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There was a time when almost everyone in PR got into the business accidentally, after experimenting with some other career. For Retroviral founder Mike Sharman, the dream was acting: in LA, he wrote a one-person showcase for himself, returned to South Africa to direct, star in, and market it. Five years later, he had abandoned acting for a different kind of storytelling, and founded Retroviral will a focus on data-driven campaigns and the digital landscape. That was in 2010; today, Retroviral specializes in branded storytelling that converts to sales and is one of the most dynamic and creative independent PR firms in South Africa.
Retroviral is headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, but the firm has executed campaigns across the continent, in markets such as Ghana, Namibia, Zambia, and Kenya—as well as the occasional creative campaign in the UK.
Retroviral is on track for its first ZAR50 million year (close to $2.8 million) when its its financial year ends in June, which will represent a very healthy 60% increase over its 2022 revenues. The firm is largely focused on challenger brands, but it still counts some pretty big names among its long-term clients, working with Gumtree, Liberty, Beko, Grundig, Ryobi, Profmed, Kreepy Krauly, First for Women Insurance, and Dove Cotton New clients in 2022 included Lil-Lets UK, Blue Ribbon Bread, BB Bakeries Bread, HTH, YumYum Peanut Butter, Ultra Pet, Checkers Sixty60, Discovery Bank, Beyers, and Sweetie Pie.
Five years ago, Retroviral involved the entire agency to write a manifesto that is emblazoned on a wall in its office: “This year, we vow to throw rocks at the stagnant pool of digital comms,punch brands in the gut of their crippling conservatism…” Which perfectly encapstulates the culture. In addition to CEO and chief creative officer Sharman, who has been featured in our Innovator 25 for EMEA, the Retroviral leadership team includes Shaka Sisulu, chairman, regulatory and corporate affairs, an investor and entrepreneur with experience in crowdfunding, influencer marketing, and IT, and co-creator of 20,000 strong volunteer movement Cheesekids; managing director Pippa Misplon, former business director for the PR and influencer division of Ogilvy South Africa; and creative director Ndumiso Nyoni, an illustrator and animator. With a team of 18, Retroviral has a formal mentorship program and a graduate program that ensures a flow of new talent and new thinking.
Retroviral follows a straightforward but highly effective approach: data-driven insights and strategy, followed by content creation, a focus on earned media and viral spread, culminating in quality reporting of results. The firm won two EMEA Innovation SABRE Awards in our 2023 competition, for its Sixty60 Swindlers campaign for grocery app Checkers Sixty60, using TikTok to newsjack attention around the Netflix phenomenon “The Tinder Swindler” and launch its own “don’t get swindled” message, earning plaudits for bravery and efficacy; and for its BeYou Period initiative for Lil-Lets, a bold, inclusive content campaign that celebrated the empowerment women can feel from better understanding their bodies. Both campaigns demonstrated the creative approach that has earned Retroviral awards recognition in South Africa and beyond.
— Paul Holmes
In 2006, Ayeni Adekunle, who was a journalist at the time, launched Nigeria’s BlackHouse Media with the goal of building Africa’s first truly global PR firm by leveraging insights into different markets, relationships, industry expertise and technology. Since then, BHM has grown into a US$6.2 million operation offering clients a range of services — reputation management and corporate comms, media relations and training, research, and social media among others. The firm produces an annual PR industry report, created a BHM App (a resource for media and journalists) and digital agency ID Africa, as well as Plaqad.com, an influencer marketing platform launched in 2020. And BHM’s geographic growth shows no signs of slowing, either, including expansion into the UK, Ghana and Kenya.
BlackHouse Media is headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, where it also operates four other offices across the country. Beyond Nigeria, there are operations in the UK (London and Edinburgh), Kenya, and Ghana, all of which adds up to 94 staffers.
BlackHouse continual investment in building out capabilities — in-house content creation, software engineering, media brands, digital analytics and regional advisor among others — paid off in a big way in 2022, when the agency grew 55% into a US$6.2 million business, topping last year’s impressive 37% lift. The firm increased its headcount to 94 (supplemented by another 24 freelancers) to support new business from the likes of Showmax, Flour Mills Nigeria, Coursera, The Macallan/Edrington and Page Financials, which join an client roster populated by Honeywell Group, Retail Supermarkets Nigeria, MultiChoice Nigeria, Project Management Institute, X3M Ideas, Livespot 360 Group and Nigerian Breweries.
