by Herman Manson (@marklives) Gareth McPherson has been appointed chief marketing officer of Virgin Active South Africa, effective 1 March 2020.

Machine_ logo McPherson joins from Publicis Groupe ad agency, Machine_, where he was one of the original partners, serving as group creative director from 2012 before becoming MD in early 2019. The agency experienced a creative and commercial revival under him, landing Heineken South Africa’s full TTL portfolio in December 2019. The same month also saw Sanlam Group appointing Machine_ as its internal communications agency.

Senior appointments

During the course of last year, Virgin Active made a number of senior appointments, bringing Mark Field back as its South African MD after his global role as group finance director and promoting Nikki Cockcroft to global chief marketing and technology officer. The CMO position had been empty since Zeyad Davids left for a similar position at Virgin Money in late 2017.

According to Field, the company is positioning itself as a digitally led and customer centric brand, with McPherson tapped to deliver “an enhanced customer proposition and experience, as well as increased relevance in a market where online coaching and fitness apps are prolific”.

Comments McPherson in a statement announcing his appointment, “The Virgin brand embodies an entrepreneurial spirit and there is an intersect of my own personal values and mindset. The role is a departure from agency, but it is one that embraces digital and data on every level to put the member first, deliver solutions and move the business to a position of increased relevance in an online world. It is a role that offers opportunity with the right amount of challenge.”

Filled with highlights

McPherson describes his Machine_ career to MarkLives as filled with highlights, from the work the agency produced for clients and its culture to memorable milestones such as being ranked a Top 10 creative agency in the country at its first Loeries, winning AdReview Breakthrough Agency of the Year in 2013 and “One to Watch in South Africa” for 2015 and 2014 in the MarkLives #AgencyLeaders Most-Admired poll.

“The stuff I admire and recall the most is the difference the agency has made in people’s lives,” he says. “We founded a scholarship to educate an orphaned boy, Zolani, who matriculated and is now attending university. We support a Cape Town school, Cyprus Primary, where we have funded teachers’ salaries and offered support through multiple initiatives to paint, clean and create inspired learning environments. We offered free office space for a year to start-up companies, of which seven took up the offer and have all gone on to do amazing things. It’s all these social creative solutions — using creativity for good — that make me immensely proud of the agency and teams involved in those projects.”

Machine_ itself finds itself in a really great space, says McPherson, having doubled the business at the end of last year through those key pitch wins. “We upskilled in our distinctive areas of specialisation, and added more brand-experience capabilities to our offering. All of this has resulted in a strong agency culture that’s been recognised and awarded by Publicis Groupe and the industry at large.”

“Opportunities don’t keep timelines”

Why leave now, as the agency seems to be regaining momentum? “Opportunities don’t keep timelines and, while this opportunity may have come sooner than thought, I think it’s right for me to take it,” he says.

A strong leadership team remains in place, according to him, as does strong client relationships. The agency is set to announce the appointment of a new managing director, along with a managing partner, in the next few weeks.

On what he will bring to Virgin Active, McPherson says, “I think my point of difference will be the fact that I’m a creative at heart. With technology disrupting, and an exponential explosion in new ways and methods of doing things, I think there is an advantage to tackling challenges with creative, unexpected thinking. Being a creative at heart means I am open to change and always curious — something I know will resonate at Virgin.”

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Herman Manson 2017Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of

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