Advertising – A short history in Russia

 Michael Gibson

Advertising is a roller coaster industry of which you can be sure of two things. It will be utterly bonkers and everything changes all the time. Oh yes, there’s a third thing too, be prepared to be fired. In fact, if you are afraid of being fired – then avoid advertising and if you’re not fired, you’re no good. That may sound counter intuitive, but if you are not fired at some point in an advertising career then you are probably doing something wrong…

There are few other industries that can match the advertising world in terms of rubbing shoulders with so many different companies, brands and industry sectors as well as a huge variety of customers and the many ways to reach and engage them. Each day you grapple an entirely new challenge and create some sort of tangible product. Advertising is sheer delight and a real privilege.

Over the years in advertising, I have worked with Oxford Scholars to reformed pimps and along the way brushed shoulders with a brilliant array of bright vagabonds, lively misfits and the sharpest wits. The scholar and the pimp I’m still in touch with, both geniuses in their own way and with skill sets perfectly apposite to their jobs.


Chapter 1 – The Mad Men NINETIES

There are three basic chapters to the post-USSR, Russian Advertising story. The first chapter starting in the 1990s. I arrived in Moscow in ‘94, the early days after the collapse of the USSR, and straight out of university. The nineties advertising scene in Russia was in some ways not dissimilar to the ‘60s in the USA. The industry was being reborn on an influx of new brands, products and services, and the creative folk were pouring in and with them ideas, energy and wild excess. And I mean WILD excess. Nothing like it had existed before in Russia and the ‘90s were to be a fabulous roller coaster ride of unadulterated bonkerness and wonder.

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Advertising and consumerism go hand in hand and since the USSR was not a consumer society (on the contrary there was a deficit of goods; shops were often empty and shelves barren), so advertising was pretty much the last thing anyone needed.  There had been a weird form of ‘command economy’ advertising, which decreed companies must make adverts, because, well, because that’s what companies do right – whether needed or not. This gave rise to a bizarre pedigree of Soviet ‘art’ ads, which acquired a particular cult status of their own.

The nineties produced some spectacularly crude advertising, in fact so crude they now have a charm of their own (easy to say with hindsight but at that time, in the thick of it, they were cringeworthy). These were ads trying to be ads without any idea or experience as to how and clueless in terms of basic advertising grammar and lacking in common sense. I turned up at one shoot to make a lovely picture of fresh appetizing fruit and veg available in a supermarket and was supplied with plastic fruit to shoot. “Seriously?” I asked, “but why not” came the reply, “it looks like fruit doesn’t it.”

At this stage many people were simply ‘stacking high and flogging quick’. Many local clients did not have a long-term vision to build brands and the ads were all about product and price and just looked horrible. No surprise that the early wave of entrepreneurs vanished without trace. Others were simply placing western ads – easier to do in some categories more than others. For example, alcohol ads were easy to bring over and air or publish without changing a thing – in fact this even helped enhance the western allure of these brands (back then we were free to publish and air pretty much as we pleased – how times have changed).

Through the ‘90s, ‘Youth’ were always up to interesting things – always bright eyed and bushy tailed with a very sharp eye for what’s hot and what’s not, looking around internationally then applying those lessons in a very local way. ПТЮЧ / PTUCH was a young music magazine created by an exciting bunch of guys and doing fresh experimental work. Each edition was designed by a ‘guest’ designer – a fusion of cool and happening. I did one edition.


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At the same time the big brands like Nestle, Coke, Mars, P&G., etc. etc., were investing heavily, wanting to build meaningful brands and connect with the new, young Russian consumers. I worked on the first big Nescafe TV Campaign that became part of ‘90s Russian ad culture and is still remembered by many. It was a huge deal – far from plastic trash fruits, we wanted to create a totally local, future focused soap opera telling the story of the next generation of young Russians, in whose hands was Russia’s destiny. Nescafe just had astronomic success in the UK with a soap ad campaign that had made national headlines. To make it more relevant, and alive with local insight we worked with a bright young Russian director Timur Bekmambetov. This was in the days before he achieved international success, working with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. Timur had just done the beautiful Bank Imperial ads, which were much acclaimed and in a completely different league from the magnificent trashy ads of the time.

Our Senior Creative Director and industry guru, John Crankshaw, gave Timur many new ideas. He was linked up with a UK Lighting-Cameraman (or DOP in US parlance) – they are the unsung heroes that light a film and set up the whole look, the ‘nuts and bolts’ to the director’s ‘vision’. A lot of what we ‘experience’ in films is thanks to the cameraman – for example think of the incredible shots and lighting of Blade Runner. We took Timur to Los Angeles for post-production work, where, for the first time, he used an independent film editor. All crucial cornerstones of sophisticated film making, but hitherto lacking in the Russian advertising industry in the nineties.

