where I was travelling a lot, which sounds really glamorous, but it’s really not, and making deals. I was kind of burned out. I also wanted to understand marketing a bit better than what I did. I felt that… I had two choices.
One is to stay in Brisbane, and I have a family in Brisbane, so I didn’t really want to move my family to LA, and that was my other choice. My choice was to go to LA and really get into this feature film business and become a producer, and work on big films with big companies. I had a few options there, but I really felt like I wanted to stay in Brisbane and I wanted to understand marketing strategy.
And I had this opportunity. Ripe Solutions was, and is, a great little boutique agency who is led by two genius marketers. And when I met them, we just hit it off immediately and I felt a really good connection to them. And they gave me enough space to do whatever I wanted. When I first started Ripe Solutions, it was just me and the GM. It was just two of us.
When I left Ripe Solutions, there was 19 people, and I helped build that company up. That was by doing really strategic marketing work and creative work for Subway. Subway was a really interesting business to work on because it’s a franchise. Everything you do has to be approved and written in writing. You have to go through all these steps. As a creative person, you’re challenged by this, and I took that challenge quite well.
I had a passion not for sandwiches, but for the health kind of takeaway angle as a 19-year-old, 20-year-old going through uni, backtracking, I’d promised myself that I’d never work for a company that I didn’t believe in no matter what. Now, so far so good, but there’s still time to disappoint myself. But yeah, that was my thing. And I thought Subway, they say what they do. They do takeaway that’s healthy and that Ripe Solutions was a great company to work for.
On paper, it probably doesn’t look right. But when I met the people, the opportunity that I had to grow was huge. And I had some really good mentors there. I had Gina Kahler, who is a fantastic marketer. She was the Head of Marketing for Australia and New Zealand for Subway. She was a fantastic mentor. She would take the time and sit down with you and explain marketing strategies and why you couldn’t do certain things. For anyone who is interested in marketing, I think that’s just fantastic.
Simon Dell: This is a bit of a loaded question, but what are your thoughts on the Subway brand now or what were they back then?
Luke Wheatley: The Subway brand, I think if I was in Subway right now, I’d be keeping it simple. What they do really well is making sandwiches. They’ve got to stick to that. Look at Domino’s. Domino’s have done a fantastic job. They’ve moved with the market. They’ve just gone big in cheese on their pizzas. They’ve listened to what people want and they’ve produced it. I think from a brand point of view, that’s what Subway need to do. I still think it’s a great brand, and Subway people, if you’re listening, I’d be more than happy to give you some advice.
Simon Dell: It’s funny because when I had my own agency, there was a Subway around the corner, and it was the go-to lunch option when I couldn’t be bothered to walk any further, or I only had a 15-minute window, or whatever. I found the food adequate, do you know what I mean? I think that was my challenge with the Subway brand.
And I compare it now to one of my personal favourite brands, which is the Guzman y Gomez brand. I don’t know if you’ve eaten much.
Luke Wheatley: I know them very well. Great brand.
Simon Dell: Absolutely, and I look at Guzman y Gomez versus how I look at Subway do a sandwich, and I just go, to me, they’re now worlds apart. And that’s not a criticism of Subway, but that’s perhaps putting Guzman y Gomez up on a pedestal and saying that that’s now, to me, the benchmark fast food.
Luke Wheatley: I would agree with you, and I used to go to Guzman y Gomez all the time for lunch, and Subway. And I remember you’d go past Guzman y Gomez much like Subway and the line would be at the door. If I go past Guzman y Gomez now, it’s not so much. Like any brand, you’ve got to look at the market and you’ve got to look at what people are wanting. They may be the same position — we’d be talking about them in the same way you’re talking about Subway in 5 years’ time or 3 years’ time.
Because the market changes so quickly. I love to go down and try a street food, little boutique places now. There’s a new place that has just opened up right near my work, and they do noodles and it’s amazing. It’s street food Asian noodles from all around different parts of Asia. It’s $10 for lunch, and you get a pipeful of noodles, and vegetables, and it’s amazing and it’s packed.
Simon Dell: You’re in the new Southbank building, aren’t you?
Luke Wheatley: Yeah.
Simon Dell: The other brand that I find interesting is the burger place that’s in your… What’s his name, the chef that’s…
Luke Wheatley: Urge Burger I think it is?
Simon Dell: No, it’s the…
Luke Wheatley: Grilled?
Simon Dell: That’s going to really annoy me now. It’s got a really strange-shaped restaurant. It’s like a triangle on the corner of your building. Neil Perry’s one.
