Russia's sheer size affects the way it consumes advertising, according to Roman Firainer, executive creative director at Instinct (part of the BBDO group). "We talk about social and digital, but the country is so huge that TV is still the best way of reaching people quickly and effectively. Here, it's still about telling a story."
Talking of stories, Roman's own has a few twists and turns. He studied computer engineering, but his path changed when his mother told him that the newspaper she worked for, the Moscow Times, was looking for a designer who knew his way around a computer. And so at the age of 18 he began creating ads. "We worked directly for the clients – basically it involved drawing boxes."
A second stroke of luck came when the newspaper sent him to the revered Saint Martin's school in London for a summer course in design. "That's my only education in design," he says.
When he got back, a friend who was a producer at Publicis helped him get hired as a designer working on Coca-Cola. "You know, in the mid-nineties the industry was still very young and unprofessional," he explains, in a characteristically modest aside.
He rose to art director, but lost his job in 1998 during an economic crisis. Happily, he found his way to BBDO. There, he "did some very nice and successful advertising" with his creative partner Yaroslav Orlov, who joined him as a co-founder of Instinct in 2003.
"At Instinct we work mostly with local clients, and also on projects. We don’t work on the big BBDO accounts like PepsiCo – we won all our clients in pitches. The oldest one is IKEA, which we won ten years ago. I would say our main difference is that we're more flexible; we can work very fast. I would also say we're less corporate. We’re like a family, with a great atmosphere."
He emphasises that the agency staff are all "human, normal people" with a warm approach. "We fight for that. Even though we’re quite big, with more than 100 people, we don't feel big."
He tries to make sure humanity comes through in the agency’s advertising, too, citing a recent IKEA campaign called "Wake up love". "It’s for bedrooms. The idea is that people in their middle age are quite tired of their relationships, but if you have a new bedroom from IKEA it wakes up your love. We used a lot of different media, but the result is very kind and human, I think. I’m proud of it."
The campaign included traditional TV spots alongside events like placing beds in a cinema instead of the usual tip-up seats. Not to mention an Epica award-winning website built inside Instagram.
One of the challenges facing the agency, Roman says, is trying to create things that are "useful to people". "Obviously the trend right now is social, but to be honest with you I suspect 90% of social campaigns are just done to win awards," he says.
Instead, he appreciates well-crafted ads that are funny and respectful of the consumer. "You must do something interesting for them – not just 'buy this, eat this, it’s tasty', or whatever. The problem is that in Russia there are two industries: one working for the consumer and one working for festivals. The consumer isn't often exposed to the funny, complex ads you see at awards shows."
Because clients don’t want to take risks? "Or because the agencies find it too hard to sell their idea. They don't really want to spend time on it. It's easier for them to create some kind of fake ad and win an award than to fight with the client and create something that might move the brand."
Roman admits that Russia is not avant-garde when it comes to advertising. "We follow global trends. Internet penetration is very high here, something like 70%, but ad spend online is low, so TV remains the preferred media for brands. You can hit a lot of people. Don't forget, this place is huge. The distance from Moscow to Vladivostok is the same as from Paris to New York."
The elephant in the room, of course, is the political situation in Russia and Vladimir Putin's increasingly strong-arm tactics. Does that affect his job in any way? "Not really – but we're not making jokes about the political or economic situation. We're living in another world – a beautiful world!"
By Mark Tungate, Editorial Director, Epica