We made seven Nescafe ads, and these were one part of the Russian advertising renaissance taking place on several fronts with big advertisers and agencies. This happened just in time, for then, in 1998 the economy crashed and burned. Russia defaulted on its debt and the country went into free fall. At times like these who needs advertising, so…

Fired! Absolutely – we all were. As I said – that comes with the territory of advertising. The nineties had been so excessive that, while we didn’t want it to stop, we kind of understood it had to. It had been a bonkers decade – and it looked like an episode of MadMen – really. Literally I can take just about any episode and I will tell you when it happened for real. Now it was carnage. Seventy percent of McCann Erikson lost their jobs, and throughout Russia there was redundancy on a biblical scale. While some would say melt down, others might say a much-needed correction. This overnight destruction of the advertising industry heralded in the next chapter of the Russian Advertising Story – the Naughties.


Chapter 2 – The Naughties – life is $130 a barrel

Chapter two of this story starts in 1998 and goes through to 2008/9. It saw the Russian ad industry crawl back to its feet, re-emerging as a different, more refined beast. Previously, the industry had been dominated by foreigners, but they’d all been fired and left. Incredibly, more than fifty percent of McCann Erikson were expats which was unsustainable as the industry became more cost conscious and Russian advertising needed to become, well, Russian. Now was the opportunity for good Russian creatives and advertising leaders to take the reins of the industry, make it their and own and drive it forward.

The ‘naughties’ saw better work, better creative and an upsurge in confidence. At my next agency, Grey Worldwide I became very busy with Proctor and Gamble (P&G) as we launched and developed many of the well-known P&G brands, like Fairy, MrProper (MrClean), COMET and Pringles (yes, strange as that may seem – Pringles belonged to P&G – it was the enfant terrible brand within the very sensible P&G portfolio). Across the industry this decade of work for big brands was more local in feel and driven by Russian insights. During this time, I worked on some of the mighty brands of the Mars empire and Visa, all big names committed to Russia and working to create brands that were part of Russian life. The advertising of the ‘naughties’ was less about imposing generic global campaigns on Russians from abroad and all about locally created campaigns full of real Russian insights, beautifully demonstrated by the ad campaigns for the likes of Moya Semya (Моя семья) juice, Tolstyak (Толстяк) and IKEA, among others.

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MAYA SEMYA  — A national classic – the much loved Maya Semya fruit juice commercial – a little girl wakes up her parents …

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Things heated up in the ‘mid-naughties’. Oil shot up and over $100 a barrel and once again life was fat. Local agencies were ‘getting it’, while the big ‘foreign’ agency networks lagged behind the curve – still behaving like old school imperialists with disconnected people in faraway countries making decisions about a nation and culture they had no idea about. The young Russian agencies could react faster and more locally, and while they might not have the fire power of the big guys, they were insightful and nifty. I decided to leave the big network agencies and work for Russians, at an agency start-up inside the Rolf Group of companies. They were a veritable car empire, selling more Mitsubishi cars than anyone else on Earth. With those sales volumes they could dictate terms back to Mitsubishi HQ in Japan. When they said they wanted to create a local ad agency to market Mitsubishi cars and would take no more ‘foreign ads’ Tokyo had no choice but to say yes!

What ensued was a supercharged, spectacular few years, the ‘Nineties Part Two’, as oil just kept rocketing up and up and up. When asked how good is life?, – the answer came back “a hundred and thirty dollars a barrel”. The ROLF Holding was boasting a value nearing that of General Motors – which of course, upon reflection, had to be ridiculous. But there was no time for reflecting – life was on a roll. Rolf didn’t actually make anything, except us lot in the Rolf Advertising agency – and we were making lot of car ads for the entire Rolf empire – which included not only cars but luxurious yachts too (yes – I did say luxury yachts. Rolf had so much loose change it decided to start selling luxury yachts. It was an indicator of just how silly and bloated everything had become). Of course, no one was asking awkward questions like, “Rolf and General Motors – the same value – Really?” Correction was just around the corner.

When meltdown struck in 2008/2009 it came as no surprise. Unlike the ‘98 Russian only crisis, this time it was worldwide, and the collapse was total and devastating. No one needs a car and Rolf certainly didn’t need an ad agency, so once again, fired! Bummer – but one hell of a ride while it lasted! There was no point in stressing out – in advertising being fired means onward and upward to new and better things. Ad folk lead the economic cycle; we are always the first to feel the good times and the first to feel the bad times.


Chapter 3 – The ONEderous one-zies

 Chapter three of Russia’s advertising once again starts with turmoil. Yet with each crisis the advertising industry is flung forward to new and better things. The days of TV advertising as the dominating media of choice were now over. There was a budget-bloodbath as advertisers cut back on campaigns and TV, which as the most expensive media suffered the hardest blow. In parallel to the massacre on the airwaves, these times saw a renaissance in Promotional and Activational advertising, or in old parlance, ‘below-the-line’ (BTL) advertising, which is basically ‘stack ’em high ’n flog ’em quick’, and frankly ain’t all that sexy.

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But the days of ‘BTL’ with coupons, or 2-for-1 promo offers to push stuff fast off shelves were changing. The new world of digital and social media (SM) turned BTL completely on its head and opened a world of possibilities – it could now actually be cool. Promo campaigns were getting smart and very creative – we could reach consumers with the aid of the many new social media channels as never before. In the reality of the post crisis world – this was the place to be. The crisis had created an opportunity for forward thinking creative agencies (anyone still thinking TV is King, was stuck in the past). TV had been the unchallenged hero of storytelling – now with digital and social media we could do so much more; not just tell stories, we could also get people to experience our stories, bring them to life and get consumers involved.  Promotion and activation were transformed; it now created campaigns with the sentiment and storytelling of a TV ad. This was a long way from the clunky coupons and crude vouchers of the past.