Luke Wheatley: Little Big House? Matt’s Little Big House I think it’s called?
Simon Dell: No. Do you know what? As unprofessional as this is, I’m going to Google it whilst I’m on the podcast with you. The Burger Project.
Luke Wheatley: Oh, I haven’t been there.
Simon Dell: Okay. That’s worth checking out, because to me, there’s a lot of people doing burgers. I find the food there is really, really good but there is something about it. We’ll have to have this conversation another time when you’ve eating there, but there’s something about that brand that is just not doing it for me. I just don’t feel any affinity to it. And it may be the fit out of the store that feels very cold and very clinical, but that’s my challenge for you for next week.
Luke Wheatley: Okay. I will go check it out.
Simon Dell: I expect a written report back. No, I don’t.
Luke Wheatley: I’ll give it a full grade.
Simon Dell: Please do. Let’s talk about Flight Centre now, because I was poking Ashton about this the other week when I spoke to her about the Flight Centre, the Kool-Aid, the “Everyone who works at Flight Centre has drunk the Flight Centre Kool-Aid.” Is that true?
Luke Wheatley: It’s pretty accurate. It’s a pretty amazing place to work at. I’ve never worked at a place where — and I spoke highly about other places I’ve worked, by the way — where I’ve actually had an idea that I can take to the highest of the high people and they would listen to me. And they don’t just lip service, they would listen and they’ll consider the idea. So, to have that kind of opportunity is, I think, priceless.
Simon Dell: I love that, and I think the more companies do that, I think the better that they retain staff and grow their businesses. I remember speaking to the CEO of Sensis a year and a half ago, and they have a system in Sensis where, if you have a good idea, you can submit it. You put a business plan together. And if they like it, they actually will take it forward and building a business out of it, and you also retain some ownership of that business as an employee.
Luke Wheatley: That’s awesome. Flight Centre do similar things like that. You can buy into the idea. You can own percentages. It’s all tricky stuff that I don’t quite understand, but they let you own the idea, absolutely. For me, I will work… What are you meant to work a day, 8 hours? I’m not too sure. I don’t know many people who look at it that way, like no one works 8 hours. You work because you’re passionate.
So, I think that’s huge. I think there’s some guiding principles that they believe in and everyone believes in it. No one has it…
Simon Dell: Give me an example of one of those, because I’m interested to understand the secret sauce of Flight Centre from two perspectives, the staff perspective and the customer perspective, why people will keep going back to Flight Centre, when essentially, in certain circumstances, it’s a functional brand. It delivers a service that you could get anywhere else. Talk to me from the staff perspective. What’s the secret sauce there?
Luke Wheatley: From a staff perspective, we have some guiding principles. The one that I really latch onto is a principle called egalitarianism. It’s a big word. I didn’t know what it meant until I tried to look it up. I’m one of those people who are like, “I don’t know what that means so I have to look it up.” What it actually means is, and I bring this to every interview that I have with a potential team member or people I’m talking outside of business, is everyone is equal and everyone has the same rights, which I think is amazing.
So what that means is, within the business, so our CEO is Skroo Turner. He doesn’t have an assistant. He has his own desk. He doesn’t have an office. No one has an office. Everyone has the same rights and the same privileges no matter what their role is. We all have access to the gym for free. That’s in the building. You have access to travel through one of our internal resources travel-wise. You have access to free financial advice. It’s all provided to you no matter what you do.
Everyone wears a uniform. Sounds great, and it’s a really good thing even in practice. Although some people are like, “Oh, we shouldn’t have to wear a uniform” or some people love it. But at the end of the day, it puts everyone on an equal playing field. So, I think that’s amazing, egalitarianism. And then the other one is irreverence, which is we take our work very, very seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously.
There’s other ones as well like you own your work. So, no one has an assistant. No one goes, “Oh, can you do this for me because I’m kind of above that?” No matter what your role is, you do your job. And if you make a mistake, it’s on you. So, I had this personal saying within my team, is that I will reward publicly, “Hey Sue, you did an amazing job. Well done.” And then though Sue makes a mistake, I will talk to her about that privately and I’ll address it immediately.
So they’re the kind of things that we do. We pull people up when there’s a problem. We do it immediately and we do it respectfully, and then we reward people when they do a good job. I don’t think it’s that kind of difficult. I think any business can do it. It’s just whether or not your leaders are willing to do that.
Simon Dell: I think the challenge is, it’s easy for companies to say things like you would be saying them, but it’s often harder for them to actually implement it and continue implementing it.
