Back from the USSR

Creative director Loz Simpson is about to move back to London following a three and a half year stint in Moscow. Here he tells how he dodged traffic, fought the cold, dealt with Russian ad agencies and ended up happily remarried.

Simpson...Three and a half years in Moscow
Simpson...Three and a half years in Moscow

Well, that was interesting.

I've just spent three and a half years living and working in Moscow, first as ECD of Ogilvy, then Lowe and finally Umbrella, a little place I started up in response to the blandishments of the chairman of a large Russian yellow fats company, who happened to see an article about me in Moscow's equivalent of Campaign.

Be warned. Working on yellow fats products is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. But working with Russian client companies is every bit as treacherous as you might imagine. You can't trust 'em. They lie, they cheat and they steal your ideas.

I should stress here that I refer to indigenous Russian companies, not the Moscow offices of international companies. The latter tend to have a more reasonable idea of how to behave, having learned a thing or two from their Western counterparts. But more about Russian adland later.

Travel trauma

For those who have never been to Moscow, which I imagine is most of you, it consists of a few major roads in concentric circles, with others radiating out through them from the Kremlin and Red Square, which are roughly at the centre.

The lower the number of the building, the closer you are to the Kremlin.

Now, if you think the traffic in London is bad, believe me it flows like water compared to Moscow. Traffic jams (probki) in Moscow are indescribably dreadful and offer sound evidence that local government has never employed a town planner blessed with a logical mind.

To get from A to B one often has to go past B for another kilometer or two and then turn back at C, there having been no turning opportunities at B. Occasionally, D and E have to be involved, too.

How the Russians became the first to put man into space is beyond me, but I suppose there was only A and B involved.

To travel effortlessly in Moscow you need to be either Putin or some kind of government official, for whom the centre lanes of major roads are closed off by several menacing vehicles; sirens blaring and blue lights revolving. I swear to God I one day witnessed some VIP accompanied by no less than 30 other cars.

Black, relentlessly purposeful and leaving a very sinister impression. (No outriders; why have motorbikes when you can have a dozen imposingly large Humvees?)

In the winter, ordinary Muscovites do not wash their cars. Ever. The resulting layer of dirt and mud is deep enough to plant vegetables and I assume the only reason nobody actually does so is fear of cabbage theft.

In London, one can reasonably expect a motorist to slow down a bit and give you the chance to cross the road. Not so in Moscow.

They just keep on coming straight at you. A Russian chap once explained to me that, insurance-wise, it is cheaper for a driver to collide with flesh than with a solid object.

Strange ways

I put it down to simple bad manners, which are evident everywhere.

Do not expect anyone to hold open a door for you. And if you hold open a door for someone else, do not expect even a flicker of a smile of gratitude. I should add that this behaviour is really only between strangers; Russians who know each other well are as civil to each other as we are. The point is, in Moscow, nobody trusts anybody else. ‘You held open the door for me - why? What do you want?'

But it's a city with comedy at every turn, if you choose to look at it that way, which in fact you must do if you want to stay sane. I opted for the sanity approach and mainly chuckled at the various rigmaroles involved in finding an apartment, installing broadband and satellite TV, juggling with work permits and 637 types of visa, registering home addresses with the authorities, etc, et-bloody-cetera. Russia invented red tape. And they've since wrapped it up in plenty more. Churchill was right.

Since the financial collapse of 1998, there is still a deep mistrust of banks and other institutions and there is a lot of cash both floating about and tucked under mattresses. (The American Express card was launched only in 2005 - I should know, I wrote the campaign.)

All the rent that I gave to landlords over three and a half years was paid in cash, never by bank transfer. And, indeed, I was on the receiving end, from clients, of plastic bags stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars (Thank you very much.)

These arrived accompanied by heavy, surly men with asymmetric noses and mono-brows, who reached for their mobiles as soon as they handed over the packages. (‘Yes, ze eenglish bastad az eez money. Why you no give ME zat much?')

I went to the theatre only once (not being fluent) but visited the Bolshoi Ballet several times. The Nutcracker, Giselle, Swan Lake; the usual classics.

Beautiful. Blissful. But when the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy started I could have cursed Y&R and their early work for Cadbury's Fruit and Nut.

There's something wholly wrong about watching some of the world's best, most beautiful ballerinas performing exquisitely and at the same time having the words ‘crazy about those Cadbury's nuts and raisins' float through your mind.

Bitter cold

Now, you may have heard that the Ruskies like a drink. True, and every spring, when the thaw comes, there are revealed the bodies of several hapless souls who have collapsed and been buried by drifting snow. They are even ascribed a name which, believe it or not, is ‘snowdrops'.

In Russia, a human life is not accorded the same value as in the West.

You may also have heard that it can get a bit nippy in Moscow. Again, true, and zero degrees celsius may be regarded as balmy weather in the winter.