Clients love this stuff as results could be tracked, particularly at this time when they became hesitant to spend on brand and image advertising. In Promotional and Activation, they know where their budget went (unlike tracking a TV ad which has always been a bit of an art). Consequently, after 2009 the Promotional and Activation agencies recovered quickest and soon began to thrive.

TV will never die of course, just as radio never died with the invention of TV or cinema with the invention of TV. Many advertisers still use TV in a traditional old school sense (it is loved in the auto category for example) and as an instrument for storytelling and world creation in modern marketing campaigns. In fact, look at the film work submitted to any Advertising Festival these days (i.e., CannesLions) and it is completely different from a decade ago. Back then it was dominated by 30 second TV ads and 60 second cinema ads and today its pretty much any length, any format and for any media.

As the ONE-derous onezies decade continued, the role of digital and Social Media has increased exponentially, and today digital is beginning to outspend TV in terms of media. That’s a major paradigm change for the industry and the way we communicate and create communication. Russia is a major social media player and one of the biggest consumers of Instagram. Twitter at 140 characters is too short for the Russian language and consumers feel Twitter lacks ‘emotional features’ – relegating it to a niche following. Frankly the jury is still out on social media, and what works and what doesn’t. Just this year big marketeers like Unilever, voiced concern at the fake statistics behind a lot of social media data. Again, it is instructive to look at the Advertising Festivals. Up to the 1990s there were only three categories of work to submit: film, print, and poster. This has exploded to over 25 categories – an indicator that we now have so many types of communication and media it is impossible to keep up! Only with the benefit of a bit of hindsight will we know what is here to stay, and hey, it’s the communication business which has never been static.

Today’s Russian advertising is very grown up – the wild, substance abusing, rock-star excess of the 1990s are well behind us and there is now a solid generation of professionals. The executional quality of work is superb and long gone are the days when we would match Bekmambetov with foreign specialists. The talent is here – in fact bringing foreign specialists in is often counterproductive. We do major car film shoots for LADA, all shot locally or near abroad, and there’s nothing more technical than filming car commercials. The work we do on Lada is now world class – and rich in storytelling. The latest ads for the Granta lineup of cars are short movies – brilliant stories about promises made and promises kept, with the Lada car being instrumental to fulfilling the promise. They are extraordinary ads and ahead of many foreign car brands, most of which are still obsessed with ‘car-pornography’. It’s up there with the best of the best of international advertising and a great leap forward for Lada – the result of a brave and dynamic marketing team and of course great new cars.

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Gone are the days of walking into an office and finding drunken bodies protruding from under desks (this really has happened) or a senior member of management vomiting in front of a client at reception after too much rich food at lunch (Mad Men stole this scene from us). Today you’ll find the agency playing table tennis on the conference table (which is in fact a table tennis table) and zipping about the place on hoverboards and scooters. Back in the ‘90s creativity was confined to the ‘creative’ industries – but this decade has unlocked creativity all around different businesses, with the help of digital that has made creativity much more accessible.

Addendum – Some Specifics of Russian advertising

Rather like Russian literature and music, Russian ads have a special place of their own in the global ad line up. There is an abundance of creative energy and ideas, though clients tend to hold the creative back, often lacking vision or a stomach for taking the risk needed to go somewhere new with their advertising, opting instead to play it safe. It is also hard to convince clients to go with humour – though there is so much natural humour around (KVN for example). Clients somehow have the notion that humour is ‘not serious’, though comedy writers and performers will tell you, ‘comedy is a very serious business’. What’s more, it has been proven that humour helps memorize (something about the ‘laughy bit’ of your brain being near the ‘remembering bit’ – but don’t quote me on that – I’m an adman).


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Advertising here is typically not focused on big ideas, such as in western advertising, but more often than not are very product focused and full of emotion and big spectacle. Consequently, Russian ads don’t generally perform well at advertising festivals, though this has spectacular exceptions. Some of the experiential and promotional work has caused a sensation. Judges at Cannes recently explained a couple of their favourite campaigns had been Russian, totally unique and utterly impossible to do in the West for legal reasons (one campaign used the dark-web, another involved crashing cars as part of a car curling contest!).

Also, another interesting idiosyncrasy of Russian adland; it seems to be far easier to work with animals and children in Russia than in the West. Normally kids and beasts are the bane and dread of film shoots; unpredictable, unmanageable, and wasting a lot of production time and money. In Russia the animals I have worked with (dogs for Pedigree and cats for Kitekat) have been a delight, doing everything more or less on cue and most importantly, able to listen to their trainers. Boris (the Kitekat cat) came from the famous Kuklachyov Cat Theatre and often performed better than the actors. Far from animal shoots being stressful – in Russia they are a joy! In fact, I now recommend colleagues in the UK come and film animals and kids in Russia.

Car Curling!