Luke Wheatley: I would agree with that. It comes down to status, sometimes. It has to come from the top. And if the top don’t do what they say they’re doing, then why would the lower people be doing that? I think that’s where Flight Centre has the special ingredient, it’s at the top, they live by those rules as well.
Simon Dell: What do you think that secret sauce is in then out to the customers? What makes them come back to see you guys, to book holiday after holiday and flight after flight?
Luke Wheatley: A lot of people ask me this question like my friends, I’m at a party and they’re like, “Why would we book at Flight Centre?” There’s a couple of reasons. We have a couple of ways you can book with us. We have online, which is really easy to do. And if you’re booking domestically, you can book with us easy. However, if you’ve got something a bit complicated and if you want to travel to LA but you want to leave from Dallas and come back home, you can’t do that online. You actually need a human to do that for you.
What we have is an ability to create the whole day that you want. We also have the irreverence back again where we take everything we do really seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously. So, you’re going to go in, and you’re going to talk to someone, and they’re not going to take themselves seriously but they will absolutely listen to you. It’s our expertise. That’s what it comes down to. It’s the fact that we have a huge, wide network of people.
Simon Dell: I had a friend of mine who used to work in one of the stores years ago. I think he worked there for about 2 or 3 years. I asked him who his customers were, and he said, quite often, it was people with actually bigger budgets than you would expect but they came in and they wanted somebody to do it all for them, somebody with the expertise that they didn’t have because they didn’t have the time, the inclination, they had budget and they wanted that professional advice.
I think with people on a budget, they’re always going to book to the cheapest possible route. But above and beyond that, a lot of people still want that help and that experience of someone helping them.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah. It’s not going to cost you any more money to book with us than it is online, so wouldn’t you rather someone who does this for a living do it for you? I go see a doctor for my medical issues. I go and talk to an architect when I want to build a house. I’ll go to my mechanic for my car. I’ll go a hairdresser to cut my hair. It’s the same situation. Even if you’re on a budget, it’s not going to cost you any more money. But what it’s going to do is, this person might actually have some advice that you didn’t think about.
I find the planning of a holiday really fun, and most people do, but I get to the point where I’ve got 30 tabs open and I forget where I’m at, I get confused because it’s conflicting information. Some reviews are saying it’s great, and another reviews saying it’s the worst thing in the world. Sometimes, I just go — I just need someone to give me some advice. I think that’s where it comes from.
Simon Dell: What’s the biggest challenge that you would then face with the brand? I know people working in Flight Centre, certainly in the creative space, would have us believe that all things are rosy and shiny. “And I’m not going to say anything other than that”, says Luke, but what would be some of the challenges that you faced with the brand, either visually or from a message perspective?
Luke Wheatley: I can go back to why I came to Flight Centre, why I was hired at Flight Centre, if you’d like, because that ties into the whole issues, some of the concerns of the brand. Funnily enough, I went for another job at Flight Centre. I was in the interview going, “I’m bombing this interview. This is terrible.”
Simon Dell: Just out of the interest, why did you think you were bombing it?
Luke Wheatley: Because I was totally out of my depth. It wasn’t my skill set. The recruiter had oversold the marketing side of things. It was a really technical role that I would’ve been terrible at. And so, I’m in this room just bombing, and I thought to myself, “If they offer me this job, I’m still going to say no because I know I’m going to fail.”
I had this idea in my head when I got home, it’s like, “No, I think they’re going to call me anyway.” And sure enough, 2 weeks later, they called me and said, “You didn’t get the job.” And I said, “Yep, great.” And then they said, “But we want you to come back in. We have another job for you.” And that’s when I was hired as the Head of Creative for the brand.
My job was to come in and help disrupt the business and to help bring Flight Centre into the future. When I first started there, the captain was the main icon and he still is. He’s extremely important to the brand. But what we didn’t do is talk about our people. And so, that was my job, was to bring our people, the real people to life with the captain. So, I think the brand, when it comes down to it, we have a huge amount of top of mind.
If you ask anyone in the street, you ask 10 people in the street, I would bet that 9 out of 10 people, if you ask them, “What’s the first travel brand that comes to mind?” Flight Centre would be up there unaided without a doubt. We have 98% brand recall, which is huge. That’s not our problem. Everyone knows us. We don’t need to tell people who we are.
What my focus is is bringing the relevancy to our customers of why they should book with us, because there’s so many options out there. And that’s where the brand needs to go, is why Flight Centre. “Why should I go to Flight Centre?” That’s one of the reasons why I did the TV show, which I think we’ll talk about. That’s why we rebranded and we showcased our real consultants in the brand ads. We were showing our expertise, our knowledge and our real people.
