In our Headliners series of conversations, we get under the skin of PR and communications leaders around the world who have made PRovoke Media headlines recently, uncovering what they see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for the industry, where they find inspiration (and how they switch off), what they’ve learned about themselves, as well as the creative campaigns they love and the work they are most proud of.

In the latest Q&A in the series, we chat to Mike Sharman, CEO and chief creative officer of South African agency Retroviral, which took home the Platinum SABRE Award for the best PR campaign of the year at the African SABRE Awards last week, for its work with Lil-lets. 

What are the greatest challenges and opportunities for the PR and communications industry over the next 12 months?

PR's greatest challenge is its ability to articulate its current value proposition. The advent of digital transformation presented the industry with an opportunity to unlock more commercial revenue streams, but it was ultimately the explosion of digital and social media agencies that disrupted the communications space. With the acceleration of Ai adoption and machine learning, it's mission critical for the PR and comms industry to upskill itself and become a thought leader in the integration of this technology, in order to remain relevant.

What’s the best PR campaign you’ve seen recently and why?

It's a recent VW campaign from Ogilvy Cape Town that talks specifically to objects that exist in one's blindspot. Here ECD Alex Goldberg details the inner workings of the idea; one that took six years to bring to life. The humanisation of the 'blindspot' is what makes the idea truly remarkable, as well as the application in a dealership. It has legs for a full 360 rollout and the detail that exists within the darkness is like word of mouth crack; addictive and haunting. Because South Africa is a small market, we compete with one another, pan-agency, but we celebrate each other's epic ideas, as real mates. That's what I love about this industry.  

What work from your team are you most proud of over the past year?

There are several ideas, but Lil-Lets Be You Period is top of the pops based on its Best in Show at the African SABRE Awards, and its third place finish at the EMEA SABRE Awards. Ultra Pet is another favourite as it pays homage (albeit less dark and more 'aww') to a series from a decade or so ago, Wilfred. We newsjacked the global Tinder Swindler phenomenon for our number one grocery app, Sixty60 to create the Sixty60 Swindler in less than 24 hours. Finally, we executed our first branded documentary for power tool brand Ryobi, which has gone on to scoop multiple accolades and awards.

What have you learned about yourself over the past couple of years?

We aren't 'Doctors Without Borders'. If we fail, no one dies. There is an overwhelming sense of freedom and confidence, knowing that it's just a budget; fear constricts creativity. Similarly, the better you understand the detail and the more energy you invest in your financial acumen, the more your creativity becomes subconsciously linked to the bottom line success of the brands you are serving. At this stage of life and my career, I know what I'm really good at, and I know my blindspots. Collaboration - on a small scale - with the right mix of brand and agency people is crucial and key to taking the W. 

How do you switch off and maintain wellness?

The internet NEVER sleeps. I do have an obsession with 'virality' and consider myself always-always-on. I do have small kids, so mealtimes and a bedtime story are daily rituals to mentally 'leave' the office. As I approach 40, health and wellness is a non negotiable. I have a diarised, daily session for some form of exercise; it doesn't stop the bees from buzzing inside my head, but it puts them back into the hive for 60-odd minutes. 

What cultural source has provided creative inspiration for you lately?

I'm constantly sponging references. I don't always know how they'll be used but I have a go-to rolodex of content in my head, waiting to be unleashed in a pitch or brainstorm session. I love reading biographies of founders – like 'That'll Never Work', 'No Filter', 'Hatching Twitter' and 'Shoedog' – because it takes you right into the headspace of problem-solution and presents real-world peaks and troughs that every leader/organisation is battling, daily. Podcast-wise I love 'Masters of Scale', and Netflix sporting content is my gateway drug to inspiration – 'Last Dance', 'Break Point', and 'Full Swing' to name a few.

If I wasn’t working in PR/comms I would be…

A documentary filmmaker – the reason why so much of our branded content is transitioning to full-blown branded entertainment. These worlds will merge a lot more in the next 12 months. We are already working on our next streaming deal for a sports miniseries. Watch this space.