The Comrades Marathon took place yesterday, which had me glued to my TV screen – especially for the last 30 minutes before the gut-wrenching cut off. This is a bit of a family tradition, which sees us (and by us, I mean ME) screaming, “for goodness sakes, RUN!”, followed by “OH NO, SHAME!” at the TV for a solid 30 minutes.
Every year the Comrades brings back such fond memories of when we launched, and then managed, the Kabelo’s Road to the Comrades campaign for a few years. I wanted to share this experience with you, before I get too old and forget all of the details!
In 2006 when Russell and I decided to start NGAGE, with nothing more than a notion of wanting to build an agency with a love and knowledge of industrial brands, the marketing manager of Harmony Gold, Nic Alexandre, gave us our very first break. He asked if we would like to manage the Kabelo’s Road to the Comrades Campaign, which saw the mining company sponsor kwaito star Kabelo Mabalane to run his very first Comrades Marathon for charity.
At the time, Russell was still working at his day job so that we could pay rent, and helping with NGAGE in the evenings and on weekends, so I happily agreed to assist Nic with the campaign, and eagerly went along to my first meeting with Harmony Gold and Kabelo.
Now, in all honesty, I knew nothing about Kabelo, besides what I had Googled about him before the meeting, and that I loved one of his songs – the only one aimed at white people (by mistake, I am sure, as we really aren’t his target audience!) But I was excited to meet him, and to get started on my very first campaign for NGAGE.
My excitement quickly disappeared when Kabelo, who didn’t seem as excited to meet me, asked what I knew about him and his career, and what qualified me to run this campaign? Absolutely stumped, and quite insulted at his question (although, looking back, he had every right to question me and my very limited knowledge of him, his career, and the Comrades and running sports media for that matter, of which I knew nothing about) I responded that, honestly, I knew next to nothing about him.
However, I did know how to do my job, and pointed out that Nic would not have entrusted with running the campaign if he hadn’t agreed with me. I pointed out that since Harmony was paying the bills, he was stuck with me, and we needed to work together to raise as much money for his charity, and to get the campaign the exposure that it rightly deserved.
Forced to work with me, our relationship may have started off a little rocky, but I did everything in my power to prove myself quickly to Kabelo, which I went on to do. I also learnt a lot about this insanely popular kwaito star quickly, and immersed myself in his life and career thus far. He had followed a difficult path, having struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for many years. Now he was clean, happy and healthy, and wanted this campaign to launch the ‘new’ Kabelo, who was not only healthier, but fitter than he had ever been. I went on to learn why Kabelo was literally running for his life when I met him (which went on to be the title of a book that he published recently).
After about three weeks of us working together, I was at home (where we ran NGAGE from our spare bedroom), sick as a dog with flu, when I heard a knock on the door … A little unsure of opening the door looking the mess that I did, I was surprised to see Kabelo at my door with flowers and a box of chocolates, in order to apologise for ever doubting me, and to say that he was excited to be working with me! From that day on, we worked together nearly day and night to get the campaign the exposure that it deserved.
While he was focusing on training for the biggest race of his life, Russell and I worked hard to prove ourselves as NGAGE, and to make this campaign an awesome one. It was, however, a pretty challenging campaign though; not only was Kabelo, although very famous in the music world, relatively unknown to the running media, who doubted if he could even finish the race, but adding to our challenges was that Harmony Gold was one of the smallest sponsors of the Comrades, and had a very limited budget, with nearly all of the funding going to the charity that Kabelo had chosen.
So we had to rely on PR to launch, and run, the campaign. However, any of my doubts about the campaign’s success melted away quickly when I sat in on Kabelo’s first media interview that I had arranged with Runner’s World magazine. The guy was a PR dream to work with! He could charm the pants off any person that he focused his attention on, and quickly won the hearts of all of the media we were targeting with his genuine attitude. He was like a breath of fresh air for Comrades that year. After that first media interview, it was a piece of cake getting him many more.
At the launch of the campaign, which we organised on a running track in Parktown, media were given the first glimpse of the new Kabelo, who proudly wore his Harmony Gold running kit, and ran comfortably with Nick Bester and the rest of the professional Harmony runners. It was such a proud moment as Kabelo shared his story with the media, who couldn’t get enough of him, and who were all eager to see him take on this new challenge of completing the ultimate human race.
I went on to meet Kabelo’s family, who I remember thinking were just the nicest, most genuine people, who had stuck by him through thick and thin, and his Mom just beamed with pride when she listened to him speak. When the big week finally arrived, and we all packed our bags and headed to Durban, we were filled with nerves and excitement for what lay ahead.
Not being a runner myself, Comrades was a completely new world to me. It is such an awesome event, from the expo before, to the parties (which are many!) and the media events where the runners are paraded with pride by their team managers. We worked closely with Nick Bester for all of these events, and Kabelo was included in every team event and meeting, making him feel proud to be a part of the Harmony Gold running team.
When the big day arrived, and we had given our last good luck hugs to Kabelo, it was all in his hands, and I had no doubt in my mind that he would do it! When Russell and I headed to the finish line to eagerly wait for Kabelo, my nerves were shot, as we were given such different information from the organisers on where he was and how he was doing!
It was a huge deal to the organisers, who wanted to announce over the loudspeaker and on TV as soon as Kabelo entered the stadium. So I spent about an hour going up and down from the commentators to Nick Bester at the finish line to gauge how far Kabelo was, and how he was doing.
When the commentator finally announced that Kabelo had entered the stadium, the crowds went wild. I shed my first tear of joy – as I knew first-hand how far he had come, and how hard he had worked to get to this point. It was his time to soak up the support from his fans, and I knew he was loving every second of it. When I finally saw him cross the finish line, with his cheeky ‘I did it’ grin on his face, I was the first person he hugged, and it was a moment I will never forget!
The campaign went on to receive coverage in almost every news outlet, including three magazine covers, radio and TV exposure. One of my proudest moments was when the organisers mentioned that Harmony Gold, although one of the smallest sponsors of the Comrades that year, had by far received the most coverage. Kabelo and Harmony Gold proudly handed over a cheque of R240 000 to Kabelo’s charity a week later, a drug rehabilitation centre that had been instrumental in helping him turn his life around. We went on to manage the campaign and work with Harmony Gold for three years after that first launch, and it’s something that I am very proud to have played a part in.