Simon Dell: Let’s talk about the TV show, then. Years ago, content was all about stuffing 600-word articles, follow the right keywords, and making sure the URL was right. To a degree, there’s still an element of that.
Luke Wheatley: Absolutely, that’s still really important.
Simon Dell: Content is very much king. The two questions I’ve got for you is: The TV show, tell us a little bit about how that came about, and the benefits that you’ve seen from that. The other thing, given your background and given other businesses that you’ve worked with, I’d be interested to know how other businesses can learn from what you guys did and apply it to their business.
Especially with businesses that don’t have those kind of million-dollar budgets that you guys might have, I want people to hear how you did this, but also for them to walk away and go, “Right. Well, I can do something like that. I’m not going to be able to do it with the same sort of production levels, but I can do it and I can change my business with it.”
Luke Wheatley: Okay. I have to remember those questions.
Simon Dell: If you forget any of that halfway through, I’ll remind you.
Luke Wheatley: You said content is king. I would agree with you to a level, but I think what went missing there is, great content is king. What I see all the time is a million different videos being uploaded by brands. So what? It’s boring. You’re doing the same same. I think what’s important is: find your message and concentrate and focus on that message.
For us, the TV show came out of an idea and a frustration, like most good ideas. They come out of frustration. What I was seeing was that we were spending a lot of money sponsoring other TV shows that are travel shows and also, it’s probably a swear word, but influencers were a really big thing. I was of the opinion that the influencers weren’t going to give us the why Flight Centre. They gave us an excellent reach to a wider audience, but we didn’t need that.
We didn’t need to educate people that we’re a travel brand. I did a really good job for the tourism body that I can understand why they use influencers. But for us, it didn’t really give us a why Flight Centre. So, I went to the business in 2016, in June 2016, and I said, “We spent all this money on sponsorship of travel shows or different travel things. How about you give me some money and let me do a travel series? We’ll promote our people. It’ll be great because we can control it.”
So my boss said, “No. You’re not going to do that.” And I was like, “Okay, alright.” In July 2016, I went back… I asked him why and he said, “You haven’t thought about it. It needs more work. How’s it all going to work?” And I was like, “Okay, alright.” So the next month, I schedule another meeting and I said, “Okay, well, this is a TV series that I want to do. This is why I want to do it.” And he said, “No.” Again.
I got told ‘no’ four times, hence why my whole thing is, those who take no for an answer get told no. I got told no but I didn’t take that for an answer. I kept going and I kept reshaping the series and the pitch. Every time I got told no, when I was rejected, I’d ask why. And I’d take on that feedback constructively and I would reshape my presentation. So, it got to September 2016, and finally, we had another meeting, and my boss said, “Alright. If I give you enough money to make the pilot, will you stop coming to me?” And I said yes.
Because all I wanted to do was prove that I’m right. And if I’m proven that I’m wrong, then I’m fine to walk away, but I need to get this out of my system. And so, he said, “Okay, cool. But here’s the problem. I’m only going to give you 50% of what you need. I’m not going to give you the whole budget. You need to go raise the other 50%.” And I said, “Okay, alright then.” And I’m the type of person where I’m like, “I’ve got this. I can do this, because this is a great idea.”
So, I went down and met with the tourism body of Tourism New Zealand. I hadn’t really met them before, and here I am in a meeting room telling them they’ve got to give me a bunch of money so I can go and make a pilot with no distribution, no outplan, and my presentation ended with, “Worst-case scenario, I’m going to give you half an hour of footage that’s going to be amazing that you can have.” And they said, “Yeah, sure. Here’s the money. Go make it.”
So the next month, I was in Queenstown making the pilot. It was a couple of us, and we went and made it happen. For the next 8 weeks, I was in post-production with a good partnership of mine with Empire Post and DP. They did a great job. We worked together really closely. Funnily enough, I was in Mexico City, and then in San Diego. I’m all over the place for work, and we’re working remotely trying to make this pilot look amazing.
I think it was a week before Christmas that the episode was done. No one in the company had seen it. No one even knew what I was doing besides my boss, and I sort of said to my boss, “Okay, I’m good. I’m ready to show you what I’ve done, what I’ve been working on for like 12 weeks.” And he said, “Cool, alright.” And then an hour before the presentation, he takes me and said, “By the way, the Head of Marketing, the Head of Finance, and the CEO Skroo Turner are coming.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”
Simon Dell: No pressure then, Luke.