Indeed in February 2006 it reached minus 35; the sort of temperature you associate more with Siberia.

And this is what happens: you leave your apartment and before you've walked 150 metres, your face becomes so cold it actually hurts. Really hurts.

Your legs hurt too, if you've been silly enough to wear just a pair of jeans. The moisture that coats your nasal hairs freezes and you end up with lots of tiny little needles up your nostrils. And your bright red ears hate you for not wearing the right kind of hat.

For all this, the summers are in fact rather hot, albeit punctuated by the kind of downpours you expect in the tropics. But it's fun to watch the roads turn into rivers. (The drainage system sucks or, rather, it doesn't.)

To put some of what comes later into perspective, I should mention that I fled to Moscow with a broken heart following the break-up of my marriage and the ‘loss' of my children. The hurt was unbearable, as my family and close friends would testify, and I had to escape to somewhere different.

Stepping out

It may surprise you to learn that restaurants and hotels in Moscow are world-class. Truly world-class, with native chefs from Italy and France and elsewhere plying their art at hefty prices. (Not very many good curry houses, though. And very little Thai cuisine.)

But for a superb spaghetti vongole or steak au poivre vert, you don't need to go further than Moscow. (Fillet steak, incidentally, is absurdly cheap there - at least it is in the supermarkets.)

And what of the nightlife? Oo-er. Crikey.

I will tell you about just one of the tamer haunts. It's called Night Flight, a bar on Tverskaya, about 500 metres from the Kremlin, and is packed to the gills with the most stunning women you have ever laid eyes on.

Other expats and I called it the Swedish Embassy. The women were all hookers, of course, but for some reason that did nothing to dilute the allure of the place. During my first few months in Moscow, I do declare there were times when I was so lonesome I took some comfort there. (La la la la, la la la.)


Outside 'The Swedish Embassy' - nightclub Night Flight

Indeed, it is considered the duty of expats living in Moscow to take to Night Flight their visiting male (and sometimes female) friends. You know who you are.

Thankfully, I was rescued from becoming a regular at Night Flight by meeting a beautiful Russian woman who has the sunniest personality in the world, despite the fact that her Father was murdered by, or by order of, some kind of business rival when she was just 14.

We are now very happily married. And I have stood at her father's grave and promised him I will look after her. Please permit me this deeply personal aside.

Moscow's advertising industry

And what of the advertising scene in Moscow?

Well, it's important to remember that advertising in Russia is still a teenager, having started as recently as 1994 (Perestroika and all that) and brings with it all the problems one associates with a teenager.

Put simply, they still don't quite know what they're doing. A damning broad brushstroke observation, perhaps, but largely true.

Let me give you an example. Last year, we were invited by a Russian chocolate company to take their TV advertising for a childrens' chocolate bar and make the idea work as a poster campaign.

The TV commercials featured a little girl who thinks about little else but the product. They are well shot, well lit and nicely acted and it is impossible not to be enchanted by the little girl.

Umbrella did not win the pitch. But judging by what I later saw in the streets, it's a wonder the client wanted an advertising agency at all. All they needed was a studio. Their poster (one poster, not a campaign) simply showed the face of the little girl, the strapline and, unnecessarily, three variants of the product.

There was not a trace of the idea that we saw in the television advertising - of a little girl obsessed by and fantasising about the chocolate. Granted, there was nothing done to harm the brand, but the work didn't pull you in and reward you, as good advertising should. I do appreciate this is a fairly mild example, but there are far, far worse, like 48-sheet posters with upwards of 50 words in seven different typefaces.

Learning the language

And now to the language, which is reputed to be the third most difficult to learn in the world - after Chinese and Japanese.

There are 33 letters in the Cyrillic alphabet, two of which simply modify how you should pronounce the preceding letter in a word. (The soft and hard signs.) Of the rest, only six directly correspond to ours: a, e, k, m, o and t.

It is very easy to make mistakes. Ooha means ear. Ooha means fish soup. So before you know it you're telling someone you have fish soup ache. ‘Yel' (with a soft ‘l') means ‘ate'. ‘YeL' means ‘Christmas tree'. ‘Did he have dinner?' ‘Yes, he is a Christmas tree'.

While at Ogilvy I took lessons in Russian but didn't keep them up after leaving. And, given my wife has fluent English, I have returned to London with just a smattering of the language. (On several mornings I vowed to speak only Russian that day, but the plan always fell apart early on - at words like ‘kettle', for example.)

So, that concludes the second of my two three-and-a-half year stints abroad, the first being in Sydney.

If any of you are toying with the idea of trying life abroad somewhere, my advice is to go for it. Why reach retirement, look back on your life and think to yourself you could easily have done something different - but didn't?

How wonderful to work in a business that can let you go just about anywhere, experience different cultures and learn how to say ‘Oo vas zdes samaya krasivaya popka.' (You have the most beautiful bottom here.)

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