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Marketing secrets from the RockCorps CMO hall of fame

Updated: Apr 4

Ant Garstang of Coca-Cola and Benchmark

Ant is a sponsorship and marketing leader in sports and entertainment. With a rich professional journey encompassing esteemed agencies such as JWT and Octagon, corporate giants MTN and Coca-Cola, prestigious rights holders like the NBA plus working with the South African Olympics team, Ant has been a pioneer of sponsorship and marketing innovation in Africa.

Ant played a pivotal role in bringing RockCorps to life in South Africa with Coca-Cola. Now, he shares insights into his career and the enchantment of blending sports, entertainment, and marketing.

  1. You have had an amazing career across marketing, events, and sponsorship. Can you give us an overview?

I'm very fortunate to have been involved in the business of music, sports and entertainment my entire career. And I say fortunate because it's never been a drag for me to get up and go to work…no two days have ever been the same. 

I think it's a real privilege when you have had this opportunity, there's so much going on and it's just a wonderfully vibrant space to be in. It cuts across people's normal daily lives, but also to so many different passion points and what makes them tick. 

I worked initially on the agency side, then, client side - and then with the NBA, one of the biggest rights holders in the world. So, I've got a very different perspective on things. I’ve been very fortunate to have done so many different varied things over my career, a lot of stuff in music and fashion and football, soccer, cycling, rugby and even being part of team South Africa that went to the Olympics.

As much as I’m in the business of sport – you can never separate music from sport, the two go hand in hand, there’s always been a beautiful intersection between music and sport.

2. Where did it all begin for you?

I studied accounts at university, I was on the road to being a chartered accountant. Didn’t enjoy that and ended up picking up marketing as an extra major – loved that and so that’s been what I’ve always done. 

But I take the viewpoint that my accountancy set me up really well in terms of understanding the data and financial side of things.

So, I always joke that I'm an accountant that just masquerades as a marketer. 

In my agency roles, I did a whole load of very interesting work, that’s where you learn, develop, interact with different people, lots of growing doing different things constantly. It was an exciting time and I loved being a part of that.

Firstly, I was part of JWT, a big WPP agency, but working very specifically on the youth markets. I did my dissertation in the youth market and then got a job that was serving that space. I then hopped from there to Octagon, a big global, sports sponsorship marketing agency. It was there that I learned how to manage accounts, programmes and campaigns doing all sorts of interesting things. We did a lot in the music space back then, including free concerts with 25k+ people – throwing on some of South Africa’s biggest beach concerts across the country!

Eventually after some time on the agency side, I had the opportunity to move over to client side with MTN, the biggest telecommunications company in Africa. There I had the chance to start to control budgets, planning & strategies – learned a lot, very different from being on the agency side. It was here that was the first time I heard of RockCorps. MTN never had the money to take it on – it wasn’t right for us right then. But I loved the idea that it always stuck with me until we made it happen with Coca-Cola. With youngsters today being time rich and cash poor, it’s incredibly relevant, even more so now than it was back then!

3. How do you view music, sport and culture in communications?

What makes communication in that space very different is that sport, music & entertainment play special roles in all of our lives. They're the special ones that we invite into our spaces.

They're not the things we automatically delete or scroll over that are around us. They're not “noise”. They are the things that make people tick, that get them excited, that make a difference, that create memories and the experiences created around those things are the things that we all remember, forever. 

Because people are so passionate about it, it really gives you an opportunity to create meaningful connections and that’s great from a brand point of view and particularly a programme like RockCorps. I’m now so thrilled that RockCorps is doing something alongside the Olympics with ibis [Paris, May 2024] – something that will give RockCorps the global scale it deserves. That’s really the bottom line, it’s hugely exciting.

4. What has social purpose meant throughout your career across

marketing and sponsorship?

Social purpose is very fashionable now. It’s just become part of the omni-channel marketing mix, you have to have a social element that’s built into things. I think it's dangerous when brands do things because they feel they have to, not because they really want to.

Some of the most amazing work that I've done in the sporting space was in the cycling environment. We had a cycling team that we took from Africa to the Tour de France. And that team had a very clear purpose – getting African kids on bicycles. That’s something that started in 2007 and continues to this day. I think if you have a purpose behind something you're doing, it elevates you, your brands and even athletic performance above everyone else. 

So, yes there are some amazing things that have been launched recently, but I think the programmes and visions that launched 15 to 20 years ago, can speak with greater credibility, and RockCorps is one of those things!