Luke Wheatley: No pressure. So, here we go, sitting in a screen room, half an hour goes by, goes to black, episode is done. Awkward silence, because I wasn’t going to speak, so I wanted to know what they thought about it, and they loved it. The faithful question from Skroo, “It was great, now what?” And I said, “Well, now we have to get it onto a network.” They said, “Well, who’s going to do that?” And I said, “Yeah. I’ll give it a go.”
So, I contacted Channel Ten, the CEO of Channel Ten. Two weeks went by and no response. I’m thinking, “That’s dead in the water. I wonder what I can do.” And then sure enough, he said, “Yeah, let’s meet.” So, I was in Sydney in January 2016 and we did a deal. They took the show, 13-part series. In February, I was in New York, filming. We just made it happen. That’s the story of the TV series.
And now, we’re in season two and we’re working on lots of other projects with Channel Ten. We’ve got a few surprises coming through. They’ve been a really good partner. They were very hands off. They let me do whatever I wanted, and they were very supportive in anything I wanted to do. They were great. They didn’t make us make any changes to the show. Everything you see is everything that we wanted to do.
Onto the second part of that question, then. How do you take that lesson as a small business who is maybe not in the travel space, and how do you apply that to what you do? They can’t all go out and do TV shows.
Luke Wheatley: Why can’t they? This all started back in — Ashton was actually, funnily enough, part of all this. I was again in a meeting and I think I’d been in the company for like 5 months. I said to my boss, “Can I have $7,000 to go buy a camera and a whole bunch of gear, and let me go film,” because we do these things called famils which is a tourism body will say, “Hey, we’d like about 10 people to come to Hong Kong, and check out Hong Kong for 5 days” and they can learn about it, so they can bring back that knowledge and sell Hong Kong to their customers. So, it’s normally consultants.
Sometimes, they send marketing people. And I said, “Why don’t you give me the camera? I’ll go film these famils and we’ll cut that up into content. It’ll cost us nothing. Once I’ve got the gear, we can do it all in-house. So, I did Singapore and Malaysia first, but the third one that I did was Hong Kong with Ashton. The reason why we took a content writer like Ashton was that we were balancing it with video footage and photography, and then she could write these amazing stories that would complement our videos.
It doesn’t matter what brand you are. If I even think of Subway, if I think of Coca-Cola, if I thought of even a little boutique cafe that sells amazing cheesecakes, for example, you can buy a camera now for next to nothing. You can get the new iPhone which takes amazing footage, and there’s nothing stopping you from filming amazing ideas. If I use a cheesecake, for example, you could do amazing stop motion footage with an iPhone if you have the imagination.
You could do content about how to create the perfect cheesecake. It’ll cost you nothing. You can do it all on your phone. You can literally edit it all on your phone if you have the right software, which a lot of it is free.
Simon Dell: I think that point you make there is about you need the imagination. You need the creativity.
Luke Wheatley: You do. You need the drive and you need the imagination to do it.
Simon Dell: I also think a lot of people sometimes need to accept that they don’t have the drive, or the imagination, or the creativity. And if they don’t, that doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t be doing things. That just means they need to go and find someone who does have that drive, creative. And it could be someone who is working in their business already. It could be someone who comes in and just works Saturday afternoons or something like that. They just can reach out to people around them and say, “I want to do this. I can’t do it myself because I don’t have the skill set or the talent, but I know you do. Would you be able to help me out?”
Luke Wheatley: Correct, absolutely. And there’s so many people out there who are interested in this, who want to do it. I’m extremely passionate about this, if you can’t tell. I’ll put an open offer out there. I’m happy to talk to anyone about this, and I would be more than happy to give people ideas. I love that stuff. I meet with people weekly about ideas on how I could help them, how we could do things. I’ll give them ideas and they can go do it. But I think you just need to find the people who want to do work. I think that’s probably the crux of everything.
Simon Dell: I think a lot of business owners get themselves into a situation where they feel they should be doing everything or they should know everything. I’ve had multiple conversations on this podcast and with clients as well in saying, “You know what? You have a certain skill set. You have a certain talent and that’s why you’re in this particular business channel.” If you don’t understand numbers or you don’t understand how to budget and things like that, don’t just not do it. Find someone you can work with who will do it for you, and who will teach you and educate you, and potentially keep doing it for you.
I think for people to get the opportunity to talk to you and say, “I’m a small business and I’d like to do this. What would you suggest?” I think that’s fantastic, so I really appreciate you making that offer. At the end, we’ll work out where people can contact you and things like that.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah. I work with people all the time. I love meeting people who are driven. That’s what I look for in my team members, and that’s why I look for in anyone who I deal with. What’s the idea? What are you trying to do?
