Retroviral: Mike Sharman

Retroviral: Mike Sharman


Small entrepreneurial companies are proving over and over that you don’t have to be big to be successful – or to land big-name corporate clients.

What online communications consultancy Retroviral lacks in size it more than makes up for in creativity, innovation and the ability to provide clients with exactly what they need. Started just two years ago by Mike Sharman, the company has carved a niche for itself as an agency that gets people talking about brands.

Using tactics like design, blogger relations, community management and viral video production and distribution, it has helped some of the country’s foremost brands achieve powerful presence on the web.

Go viral

“Social media means that when people start talking about your brand, the results can be game-changing. We want to encourage discussions about a brand, to personalise it and have others champion it. So our aim is simple: develop remarkable content, seed it to the right influencers and maximise a brand’s chances of experiencing viral results,” Sharman explains.

The viral results he’s referring to speak for themselves. Take the company’s work on the Nando’s Last Dictator Standing campaign for example. It landed a brief to amplify the impact of the traditional campaign by creating hype around the content prior to it being aired on TV.

“Our objective was to maximise the brand’s exposure and to dominate headlines and online conversations during the month of December, with the ultimate goal of increasing sales during the campaign period,” says Sharman.

As part of the social media teaser campaign, Retroviral identified 50 key ‘netizens’ or digital media influencers in its network, to whom three Mugabe lookalikes delivered campaign details and Nando’s YouTube content links.

A microsite,, was set up where fans could post the five people they’d most like to have dinner with in order to enter a daily Nando’s voucher draw.

The campaign was the first in South Africa to attract one million YouTube views in less than one week. Some of the biggest international blogs and websites, including Huffington Post, Boing Boing and Time, posted the Last Dictator Standing content, and celebrity tweeter Stephen Fry who has over 4,5 million followers on Twitter, tweeted, “Well, that’s one way to sell chicken!”

Nando’s original Facebook fans increased by 90 000. There were 9 530 tweets tracked about the campaign and more than 1 000 blog and website posts. The combined advertising value equivalent exceeded R22 million in online mentions alone, delivering a 500% return on investment to the client.

Leveraging your online network

Most importantly, however, Nando’s sales spiked during the two-month period (numbers are confidential and therefore undisclosed) and promotional sales targets were surpassed.

This is a campaign of which Sharman is justifiably proud, but he’s also keen to make the point that one successful campaign does not a successful agency make. “It’s very important that every campaign we run has a similar reach and impact – our acid test is whether we are able do it over and over again and be new, fresh, and innovative every time,” he says.

It’s a test they’ve passed, pulling off similarly successful campaigns for SAB’s No Regret Friday campaign against drinking and driving, and the ShoesOnFeet campaign for the Put Foot Rally to provide disadvantaged children with school shoes, to name but a few.

There are a number of keys to pulling off such successful campaigns. “Being able to leverage the Twitter and blogging activity of our online influencer network is a key differentiator for us and allows our clients access to highly influential people in the online media space,” says Sharman.

The ability to come up with campaign content that is relevant, topical and gets people talking is another key factor, and doing this requires having the right people in place and empowering them to make decisions fast.

Agile responsiveness

“In the online space there’s a real need for quick responses and turnaround times. Lead times are incredibly short.

We don’t believe that the traditional agency model of account executive reporting into account manager reporting into business director is conducive to quick decisions being made, so we’ve adopted a model similar to the one used in investment banking where you have a two-man team of a senior and junior consultant working on an account. This allows for much quicker decision-making, agility and the responsiveness needed to be successful in the online space,” he adds.

Sharman’s also aware of the importance of building the company’s own brand. An active member in the online community, he has 4 500 followers on Twitter and 10 000 readers on his blog. He says, “We’re small now but we have plans for growth, among them an expansion to Cape Town next year.

And I think we’ve proved that you don’t need to be huge to be successful or effective. In fact the opposite is often true. Looking back on the last two years, I’m proud that we’ve turned a profit and done some groundbreaking work that has delivered for clients. There’s lots more to do, but I’m pleased with what we’ve achieved thus far.” With good reason too.

Vital stats
Player: Mike Sharman
Company: Retroviral
Launched: 2010
Contact: +27 (0)11 807 2508;

Juliet Pitman
Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.