BHM’s motto is putting people over profit, which translates into empowering employees to create and sustain the firm’s culture. In 2022, BMH’s personnel moves focused on hiring and developing a truly diverse workforce, people of different colors, races, religions, genders and nationalities. BHM’s workforce is 70% female, which earned the agency an award from
WIMCA (Women in Marketing and Communications) recognizing the top PR agency in gender inclusion. Staff benefits include premium private healthcare, fully flexible working with unlimited leave days, and life insurance double the Nigerian government’s stipulation.
A year after launching its annual Africa PR & Comms report covering Nigeria, BHM in 2022 expanded the research to cover all of Africa, a first-of-its-kind report covering the comms business across the continent. The firm also launched Plaqad Pres|Ofis, a media and public relations tool, to assist people and organisations in better executing their media relations by connecting organizations to journalists, bloggers and influencers. Hallmark work included supporting the debut of the Showmax series The Real Housewives of Lagos. BHM’s work for MTN Nigeria earned it a 2022 SABRE Africa Award for superior achievement in measurement and evaluation.
— Diana Marszalek
Founded in 2011 by ex-journalist Tom Manners and Nic Simmonds, Clockwork’s name might reference the Stanley Kubrick film, but this communications firm is rather more optimistic than that dystopian image might suggest. Winner of African Agency of the Year honours in three of the past six years, thanks to a pioneering focus on digital, Clockwork has since expanded to the UK and continues to benefit from an entrepreneurial mindset that focuses on strategy, creativity and measurement across technology, gaming, entertainment and financial services.
The bulk of Clockwork’s 130-odd staffers are based in South Africa, where the firm operates offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Clockwork’s London operation, meanwhile, has overcome a slow start to bring in significant new business.
As much of the PR industry tried to find its footing in a post-pandemic 2022, Clockwork continued to post the impressive growth that has fueled its continued expansion. The firm’s fee income rose 25% to £5.6 million in 2022 — marking the 10th year that the firm’s annual lift hovered very close to that figure. New business furthered Clockwork’s geographic reach, as new clients tapped the agency for its expansive services in digital, content marketing, consumer and influencer relations and integrated communications. N ew clients included Canon (Africa), The Open (UK), Calor Gas (UK), BDO (Africa), Microsoft (MEA), Cisco (South Africa), Bidvest (South Africa), Duke Corporate Education (Global). All of which joined an impressive roster of existing clients including Xbox (Global), Standard Bank (SA), Netflix (Africa), LG (SA), Peroni (UK), Canon (Africa), Acer (SA), Discovery (SA), Beam Suntory (SA) and Microsoft (MEA).
Employee support, DEI, and efficiency are among the bedrocks of Clockworks’ culture — and the foundation for the agency being able to handle growth in 2022 without adding, or burning out, staffers. There were no major leadership changes with Co-CEOs Manners and Simmonds are supported by an eight-person executive team in South Africa; UK leaders Richard Dutton (managing director) and Marcus Reynolds (chief strategy officer) were key in making Clockwork a truly global agency, with the London office generating close to 20% of the firm’s total income. In 2022, Clockwork achieved a level 1 Black Economic Empowerment rating for the second consecutive year, which requires significant investment in a wide variety of initiatives, including ongoing staff training, learnerships, and the funding of a non-profit organization which supports the training and education of black females in marketing. Alongside these initiatives, Black shareholding in the South African operation is now 18%. Five deaf students of color were among participants in Clockwork’s graduated studies program.
Clockwork in 2022 returned to being a very much public-facing organization with the relaunch of its quarterly 'Stories' events, which draw 300-plus staff, partners and clients for discussions with speakers including Ahmed Tilly, Dion Chang and Jeremy Maggs. The agency also hosted gatherings for PR industry leaders, and an inaugural ‘Connect’ function for press, influencers and clients to mingle and discuss trends, angles and expectations between the media and communications. The year’s hallmark work included Meta’s Changemakers campaign featuring African entrepreneurs and Peroni’s Night In and Night Out campaign featuring British actor Lucien Laviscount.
— Diana Marszalek
After working across journalism and PR, Rachel Irvine founded her own firm in South Africa in 2010. 12 years later, Irvine has grown to represent major global brands and local disruptors alike, with the 100% women-owned and led agency working across reputation management, digital/social, content creation, media buying and training, design and video production. Irvine’s entrepreneurial approach combines global work with a local mindset, bolstered by its continued independence, with an offering that is particularly popular among technology, corporate and consumer clients.
There are 50 staff members across six offices in the UK, South Africa (Johannesburg and Cape Town), Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana, giving Irvine Partners (IP) an enviable ability to travel beyond its South African home market into sub-Saharan Africa.