I think some people, in particular some of the big agencies in the world try to make things complicated and expensive. That’s why we don’t use them. That’s why we do things ourselves, because it’s not complicated. The social media platforms are not scary. You’ve just got to think of them as a channel. The difference between social and TV is that you should use social in a two-way street. So, make sure you’re talking to your customer and let them talk to you. That’s the only difference. It’s just another channel to talk to your customers. It just widens the scope a little bit more.
Simon Dell: Last three questions I’ve got for you. The first one is, I want to get an understanding of… I normally ask people what brands they like, and there seems to be a continuing theme through my podcast of people liking toilet roll brands. So, if you could avoid toilet roll brands, that would be great.
Luke Wheatley: Okay, I’ll just go to my second favourite.
Simon Dell: But what I was going to say to you, because I was going to ask you a little bit broader question because you’re a more creative person than perhaps we’ve had on before: What brands do you like? What makes you buy them, and are there any campaigns that you’ve seen in the last couple of years that you’ve just gone, “You know what? That’s good.” And really taken a bit of inspiration from.
Luke Wheatley: Good question. One of my favourite brands is LEGO.
Simon Dell: Me too.
Luke Wheatley: I think LEGO have done an amazing job of being who they are and sticking to their guiding principles. I read this story. I don’t know how true it is, so it could be completely fabricated, but why I love them as well is that they could do a lot of army LEGO, but they decided not to because it’s too close to the real thing of war, and they don’t want to promote war. I think that’s amazing. A company like that, that could probably make a lot of money on war LEGO, have decided not to do that.
I think the engineers behind LEGO are just genius. The brand of LEGO is genius. I mean, who would think that the LEGO Movie would’ve been good? It wasn’t just good, it was great. It was hilarious. It’s just an amazing brand. So, I really love that brand and I think they know what they’re doing and they keep it really smart. So, that’s one of my favourite brands.
Simon Dell: One of the greatest jobs in the world is there’s people that are employed as professional LEGO builders, aren’t there?
Luke Wheatley: Yeah, crazy. It’s amazing. Another brand that I love is Disney. I was a sceptic. I was a huge Disney sceptic until a year and a half ago when I went to Disney World. It blew my mind. That brand is amazing. What they do is amazing. It was incredible. We’re there for 10 days at Disney World, and it was the best family holiday I’ve ever been on. It was incredible. I can’t fault Disney on what they do. I went to Disney as a sceptic, and I left as a fan.
I was so used to brands like this constantly waiting to take money out of my pocket. And once we were there, it did not feel like that at all. All they wanted you to do was have fun. That’s what it felt like. And then do these surprise and delight things where we were in the park, and we went to get ourselves Mickey Pretzels, so of course you have to go get one. So, we’re getting a Mickey Pretzel and some water.
There’s three of us. We get it all and I say, “How much is that?” and the man behind the counter says, “Today, that’s on Disney. It’s free.” Yeah, it was complete surprise and delight. So, I think that’s great. And your question was, what makes me buy a brand or what makes me attracted to a brand?
Simon Dell: What makes you put your hand in your pocket?
Luke Wheatley: The biggest thing is the ethics. I’m probably at my life cycle now where I look for that. I look for how ethical is this company. What are they doing? It depends on what they’re talking about here, but if it’s food, I look for what’s the animal cruelty procedures, what are they doing for the environment. So, I look for those kind of things, the ethics behind the company, and I look to the leaders of that company. So, if I don’t believe in the leadership, I don’t believe in what their company stands for, I will not purchase from that company.
And then if I keep going further down the chain, I’m a sucker for good packaging. I’m still that person where I’m in Woolworths and I’m like, “Oh, they’ve rebranded this cereal. This must be good.” And my partner is like, “Luke, it’s the same stuff. You don’t even like that.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but the packaging is amazing.” But it really is the ethics behind the company. I try to support the most ethical companies that I possibly can. I know in this day and age, it’s very difficult sometimes because you don’t know who is owned by who, and you can’t control thing. But the smallest impact on our world that I can possibly do, the better I think I can — as much as I can.
Simon Dell: What about some creative campaigns, just campaigns that you’ve seen that you might’ve liked?
Luke Wheatley: Do you know Geico?
Simon Dell: Yes.
Luke Wheatley: Geico is without a doubt one of my favourite brands that do amazing creative. They did this 5-second ad that went for a minute, and you can’t stop watching it. If you type in ‘Geico 1-minute ad’, it’s hilarious. What they did was, they knew that it had 5 seconds that people would skip the ad on YouTube, so it’s a family at dinner, and they all pause, and the dog jumps up onto the table and eats all the food awkwardly. It goes for a minute.
