Russia: Adman in Moscow

Much has changed for advertising since Vladimir Putin was elected. Edward Cowley interviews Grey's Alexei Kovylov and dispels a few Russian myths.

Ask your average Westerner to describe contemporary Russia and you'll probably be given a colourful but slightly depressing list. Corrupt officials, organised crime, mail-order brides, dodgy oil men and vodka would probably end up somewhere near the top.

I asked Alexei Kovylov, the managing director of Grey Global Group, Russia, one of the biggest ad agencies in Moscow, whether these stereotypes affected his work in any real sense. He replied, not without a hint of irony: "I fully understand that these perceptions apply to Russia," and then added in a more serious tone, "but such is life here, and one feels uncomfortable that nothing has really changed."

So what is it like working in advertising in Russia, and are these cliches really part of working life? I thought I'd start with the more sensitive issues. Does, for example, Kovylov carry a Kalashnikov to work, just to be on the safe side? "You'd be fired in five minutes if you were found with a gun at work," he replies in all seriousness.

So what about the mighty Russian Mafia? Again, Kovylov is quick to put me straight. The Mafia, he explains, was much more of a problem ten years ago, before Vladimir Putin came to power. Grey Russia, he insists, is run on international principles and transparencies that rule out the possibility of any dodgy dealings. To support his claim, he points to the fact that Grey Russia was quoted by the Russian government as the biggest tax-payer in its district last year.

Kovylov is one of a growing number of Russians who is helping to steer his country to a brighter future. He is relatively rich, but by no means in the league of Russia's infamous oligarchs. He is neither a throwback to the imperialist past of the Soviet Union, nor someone looking to funnel his money into an overseas bank account. Quite simply, he wants to see Russia prosper.

This is reflected in the way he runs his agency and talks about business.

Advertising in Russia is an exciting industry to be in. The market is booming - growing by 28 per cent between 2004 and 2005. And there are opportunities to win business from local advertisers with swelling marketing budgets as the economy opens up.

Grey Russia's biggest clients are the international giants Procter & Gamble and British American Tobacco, but also the Russian company Baltika.

Baltika is the country's largest brewer and one of Russia's biggest success stories. Grey's recent Baltika campaign is built on the growing feeling of Russian pride that comes with increased wealth and global recognition (the ads on the right read: "The world's beer"), but is careful to avoid any nationalistic, hostile connotations. "We are no longer interested in military muscle in Russia," Kovylov explains.

There are now more billionaires in Moscow than in New York. There are also more Mercedes here than in anywhere else in Europe. But Moscow is an island of wealth in a sea of poverty. Rural areas, Kovylov says, "are still stuck in the last century and not a lot goes on there". It is hardly surprising, then, that virtually all of Grey's clients are based in the two cultural and commercial capitals, Moscow and St Petersburg. But, he explains, there is growing potential in some of Russia's other major cities: Nizhni, Novgorod and Kazan in the East.

I asked him about the Kremlin, which has silenced Russia's independent media. Do the powers that be also exert an influence on the advertising industry. "As long as we stay out of politics, they leave us alone," he replies. But some Draconian restrictions still exist. Because of Russia's struggle with alcoholism, children or animals are not allowed to appear in beer advertising, and ads for vodka have been banned on TV since Putin came to power six years ago.

So, what about the day-to-day hurly-burly of working in one of Moscow's biggest ad agencies? Grey Russia's offices are in the centre of town, but because of Moscow's spiralling real estate prices, they aren't exactly luxurious. Although completely renovated in 2002, the 200 employees work in the former administrative wing of one of the Soviet Union's most famous icons, the MiG fighter-jet company. They still make the aero-engines next door.

So how do Russian creatives operate? Do they pound a couple of bottles of vodka between them to get the creative juices flowing? Anatoly Yasinsky, the agency's creative director, puts his team in a closed room, Kovylov confides. If they still can't deliver when they come out, he'll send them down to a local bar until they return with a couple of strong ideas. Most of the creative staff are under 30 and there is a fair mix of global experience and local talent.

To recruit new people, they go to Moscow-based recruitment agencies and work with local advertising schools. Kovylov himself is the chair of the International Institute of Advertising in Moscow and holds classes with students, so he is always on the look-out for new blood.

Advertising in Russia is still a new industry and it is perceived by ordinary Russians to be exciting and sexy, associated more with movie producers and models than as an industry in its own right. But from where Kovylov sits, in his former fighter-jet factory, the glamour doesn't seem tangible.

The market's rapid expansion comes with a considerable strain for agencies.

Clients, inspired by their new-found prosperity and with lofty plans to expand (and quickly, in case the good times fade), can be extremely demanding to work for.

And the Russian work ethic doesn't help make things easier. In the past, Russians were forced to work together, but are now relishing a renewed sense of individualism - so instilling a sense of teamwork in an agency is not always easy.

"Although it's exciting, it is also highly stressful," Kovylov says.

"We have the same workload as Europe or the US. But not the infrastructure to cope with it."