A view from Will Harris

The cautionary tale of Putin's propaganda war

Brands may not find it easy spinning their way to an Effectiveness Grand Prix.



What did your campaign set out to do?

Dmitry Kiselyov, director of Russia’s main news channel, put it best when he recently declared that the age of neutral journalism was over and that "if you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him".

Over the past years, we have been running a campaign throughout western Europe to spread disinformation, mistrust and lies to an increasingly gullible and atomised consumer. In an age of instant celebrity, 24-hour news coverage and all-encompassing social media, we have found the right blend of hard news and talking heads, curated for mobile, which has permeated much of the discourse of the societies we want to disrupt.


Describe your campaign, including your use of media 

We followed a traditional marketing/advertising planning approach to this campaign and first identified our core message and target audience.

To this key target, we have sent a constant stream of well-presented and slick news stories, images and messages highlighting the gross corruption and chaos of life in the West. We focused on riots, murders, natural disasters, conspiracy theories, police killings, accidents, betrayals… anything that would serve our brand purpose. At times of need, we invented stories and couched them as conjecture, allowing them time to take hold in the undercurrent of the web and social media.

Media planning has been focused on our owned channels (RT and Sputnik) in the US and Europe, which have delivered outstanding results (see Q3). Beyond that, we have deployed a full 360-degree media and marketing campaign.


How effective has your campaign been?

We would argue that the destabilisation of Nato, our intervention in Syria, the splintering of the European

Union, the rise of the extremist parties in Europe and UK, and of course the seismic events in the US presidential election (where the Republican presidential candidate recently urged Americans to support Russia’s attempts to attack his Democratic opponent) have created a screen behind which a resurgent Russia has been able to regroup and expand at the expense of our neighbours.

Russia’s recent rise is truly a testament to modern marketing and communication techniques, and will be a worthy winner of this IPA Grand Prix. We would treasure it alongside the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize nomination for V Putin.

The above is, of course, pure fiction. The Russian government has not submitted an IPA Effectiveness submission – that would be contrary to the approach it has taken so far, where all efforts have gone into sowing dissent rather than grandstanding about it.

Putin is unlikely to be gracing the pages of Campaign any time soon, reclining in his Eames chair, pontificating on the rise of the full-service agency. To sustain a propaganda coup over such a prolonged period of time requires an allencompassing approach where a running commentary has no place.

Cracks are now beginning to show in the Western news media. The internet can be as powerful a weapon against propagandists as it was enabler

One has to face down the sceptics until they appear isolated cranks in an otherwise obsequious target audience. There’s a lesson here for marketers and advertisers: stick at it, be convincing and all things are possible.

That said, cracks are now beginning to show in the Western news media. The internet can be as powerful a weapon against propagandists as it was enabler. Lone sites are springing up (funded or sponsored, I would hope, by the Western powers) chronicling these untruths. Reporters are filing 1,000 words on the subject, columnists are beginning to opine on it.

There’s only so much longer that a person can receive an hourly stream of bombs, accidents and adultery in Europe and the US, interspersed with stories of 95% approval for President Putin, before even the most gullible smells a rat. And from there, there is a very short line into word-of-mouth, general disbelief, parody and mockery. The old adage is true: nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.

Will Harris is the former marketing director for the Conservative Party