And it’s just genius because they’re selling insurance, and you just can’t stop watching this ad, and you just connect to the brand. I think that’s fantastic. They’ve done countless amazing creative. That’s from an insurance brand.
Simon Dell: A lot of people are extremely sceptical of things like insurance brands, and banks, and things like that. So, to get the cut through in that space is a real challenge. In case anyone listens to this in the future in the 8th of February, and we’d just had Super Bowl Sunday, what do you think of the Australia tourism ad?
Luke Wheatley: Not a fan.
Simon Dell: Really, tell me. I’m quite interested. I thought it was fantastic. I’m interested to hear a different perspective.
Luke Wheatley: I don’t know. We always fall into this trap of stereotyping Australians, and people wonder why, people think outside of this world, outside our country that we’re a bunch of yobos, we’re not sophisticated. And I think that sometimes, we play up on it too much. I just thought it was a cheap shot. I just thought it was kind of cheap to do. I think that we have some amazing people in our country that do amazing things that we don’t give as voice to. I think Crocodile Dundee is kind of done. That’s my opinion, and it’s probably not shared by most Australians. I know it’s an icon, but I think that we need to move away from that. We need to move away from that kind of culture.
Simon Dell: The thing that attracted me to it was probably… I enjoy the content. I’ll be honest. I sort of felt differently.
Luke Wheatley: The content was great. Don’t get me wrong. It was actually really good, I should say. It was very well-timed.
Simon Dell: I think what attracted me was the way that it was done and the fact that it was released as a no-name trailer for a film, that it generated a bit of awareness online. And I remember probably mid-January when the first one came out or the second trailer came out that had Margot Robbie in it punching on in an Outback bar or whatever it is that she’s doing in that trailer. And I read the comments. I read the comments quite a way down on YouTube, and nobody had any idea what it was for.
And I’m sitting there going, “Clearly, it’s Australian tourism.” But nobody had any idea. They were all trying to guess what the film was, which I thought that’s good because we’ve duped everybody.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah. I was on Reddit and people were calling it immediately from the first trailer. They were like, “This is a Super Bowl ad, without a doubt.” Because they did it with something else, like 5 years ago. That was the other reason why I thought, “They’ve already done this, the idea of Dundee coming back.” They did it with another movie. So, it wasn’t an original idea either.
Simon Dell: Maybe the Reddit people are much smarter than the YouTube people.
Luke Wheatley: They are. Reddit is amazing. Some of those people should be investigators as their job because they know. Look, and the idea is they were duping people. I think that’s a smart campaign. And then I wonder, “Is it, though? If people didn’t know, they thought it was a movie and it’s for Australian tourism, is it doing anything for Australian tourism?”
Simon Dell: Good point. Last two questions: What’s next for you? So, you’re talking about doing season two at the moment of the TV show. Where do you go from that? How are you reaching more people with it?
Luke Wheatley: Season two is going to be bigger. The sequels always have to be bigger, more money and everything else, more special effects. Greer, who is our host, she’s never acted before in her life, so her performances now are just so much better than they were. It’s more polished. We’ve been working with Channel Ten to see if we can get a better time slot. There’s nothing wrong with 3:30 on a Sunday, I think it’s great. I’m very proud of what we could achieve, but if we could get a bit closer to the news, maybe we can reach more people.
We’re trying to do a bit more integration with Channel Ten as well, if we can. There’s a lot of negotiations on at the moment that I can’t quite talk about. We’re trying to do a bigger partnership with that network if we can. And then for me, personally, what’s next for me is we’ve got a few other things that are cooking. I’m working on a few documentaries, one that’s just been released and finished that I’ve worked on. There’s another documentary that I’m working on. I’ve just been doing the deal now. This is outside of Flight Centre.
Simon Dell: This is your own thing?
Luke Wheatley: Yeah. This is my own thing. It’s a really interesting concept. It’s a blended family who is just having a really hard time, which I think a lot of Australians who can connect to. They’re taking their whole family to one of the most remote islands in Vanuatu and they spend up to a month there, and just live like people used to live, and they still live out in this remote destination to reconnect with the family. We’re doing a doco for that. Hopefully, it all works out well.
There’s a feature film that I’ve been working on for quite some time that I’m trying to get up, but that’s very difficult to get up. Funding feature films are almost impossible.
