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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Is

The Less Secret Seducers: Advertising in Russia
Frank Ebbecke

In this “overmobiled” megapolis, one car bombed into the back of another one. One possible reason: the driver didn’t pay enough attention to the stop-and-go “probka” traffic. He was rather trying to absorb tempting buying advice waving at him from a huge banner hanging across the street.

There are far too many of them. Accidents and banners. They overlap. Some banners cover whole facades of huge buildings. Sometimes, they cleverly hide restoration work, but in most cases this is just another way for the property owners to make additional money. Big money. Who cares if the view of some of the city’s most beautiful architectural aspects is ruined. The biggest outdoor poster overpowers the site of the former Rossiya hotel. In this case, the hyper-dimensional exhibit (mostly booked by a German luxury car brand) adds a more aesthetic view than arguably the most ugly showpiece of monumental Soviet architecture ever did. Fortunately the Rossiya has been completely demolished. Only now, has the new Moscow city government announced plans to reduce the number of outdoor sites by 20% and to forbid outdoor advertising altogether in the nearer vicinity of the venerable Kremlin. In 2010, almost 15% of Russian total advertising expenditure went into outdoor advertising. An impressive sum of just over 23 billion rubles.

Remembering 1978 when I first travelled to the two Russian capitals, there were outdoor ads then too. The preferred colour was red, of course. People were often illustrated in “socialist” style. Healthily built farmers and workers. Headlines told us about the blessings of communism and the all-mighty paternal role of the Party. The rest was more grey. The monumental houses. And the faces.

The only “advertising agency” back then was “Vneshtorgreklama” (which roughly translates as “Foreign Trade Advertising”). A department of the Ministry for Foreign Trade. Do I need to say how the ads looked? Then came Perestroika. The early days of empty markets and huge profits. Marketers didn’t care much about marketing and the quality of ads. People would buy just everything available. A couple of guys with a computer were enough to establish an agency. No appropriate professional skills needed. Anyway, how? From where, back then? Their ads just told people where to get what they couldn’t get before. For prices they barely couldn’t afford (unfortunately too many ads today are still made using this basic principle). And the clients? They bought it. It was like “the blind meeting the blind.”

And then almost all of the well-established western network agencies opened up shop in this big, promising new market. Quick and easy money. Often their global clients had encouraged them to. For them, creating advertising simply meant dubbing commercials from home into Russian. It worked back then. But today’s marketing practitioners find themselves in a much more complex, more difficult environment. Saturated markets. Tough competition. Demanding consumers with a different mentality. Simple adaptation is not an option. Generally, to a Russian, “the West” is not only a geographical term but an equivalent of some spirit. A way of life. A style of behaviour. A way of self-realisation. “Which is not necessarily ours,” many say.

Nowadays there are about 7000 agencies active in Russia. For advertising, promotion, events, media, production. And everything else. Almost half of them work in Moscow. There are 16 international “Advertising Embassies”, 174 Russian “Full Service” agencies, and 91 PR agencies. The bulk of the others are basically something like design shops. Delivering business cards, logos, stationery, give-aways.

The pioneer times when most of the leading agency people were “ex-pats on a mission” are over. Young Russians have taken over, which is the way it should be. And yes, some of them have a specialized foreign degree in marketing. Some of them have earned their spurs in the outside world. But there is still a tremendous lack of experience. The same goes for the creative workforce. Funnily enough, all the continuously more sophisticated fancy computer graphic programmes don’t help in all aspects the so-called Art Directors and designers’ work. They think that fresh ideas pop out of the screen. Very few have been trained to give birth to an idea using head and heart. Easier to just copy ideas from abroad. Copy-writing is a craft which also needs some urgent further development.

In Russia, there are not enough advertising educators with practical skills and experiences. Russia is a country with a great history of scientific inventions, cultural talent in music, literature and performing arts. In general, Russians are known for their ability to improvise. For their creativity to tackle problems, a result of shortages, deficiencies and bureaucratic regulation of everything for generations. Russian creatives haven’t found a distinctive identity for their own national advertising yet, with the exception of those frequently used flowery, tendril-like graphic elements. But that’s not a unique idea in itself. It’s, just a decorative eye-catcher. The British use their special sense of humour to attract their audiences, and the Americans hammer their messages home with highly emotional mini-stories. Their commercials are like miniature feature films. The Germans persuade people with interesting information, surprisingly translated into pieces of ad art. Russian advertising lacks “Russification”. With potential customers out there. With awards from one of the numerous global ad festivals. For more success, for the client’s business. And for the agency’s creators.

Probably all this is also a consequence of the lack of thinking regarding strategic brand development, which is vital for effective advertising. But this is often still perceived as a kind of “luxury” exercise. Only time and money, with no immediate return on investment. Admittedly, coming up with the right strategy is no easy task. Especially in a multi-cultural landmass which spans over 11 time zones—from the Baltic Sea to the Japanese waters. From Europe to Asia. What sells like hot cakes to Muscovites might not be very appealing for northerners around St. Petersburg. And there are still no really reliable national statistics. Official data may be not always that official. This applies for income statistics as an example. Taxes and organized crime encourage people to hide the truth about their assets. And of course, things keep still changing in Russia rapidly. What might be hot news today, might be outdated tomorrow. Experience and intuition often prove to be more productive than quantitative methods.

Another reason this young industry is only very slowly developing is corruption, a disease Russia is universally infected with; everywhere and on all levels. Often, the best idea does not win the account. No, the agency which knows who to bribe wins the contract. Once the budget is in the can, “kickbacks” are regularly paid to the right people and money to agency partners who prove that campaigns are working just fine thank you.

Advertising is a decisive, regulatory mean to steer sales and profit. It is one of the prime business instruments in a free economy. Advertising is designed to make people switch, to try something new. To rethink their preferences. Loyalty is not a wide-spread virtue of a “modern” Russian anyway. Advertising has to help build strong brands for the long-term, with honesty, common sense, passion, responsibility. Marketing and advertising are not really mysterious sciences. But they do require knowledge of certain skills and practices. How to make a product or service a personal, trustworthy friend of people. To make someone spend the money I want to earn.

The key is to engage people with a brand, product, service. This especially applies for the fastest growing communication channel: the internet. TV ads are still first in numbers reached from the west to the far east of Russia. But steadily attention is being directed to digital advertising. In 2010, it already made up 12% of media advertising. This is said to grow this year by up to 5-10% (TNS Gallup Media). Moscow internet penetration has reached 97% among 18-24 years old, and 93% in other Russia’s big urban areas. And it keeps growing among older age groups, too. No less than 1 million comments are left on blogs each and every day in Russia.

It’s only just over twenty years that the remainders of the Soviet Union and the “Planned Economy” discovered marketing and advertising. Western markets have some 150 years of experience. Like in so many other aspects regarding the development of the Russian Federation, it might take one or two generations to subside to a level where advertising in, from and for Russia will be truly competitive and unique.

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