IP reported 33% growth in 2022, and the agency has expanded revenue by 195% since 2018. Key clients include Google South Africa and Nigeria, Huawei, Airbnb, Salesforce, Zoho, Radisson Hotel Group, SweepSouth, Doxim, CMS and BetterBond. In 2022, there was new business from Spotify SSA, Upnup, MFS Africa, Ad Dynamo, Founders Factory, eat2explore, and Shoopit while, on on the project front, the firm handled the relaunch of Barclays Private Banking in South Africa plus an interactive campaign for World Thrombosis Day in Nigeria.
Based in London, Irvine’s background in senior journalism and broadcast roles (for Sky Business Television, Estates Gazette and Reed Business Information), and significant marcomms experience in Moscow distinguishes her profile from many other agency leaders. The firm is entirely female-led, and is committed to only working with clients and suppliers that align with its own diversity and inclusion commitments. These include a number of programmes, including a two-year incubator for Black-owned small businesses, which provides tangible support in the form of capital injections, management support, mentorship, and the ongoing use of the firm’s services. IP’s ongoing employee development programmes include D&I training, while employee experience is measured formally on an annual basis.
IP’s high client satisfaction scores, which it measures annually, reflect its focus on a vibrant service offering, which has been bolstered by the addition of a marketing function that also focuses on talent acquisition and retention. Campaign highlights include Spotify’s Funhouse event in Nigeria, SweepSouth’s funding announcement, the Global Citizen festival in Ghana, the Google Wallet launch in South Africa and Google for Africa work, and Zoho’s ‘Zoholics’ event in Nigeria and Kenya.
— Arun Sudhaman
Advertising group M&C Saatchi launched Razor as its South African PR firm in January 2020, bringing in respected industry veterans Dustin Chick and Kalay Maistry to build a new business in the midst of a recession and just as the pandemic was starting to take hold. Despite (or perhaps because of) the market conditions, Razor is the fastest growing startup in M&C Saatchi’s venerable history, with its senior-level focus and expertise in financial services, technology, public advocacy and measurement helping to underpin a very 21st century reputation management firm, underpinned by a focus on kindness and values. Most notably, Razor has demonstrated a world-class ability to marry high-level reputation counsel with stellar creative, in a country where multi-stakeholder engagement has never been more important.
Razor is headquartered in Johannesburg and also operates in Cape Town but, like most South African firms, is capable of continental coverage, in this case via the 27-country M&C Saatchi Africa network. M&C Saatchi’s broader footprint also helps Razor in terms of global reach, as does its membership of the SERMO independent agency network.
After a landmark year in 2021, which included being named PRovoke Media’s 2022 African Agency of the Year, Razor was not about to rest on its laurels in 2022 — growing fee income by 64% to ZAR$40m, and headcount up 50%. The quality of the firm’s client roster continues to shine with new additions Digital Frontiers, Letsema, Marys Meals International and PepsiCo joining existing accounts such as Anglo American, Dimension Data, BDO, Audi, Investec, Innovation Africa, The Takealot Group, Virgin Active and Tiger Brands. Notably, much of Razor’s work involves strategic counsel, corporate positioning and ESG storytelling.
Chick and Maistry are joined by partner/ECD Chris Lazley on the leadership team, with the firm continuing to focus on senior-level talent, bolstered by a ZAR$2m talent development budget. Liesl Williams arrived as managing partner in Cape Town, while other new additions included Vikash Gajjar as strategy director, and Oscar Tshifure to head a new public affairs offering, plus business unit director Ima Peter was promoted to the firm’s management committee. Razor’s professional development approac includes formal courses with business schools, coaches for top and middle management, community interventions in the places its people live, and a robust graduate programme. The firm has also invested in global office swops with sister agencies in its network and has implemented a flexible people first work policy. Employee wellness programmes include mental health interventions, while employment packages pay well above the industry curves.
In 2022, Razor launched the Talkability Index, which combines data from multiple sources to benchmark conversational performance in relation to business impact in real time. The tool is the result of enhanced investment in the firm’s data and analytics offering, which included a dedicated team, along with a strategy unit that has doubled in size. This focus has paid off to stunning effect in recent years, with a slew of SABRE Awards across EMEA and Africa helping the firm rank fifth in the 2022 Global Creative Index, the highest ranked African agency. Among the firm’s SABRE-shortlisted work this year are a major reputation management campaign for Anglo American, along with initiatives for Tiger Brands and Kena Health.
— Arun Sudhaman
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