Simon Dell: I was going to say, funding for TV and films in Australia is… I’ve been through the whole route myself. We’re doing small films and things like that, and short films. You just go… It’s just so hard. You don’t even know where to speak, who to speak to. And again, and I don’t mean this to sound critical, but when you’re me and I’m a 40-year-old white guy, most people aren’t overly interested in hearing from me. They want younger. They want different stories, that kind of thing.
Luke Wheatley: That’s interesting. I’ve been doing the rounds, trying to sell our script. Through my contacts, I’m lucky enough to know those people, the right people to talk to from back in the day being in acquisitions. Funnily enough, and this is what I got about a month ago, is that they’re desperate for good writers in Australia.
Simon Dell: We’ll talk after this then.
Luke Wheatley: No, it’s actually seriously like — there’s concepts that you could get up easy. The script that we’ve got is a tough one, that’s why we’re not getting the funding. It’s beautifully written, but it’s just a tough subject that people are like, “It’s a good idea, but if you have a romantic comedy or something, which Australians do terribly, if you do a good one, you will get funding quicker than you know.”
Simon Dell: There you go.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah, we’re blessed. I’ve got lots of ideas and we’ve got lots of things that we’re trying to do as well. Not to take away from what I do as Flight Centre because I love what I do there, but for yourself, you have to have passion. What Flight Centre do really well is they let you do your passion. Obviously not in company time, but they don’t constrict you too much. We know surprises if I one day turned up and said, “Guys, this has been great. I’m making my own films. I’ll see you later.”
I think they’d be like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what we thought and that’s fine.” But yeah, we’ll see what happens.
Simon Dell: Last question. If people want to come and talk to you, if people want to ask you advice on marketing and all the things that you’ve spoken about today, please don’t tell me your phone number on this. I will not be held responsible for what happens after that. But feel free to give out your email. I’ve not heard anyone have their inboxes flooded just yet, but we’re starting to get to the numbers of listens where it could start to happen. But yeah, where’s best to find you?
Luke Wheatley: Email address is easy. It’s [email protected], or just hit me up on LinkedIn and we can go from there. Or Facebook, I guess, as well.
Simon Dell: And Twitter, too?
Luke Wheatley: I am on Twitter, yes. I actually don’t remember what my handle is, though. I think it’s really embarrassing.
Simon Dell: Let’s not mention it.
Luke Wheatley: You know when you’re young, you try to have a nickname. I tried to make Ace happen as a nickname. This was kind of embarrassing, but I have to tell you.
Simon Dell: Ace Wheatley. That sounds quite good. I like that.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah, because you know, we used to play pinball machines and Space Invaders and things like that. And so, you only had three characters when you got the top score. A-C-E fit in really easily, so Ace. I think my Twitter handle is like @acespacer, which I don’t even know why I did it, but I just did it because it was available. So yeah, tweet me on @acespacer and I’ll respond to you. I actually love Twitter. I think Twitter is the best platform to get my news.
Simon Dell: I’ve had more an affinity for it in the past 6 months, 12 months, than I have done ever before because I’ve started deleting people I was following that are too extremist in their political views. I mean that in either direction, too left or too right and I’m like, “Nope, I don’t want to follow you” and spend more time following people who are talking about marketing, or new tech, or finance, or blockchain, and all those kind of things. That’s where I find it becomes really valuable.
Luke Wheatley: I’ll have to follow you on twitter.
Simon Dell: Yes. We’ll have to find @acespacer on Twitter. I was going to say, just to finish off, there is probably nothing more embarrassing in this more in trying to make your own nickname happen.
Luke Wheatley: Yeah, I know. I can’t believe I just told you that. I think it didn’t happen, apparently.
Simon Dell: I wonder why.
Luke Wheatley: Who would’ve thought? The things you do when you’re young. I just thought I need a nickname.
Simon Dell: I’ve still got the same Hotmail address that I have when I was 14 and I don’t share that with anybody either.
Luke Wheatley: But yeah, the open invitation is out there. If people truly want some help or are looking for some advice, the door is open or the digital door is open.
Simon Dell: Mate, once again. Thank you very much for your time today. It’s been very entertaining. I look forward to seeing the feature film when it comes out. And if anyone wants to see it, it’s on Sunday afternoons, the Flight Centre show?
Luke Wheatley: It’s not on. It got repeats but they’re kind of — because the first season is done now, so we’re in production.
Simon Dell: Can you watch the first season online? Is that available online.
Luke Wheatley: Yes, it is. If you just go to FlightCentre.com.au/48hour, you can see. You can watch all the episodes on there.
Simon Dell: Okay, cool. So, if you want to see what Luke’s been doing, definitely get a chance to see that. But once again, mate, thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate that.
Luke Wheatley: You’re welcome.