That’s The Start Of The Journey





I heard an apt soundbite from Tim Ferris on a recent podcast: ‘Your network is your net worth’, and for anyone contemplating starting a business, ‘who you know’ is always greater than ‘what you know’.

“My main focus in 2010 was to give myself three months and then if this whole ‘starting an agency thing’ didn’t work out, I would apply for a job elsewhere. Fortunately my network came through for me, I picked up a small retainer by the second month – for Miller Rock the Boat community management – and over the next decade we created tomorrow, what didn’t exist today.” – Mike Sharman

I woke up in June 2020, overwhelmed with a sense of pride knowing that – for the past decade – we have developed a proprietary way of making ‘stuff go viral’. Retroviral has made more brands ‘go viral’ globally, than any other agency in Africa, and for us: ‘viral = eyeballs + conversions’. We aren’t obsessed with vanity metrics, but rather helping our clients boost their bottom line. When they do better, so do we.

Below is a listicle of my top 10 campaigns that Retroviral has seeded, conceptualised or created during our decade of disruption.

The earned digital media proof point Nando’s is famous for unleashing social commentary via social media, but back in 2010, these were newspaper tactics, disseminated to Sunday readers; some of the largest traditional media audiences.

Our cheeky upstart, startup suggested we seed via social media opinion leaders (before influencer marketing was a term). Black River FC created this gem of a tactical content piece, based on Julius Malema’s threat to closer (sic) Twitter when multiple parody Juju accounts had been opened. We convinced the iconic South African brand to leverage our network of bloggers and the ploy was so successful, we were signing NDAs 48 hours later that would see us become the official amplification agency for the grilled chicken brand for the next three years.

This job became a stepping stone to iconic work. We developed an incredibly close relationship with the brand and BRFC – and it was this cohesive relationship that led to 100,000 views on the Cell C / Trevor Noah spoof for Nando’s 5GS within six days. We also won our first PR campaign gold for this piece.

It wasn’t even 12 months later when we rocketed South African virality to the stratosphere with The Last Dictator Standing. Another BRFC pioneer and a record breaking brand achievement of 2 million views in six days and a 25% increase in sales, YOY.

This campaign put us on the map. A bronze Cannes Lion, several other awards and the coveted Loeries Grand Prix (Tree of trust: I didn’t even know the significance of these awards as I had never been a ‘traditional ad man’) ensured credibility was bestowed upon us.

Bye bye red eye
Because we offered such a hyper focused, creative solve, we weren’t a threat to other agencies and we were welcomed by brands as a direct supplier, as our offering didn’t step on any incumbent toes.

One could argue that we were a one-trick pony and with Nando’s we had both the audience and the content to guarantee success. I believed we could apply our ‘remarkable content, seeded to the right communities, can be engineered to deliver commercial results’ mantra to any industry or brand.

We took on the challenge for this Joe Public Douwe Egberts’ campaign, and based on our seeding approach and resultant coverage on the most popular sites on the planet – including Time, CNN, Huffington Post, and Mashable – we proved that lightning doesn’t only strike once, it strikes wherever we tell it to!

Fundraising with stories
Being involved in the Put Foot Rally and the subsequent work on the Put Foot Foundation has been something close to my heart. We started out as content ambassadors on the first two rallies, and used social media to encourage viewers to donate towards our efforts of delivering school shoes to rural primary school children in SA, Namibia and Zambia. Since 2011, we’ve ensured that more than 100,000 kids have benefitted from our program.

The #5GumExperience
Experimental clients who encouraged us to play was where we found our sweet spot. Jason Cederdog Cederwall’s events for his Wrigley brand were nostalgic; the Lucky Strike parties of the 2010s. Our brief was to achieve one thing – ROA – return on awesome on the digital comms and PR front! And the awesome overflowed.

Our brand before band communications strategy on the first #5GumExperience we were involved in, led to an introduction to DDB for the Converse Get Out Of The Garage campaign. We did all the digital seeding and amplification for that gig. The result: the discovery of one Matthew Mole. With this song.

Jason Goliath magic
Being a pure amplification agency had limitations. I had been preaching a new way of digital marketing since our inception – the Holy Trinity of Marketing – digital + PR + activation – and the confidence we had gained from the viral seeding of content opened the door for us to act as the lead agency on two projects in 2013/14 that both starred one of our country’s hottest new (at the time) comedic acts – Jason Goliath. Shout out to Glen Biderman-Pam for the cameo.

South African marketers were starting to understand what ‘branded content’ was and winning awards for the above, ensured we were elevated to storyteller status. We were no longer just seen as disseminators, we were playing in the realm of strategy and creative.

Level up!
2016 was the year that everything changed. We won the title of lead agency for both RocoMamas and Russell Hobbs and produced one of the most challengingly satisfying stunts at London’s Southbank location for a German savings brand that we had only ever met and pitched to, via Skype –

Flexing the creative muscles
‘Momentum’ has been one of the most important words for me on this journey. When you are down and taking a pounding by the market, client or pitch losses and you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom, it takes a few wins to rebuild your confidence. We play a numbers game. Sometimes it takes a 100 calls, meetings, or emails to close one deal, but winning is contagious and the more you win, the greater the quality of client is that you partner with.

Up until 2017 we had executed a lot of successful, albeit small campaigns for M-Net, but Survivor Billboard tested our capabilities, 10th Street’s (our production partner) streaming tech and JCDecaux’s abilities to pull strings like no other. In short, it would have been impossible to execute this idea in Cape Town. God bless Johustleburg.

My entrepreneurial approach is one of focus. I’ve seen founders fall over by spreading themselves too thin. I don’t believe in business plans, because it is your customers who define your business, not you. And, finally, partners who balance you are mission critical to your success or failure.

We spotted a gap in 2018. Ben Karpinski, Shaka Sisulu and I launched Retroactive with Bryan Habana, as a sporting sister agency to Retroviral. We just ran with it.

This became our experimental first client for Retroactive, and I’m grateful to Hobbo for allowing us into his space to document his journey from zero kilometers run and zero Instagram followers, to completing IronMan 70.3 Durban in under 10 months.

The most incredible achievement for this new agency was the Best Sponsorship of a Team or Individual category win, as well as claiming the Young Agency of the Year award at the 2019 SA Sport Industry Awards.

2021 vision
This year has been an economic bloodbath. Covid-19 has ripped through (sm)all business and decimated entire industries. Thanks to my wing woman, creative director extraordinaire, Kathryn McConnachie, we have surfed this tsunami and have refused to go gentle into that good night.

On the Retroactive front, we executed one of the best PR campaigns from South Africa – ever – as we told the story of Africa’s first woman to complete the Dakar Rally on a motorbike, on behalf of RYOBI Africa. This campaign reached one billion people.

I’m immensely grateful
I’m privileged and grateful that this is the brand company we continue to attract and keep, as we look to begin our second decade in business. The manifesto at the start of this post is more relevant than ever.

We thrive on challenger brand challenges

Other INNOVATE® Ecosystems