What does it take to be a great Head of Content? Interview with James Ainsworth

Sonja Jefferson

With the rise of content marketing a new role has emerged – Head of Content. So what does it involve? Valuable Content Award winner James Ainsworth of The Real Adventure Unlimited explains.

James Ainsworth

More and more leaders are recognising the value of content as a strategic tool to deliver an outstanding experience for their customers and so meet their business goals. But how do you put this focus on content to work? What specialist skills do you need in your team and how do you organise to drive success?

Smart businesses across the land are creating a new leadership role to front their content efforts – Head of Content (a.k.a. Director of Content or Chief Content Officer). So what does this challenging new position involve?

In January this year UK customer relationship marketing agency The Real Adventure Unlimited set out to recruit its first ever Head of Content. James Ainsworth was the lucky winner, heading up both client and agency content initiatives. With a degree in psychology, professional training in journalism and over 10 years of working with content in print and digital, he’s a great fit. A content obsessive, outside the day job James works on his own content-based projects. His superb personal blog and podcast, Content + Alt + Delete, was nominated for the UK Blog Awards 2016.

Here’s the lowdown on James’ background and role as Head of Content for The Real Adventure Unlimited, and a seriously well-deserved Valuable Content Award too. Plenty of ideas to take away if you’re building your own content team, or wondering what opportunities exist in our fast-evolving industry.

What does the Head of Content role involve James?

“As Head of Content for The Real Adventure Unlimited, I get to have a lot of fun, but that bit doesn’t make it onto the job spec.

In reality, I take an editorial overview of how content works for our clients and how to make it work harder still. I am very fortunate that I get variety in my work–life every day, and that includes being the guardian and ambassador of our agency approach to content, for the good of the business itself too.”

Why were you hired? What’s the goal?

“My boss says I was hired for my full head of hair. I do not think there is any Samson-esque link between my hair growth and my content marketing prowess. Nor was I hired for the use of GIFs in the microsite I built as part of the application process. I like to think that my experience from previous roles where purposeful content has been my remit, my balance of strategic understanding with creativity and my eye for the need to have content distribution built into all content approaches are why I find myself ten months into the best content job in Bristol.

The goal is to take the great strategic thinking that comes from Planning, who really know their stuff, and connect it with the craft and output of the agency’s creative community. Once those two pieces are aligned, you need to know where to take whatever ‘it’ is and get it seen. Making every content-driven campaign famous is a big challenge – a big enjoyable challenge.

I could be tasked with developing an editorial theme and approach to the email programme we run for Costa and their club members so that it becomes much more than a functional email mechanic telling you your transactional history, or where your next free cup of coffee is going to come from. There are some great stories to be told for Costa.

For our Danone clients, we run websites, email, social, an app and other channels besides. However a mum or partner experiences those touchpoints – be it via the ongoing content executions, bigger campaign-based experiences or compelling social media competitions – the content experience needs to be consistent and always add value.

Finally, I have put together a content programme for the agency itself that hits upon brand awareness, new business and recruitment goals, with some very tactical pieces going on in different channels.”

Who’s in your content team?

“As it stands, I have three of the brightest and most experienced social media marketers in Bristol. They push me, each other and the agency to think harder about social content. In return, I challenge them to think bigger and broader in terms of content, so that they are not social media specialists in isolation. Social is a key distribution channel for content. Content could be a website, video, GIF, a tweet, podcast or a clever direct mail piece, and all of these benefit from social distribution or an element of social media thinking.”

What benefit has the focus on content marketing brought so far?

“We have heard from a number of people external to The Real Adventure Unlimited that, as a result of our content output as an agency, there is a buzz about what we are doing. That is truly satisfying feedback to hear, and more powerful than the upward trends we’ve also been seeing in Google Analytics. If something we are doing is useful, interesting and, above all, connecting with people internally and externally, that is a good starting point.

“As a result of our content output as an agency, there is a buzz about what we are doing at The Real Adventure Unlimited.”

When the lead source for new business can be tied back to a content piece, or a job interview starts with a candidate telling us how they identified with something we did, such as our weekly Instagram takeover or our strong editorial approach to opinion-led blog posts, that will be when I know things are working as planned.

Real Adventure unlimited instagram takeover

The Real Adventure Unlimited’s Instagram takeover www.instagram.com/realadventure

That tangible sense of excitement around content is also there in client initiatives that we have been able to introduce across ongoing content streams and campaigns. The trick to converting that initial success and excitement about what content can do is to make it scale, repeat and do even greater things.”

You said this is your dream job. Why?

“I get away with all sorts. I am encouraged to think creatively and I have access to a great pool of truly talented people who can inform a direction, deliver an insight as part of a brief and convert a content idea and distribution into a stunning reality that makes a difference to the end-user.

A year ago I applied for this job, this job that might exist in many places in London but rarely comes along in Bristol. I had to go for it. I went all in for the entirety of the multi-staged interview process, where the second interview saw me receive a single-page brief around a campaign idea, and I was tasked with putting together a presentation on what I would create and where I would take it. I pitched the content plan to my now boss, Creative Director, Ian Bates; Joint Managing Director, Matt Hardy; and Head of Planning, Mark Hancock and it all went live this week. There are filmed expert interviews, episodic blogger and expert roundtable video discussions, help level articles and customisable PDF toolkit content. The most satisfying part of it is the trust and support of everyone that has had any level of involvement in the ideas, and those that have helped to develop them further or even push back on some content suggestions.”

What path have you taken to get you where you are today?