5. When you brought RockCorps to Coca-Cola in South Africa, what were

you seeking? How did RC help you with that?

When I chatted to Haley, Chris, Stephen and the other founders it was very interesting because the whole idea was founded around Haley’s kitchen table whilst they were doing their MBAs – and Coca Cola was always the brand they had in mind that would take this thing to where they wanted it to go. 

When I went to join Coca-Cola after the World Cup wrapped up, they were looking to do something that would have a meaningful impact in the communities and drive change.

Whilst Coca-Cola global had other programmes at the time, in South Africa we reconsidered it through the lens of our bottlers, the companies responsible for bottling the drinks. Coca-Cola is built within the communities that the bottlers serve, so we proposed the concept to a huge bottler located in Jo’Burg.

These bottlers are in and out of these communities every day. They are active, conscious members of their communities and they absolutely loved it. Because they already had the network and infrastructure, distribution and we had the idea and the means to bring it all together. 

We wanted a music property that had scale, that would resonate with the youngsters and had appeal that wasn't just local. That’s why having an artist from Nigeria like the D’Banj and then you add Busta Rhymes and Ciara – it took it from local to national, to global.

We had to have somebody who had a proven track record of doing things at scale. So, on the one hand, the concept is very important but also the track record. Coca-Cola needed to work with a partner that had the capability to execute something on the scale that they were looking to try and do on the ground – both in terms of the concert and the community projects.

So, with the incredible concept as the end point of mind, we built the rest of the program all the way back to working across 45 - 50 Early Childhood Development Centre’s (EDCs). They were identified by the bottlers in communities that were focus areas for them that they specifically wanted to work in.

And once we had identified those, it was easy to put the RockCorps machine in place and to look after that stuff. RockCorps totally plugged into their existing social purpose work and community network, amplified, and connected with them.

6. For other CMOs in your position - what would your advice be when considering working with RockCorps?

My advice for CMOs would be it's an incredibly simple idea, but it has the ability to scale beautifully, they need to trust even in the team to know exactly what they're doing, and they know how to do things and roll out on the global stage.

What I would say though, is it’s a property that needs to be properly supported. You need to budget to properly leverage it, making sure that you build an entire campaign around it so that it has the optimum success. 

i. Make sure you have enough budget and investment.

Take into account your forex and try to lock in the artists as quickly as you possibly can. Exchange rates were fluctuating wildly at the time in South Africa.

ii. Employee engagement

The beauty for me around something like this is that it’s not just about working with one team - it is just being able to work across the company, particularly to weave in with HR teams around staff development. As South Africans, the concept of giving back is very important. We have Mandela Day whereby everyone is encouraged to give back 67 minutes in their local community in recognition of Nelson Mandela and how selflessly he gave to the nation.

If you can do RockCorps and match youngsters with employees at the same time, that’s a wonderful way of doing something that's very real at the end of the day and that’s very important.

iii. Trust Stephen and his team

It’s a simple idea but complex to make it happen – trust the team and you’ll be in good hands.  It's not something that's for every brand, but there are certain brands that are very, very suited.

7. Would you recommend a RockCorps partnership?

I would wholeheartedly recommend a RockCorps partnership to other global brands that are looking to do real good in communities and at scale whilst doing something that's relevant in the lives of young people. They’ve got the credentials; they've got the history.

RockCorps has billed some of the biggest artists in the world – the likes of Gaga and Rhianna having been on their stages. So that is also amazing, when you just think of which brands and artists have trusted the team to make the whole thing happen in the past. 20 years ago, it was a great idea…and now it's even more relevant because it's now even more important for us all to give up our time to help others. RockCorps provides a platform to channel that energy at scale.

8. Tell us about Benchmark

I’m now back to being very much about the business of sports, I'm looking at doing lots of different things, which is kind of what I've always done. So the sports and entertainment piece, but I've also added a digital arm to it. 

You don't need huge numbers of people. It's all about your relationships and working with some good people.

9. What is next for you?

I really just want to do some fun and interesting things. So where that takes me, I don’t exactly know - but you've got to take these things incrementally, small steps, one at a time. I'm excited about what the next little while has got in store. 

I’ve had Benchmark now for 7 months, I’m enjoying the freedom that having my own business is bringing, you can choose who you work with. 

Nothing would make me happier than being able to help RockCorps do something else on the global stage, no matter where that is! I have volunteered to help out in Paris in a few months too!!

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