Mike Sharman is the Co-Founder of Retroviral, Retroactive, MatchKit.co, Webfluential.com and the Put Foot Foundation, with the launch of Retroactive in 2018 his first dedicated foray into the sports agency space.
Q: What was the background to you setting up your own digital agency – Retroviral – in your mid-20s in 2010?
A: I’d been working in PR in London for two years (2008-2010) and had been working on the home entertainment account for LG, which saw me involved with sponsorship properties such as Fulham, Arsenal and the LG Arena in Birmingham. I was fascinated, curious and had varying degrees of obsession with the integration of social media into campaigns and the story behind the analytics. At 26 I was self-teaching digital lessons and had no more senior mentors within the agency to tap into. I had no bond, no commitments and the ability to be selfish enough to start a business. I wanted Retroviral to be a hybrid comms agency that leveraged digital, PR and activation, and knew that the introduction of SEACOM and the proliferation of broadband via fixed line and mobile opportunities would lead to a local digital explosion. Returning to SA for the FIFA World Cup sounded like a good idea to also just start Retroviral.
Q: The launch of Retroactive followed in 2018 – what gap in the sports industry did you see at the time?
A: I am obsessed with sport from the fan perspective. The reason why I was in London in 2008 was thanks to a Castle Lager Superfan competition. My mate Hobbo and I found jobs and stayed in the UK for a further two years. Fast forward to 2011 and Ben Karpinski and I were commissioned to document content from Auckland during the MasterCard Witness History tour, at the final of RWC. He was writing BMW Springbok TVCs at the agency he was working at and we had several conversations about wanting to start a sports agency. Parallel to this, Bryan Habana and I kept in contact throughout his rugby career. We were at school together and when his retirement was on the horizon we began chatting about launching a sports play to leverage our storyselling approach, coupled with his professional athlete insights. Ben, Bryan, Shaka Sisulu and I took the plunge and went live with Retroactive almost two years ago.
Q: As “Co-founder of Retroviral, Retroactive, MatchKit.co, Webfluential.com and Put Foot Foundation”, how much of your time is spent on Retroactive and how hands-on are you?
A: My day-to-day is invested predominantly in Retroviral, Retroactive and more recently MatchKit.co. Retroviral has just hit its decade milestone and is the most mature of the businesses. Retroactive and MatchKit.co are still start-ups and need daily attention. I play the role of a quasi group ECD who thrives on new business development, strategic oversight on a selection of clients, and obsession of working with finance to model current and future revenue drivers. I just love telling stories and whenever we have a shoot – TVC, documentary or branded social media content – I opt to adopt an assistant director role.
Q: What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on your business(es)?
A: It’s been a mixed-bag of losses and – fortunately – wins. From a Retroactive perspective, we built MatchKit.co in three months to help athletes better commercialise their careers – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/we-built-matchkitco-help-athletes-get-back-game-mike-sharman/.
Q: How has Retroactive responded and innovated?
A: We have rolled up our sleeves, dived straight into the trenches, and are in the process of creating a documentary for Ryobi, about Makazole Mapimpi and Eastern Cape township rugby. We are incredibly excited to share this with you.
Q: What do you believe are some of the key elements in ensuring a piece of sports content goes viral and/or delivers substantial ROI for a client?
A: Our formula for virality is: remarkable Content, seeded to the right Community, leveraging PR opportunities to have a direct impact on a brand’s Commercial activities. This is our ‘three C’ approach. If the content is remarkable, you are in the best position for success. Our sporting story success to date has been based on being authentic and showcasing human interest pieces.
Q: Once sport in general is back up and running fully, post-COVID-19, do you anticipate change, in terms of how it is run, consumed, commercialised etc?
A: We expect to see the explosion of eSports and digital sport channels. Sport is due a revolution in its fan engagement models – local rugby, cricket and football in particular. We anticipate the increase of engagement in niche sports – for participants and fans alike in sports such as triathlon. SA Rugby’s possible extraction from Super Rugby and potential move north could be a valuable opportunity in terms of commercialisation and fan activation.
Q: What’s your view on content and the role it plays in the commercial operations of a sports organisation?
A: Content is the raw emotion. It opens the curtain to the real world, the behind-the-scenes of the off-the-field activity that fans crave to have access to. Human beings are emotionally connected to stories. If I ever get an opportunity to look back and analyse the peaks and troughs of the past decade, I am grateful we have been able to pave our own way and produce stories that go against the mainstream grain, but have generated some of the greatest interest. We epitomise and own being different.
Q: Which sports organisations – either local or international – do you believe are getting it right, in terms of marketing and commercialising their product, and why?
A: Nike and adidas are personal favourites. Insights nailed, goosebumps delivered. These brands are the gold standard in sports marketing.
Q: Where would you like to see Retroactive in 10 years’ time?
A: Retroviral is the agency that has made more brands go viral, globally than any other agency in Africa. I’d like to see Retroactive consistently producing documentary-like content worthy of the trending category on Netflix – think Rising Phoenix, Last Dance and that calibre of content.