“The hold-a-grudge version of events says that I started when my English teacher told me in sixth form that I would never be a journalist when I was looking at university courses. The reality is that it probably started when I made my first magazine out of A4 paper during Euro 96.

Jumping forward, I studied Psychology at Bangor University and volunteered in my first year to write for the music section of the university newspaper. By the end of my second year, I found my hand held up high to volunteer to be the editor overall.

Following my undergraduate degree, I went to the University of Wales, Cardiff, to complete a challenging Masters in Journalism. The next logical step was to go into journalism, but there were no jobs. I volunteered at a very local newspaper that had started up (big shout-out to The Keynsham & Saltford Times) before I spotted an opportunity to move away from print and into an online opportunity at BHP Information Solutions (now called Atom Content Marketing). I owe Mick Dickinson (now founder and owner of Buzzed Up Content) a drink or two. He took me on as a Temp for two weeks to sort out this thing called Twitter for the Marketing Donut start-up resource website. Things escalated very quickly when colleague and Content Mentor Simon Wicks took me under his editorial wing and encouraged me to write. I probably owe Simon a drink too but I also had the opportunity to employ him as a freelance writer in my previous job and so the drinks should surely be on him!

I have since had another job – or at least several social media or content roles within the same company where I was responsible for a number of global blogging platforms and an internal advocacy program – before landing here at The Real Adventure Unlimited.

Head of Content James Ainsworth

The one thing I have always done since sixth form is to have a content hobby or side project on the go. I don’t always maintain them beyond a year, but picking up a niche content area and running a blog or podcast or other content creation activity has always been something I’ve needed as a thing to do out of work. As a release; a means of testing a new CMS, an excuse to hone my writing or a chance to get free gig tickets.”

What makes a great content creator?

“Starting with an insight is very important. Otherwise you end up creating content on a whim or a notion. A gut feel can get you so far, but a foundation of research and appreciation for the end user is a must. Also, a tolerance for content management systems.”

“A foundation of research and appreciation for the end user is a must.”

What’s next? Any more barriers to break down?

“One little victory at a time, and more proving the value of content as a means of storytelling or providing a chance to start a relationship or develop an existing one further.

There are still plenty of challenges:

  • How do you get a greater share of attention?
  • How do you cope with the ever-diminishing attention span?
  • How do you make relevant and engaging content for sectors that are resistant or perhaps a more awkward fit?
  • How do you encourage others to create content so that the joy and the burden are shared equally?”

Content marketing advice for other agencies/businesses?

“It is ok to be single-minded and focussed; it is what creates your niche but you have to make it interesting to the end user. Obsess over your end users or personas. Self-indulgent content is rife on corporate websites and can actually have a detrimental effect.

“Obsess over your end users or personas.”

When you look to measure your content effectiveness using Google Analytics, make sure you set up a filtered profile so your IP address, or that of your client, is not taken into account. It’s the right and honest thing to do – for you, your clients and your audience.

When you are looking to build out a content programme, it is very often apparent that there is a hero activation that could do a great job to land your message, but if you do not pair it with any content that pertains to activation, support or inspiration, you just have an expensive content asset that lands an idea but doesn’t help the end user to do anything with it. There are a lot of high-profile campaigns that fall into this trap.”

Any tips for people looking to get in a career in content?

“Be a content freak. Make mistakes. Create content in your spare time and be the authority that your commitment to your chosen subject matter will make you. I would have more interest in a CV that demonstrates a commitment to content in and out of work than one that can show you have run a Twitter account or written a blog or press release a bunch of times for an employer.

“Be a content freak.”

Videos, podcasts, blogs, printed and digital magazines all require a lot of skills to be pulled together, from an editorial, technical build and design perspective, and they can be a lot of fun to create. Enjoy making content, building an audience and offer something a little different to stand out.

A degree is not always necessary and it is not always enough. It is also not always relevant, but demonstrating your relationship with content and an area of interest is critical.

Enjoy.”

Fascinating insight into the role of Head of Content from James and The Real Adventure Unlimited. My takeaways?

If you want a job in the content world

  • Love great content, and be able to prove it. From the A4 teenage fanzine to the side projects just for the hell of it, great content people do it because they want to.
  • Be curious. There’s no formal career path in content marketing. Psychology and journalism are great groundings, but the mindset they demand – asking questions, telling stories, experimenting, pushing boundaries, wanting to see what happens if…..are what matters most.
  • Keep your eyes peeled for some fascinating, challenging career opportunities in the content field.

If your business wants to seriously up its content game

  • Take content seriously. Make someone senior responsible – heading it up is a leadership role.
  • Invest in great content. High quality content that helps you deliver a better service to your customers is money well spent.
  • Create content with purpose. That means research-based, with a goal. Never self-indulgent. The best content blends strategic insight with creativity.
  • Obsess over your customer. What will help them?
  • Hire maniacs! (Like our friends at Indium). Hire or nurture the people in the company that love content, and do it because they can’t not.

Those are my takeaways. How about you? Any questions for James fire away.

Valuable Content Award badge

A well deserved Valuable Content Award

Hiring James and creating this new Head of Content role is a smart move by The Real Adventure Unlimited – for their clients and their business. I look forward to seeing how the role develops and the benefits grow.

Congratulations James – a very well earned Valuable Content Award badge is on the way – for your intelligent content marketing podcast and blog and for your sterling work with The Real Adventure Unlimited.

Ideas to help you build a crack content team

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  1. The great content skills debate: redefining recruitment | Blue Scribe Media - […] an interview with James, by Sonja at Valuable Content, to find out why businesses should hire ‘curious, content […]

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