Russia: The great bear awakes

In the 15 years since the fall of the USSR, Russia's volatile ad market has been growing at breakneck speed, Mark Johnson reports.

The pace of business in Moscow is so fast that for some ad executives it can be addictive. That is why Lowe Adventa's Glasgow-born managing director, Gerry Corish, returned to Moscow a few years ago after a short stint in Eastern Europe, where he found the pace to be a lot slower and less exhilarating.

"It's all go, go, go in Russia," Corish enthuses. By the time the week is out he will have presented creative ideas to expatriate marketing directors at Nestle and the billionaire head of a Russian conglomerate. "We have a real mix of clients. It's incredibly exciting - things happen very fast in Russia,"he says.

This frenetic pace is typical of the way the Russian advertising industry is developing. Last year, Lowe Adventa's 110 employees created more than 70 original TV campaigns.

Russia's young advertising market is one of the fastest-growing in the world. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it has ballooned to become Europe's sixth-largest, worth nearly US$5 billion.

Perceptions of Russia, once jokingly described by ad executives as a large country made up of mostly forests, have changed dramatically.

International businesses are beginning to wake up to the potential of Russia's ad market. Rupert Murdoch's investment vehicle in Russia, News Outdoor Russia, reportedly has around 25,000 billboards and outdoor signs in more than 90 cities.

Apart from the Russian capital's interminable traffic jams, which get even worse when winter temperatures drop to -40deg , there appears to be little to slow that rapid development.

Media market net adspend has grown continuously for the past five years.

Growth peaked at 48 per cent in 2002, averaged more than 30 per cent a year until 2005, and a figure of 15 per cent is expected this year.

In Russia's favour is the fact that it is the biggest country in the world, spread across 11 time zones with a predominantly urban population of more than 145 million people. Its capacity for growth is huge, having started from a low base in 1991, and it has a long way to go before it catches up with Western Europe and the US.

Ad executives keen to portray the market as buoyant say that although GDP is low, it has remained stable, and that while the rate of inflation is slowing, personal income levels are growing moderately.

But for many ad folk in Russia, this expanding market is like the proverbial castle built upon sand. Insecure political and economic conditions make for unstable foundations.

The main driver of growth in the advertising industry has been the rapid expansion and economic development of the Russian economy as a whole. Much of this growth has been driven by oil and gas exports, and what concerns industry executives is the country's huge over-dependence on exporting oil. A crash in oil prices could wipe out all positive sentiment overnight.

Irina Edemskaya, the Optimum Media OMD group strategy and research director, says: "The Russian government has been trying to exploit high oil prices to build the economy and support industries such as hi-tech and the sciences. These are a huge priority for the government."

Edemskaya argues that concerns about the economy are exaggerated. "The future (for advertising) is not as unstable as it could be," she says.

"The purchasing power of the population is very strong and the Russian mentality is not to save, so they are enjoying spending while times are good, which is why luxury goods are performing so well."

This growth in purchasing power has been partly responsible for another positive, she points out: the arrival of local production facilities for major international marketing clients, such as Procter & Gamble.

Yet political instability threatens to stymie this growth. General elections in 2008 could bring an end to Vladimir Putin's presidency and herald a change of course for the entire economy. This is cause for deep concern in advertising.

"There are big questions, such as: will he (Putin) leave?," Corish says, "or will we get someone interested in growth and the World Trade Organisation, or someone hoping to restore Fortress Russia by 'putting up walls'? These are major concerns."

This could then lead to a situation all too familiar in Russia: the mix of politics and business that often sounds the death knell for foreign investment.

So are agencies making any money? A dynamic ad market almost always produces highly profitable agencies. But the conditions of the Russian market pose their own challenges. Despite market growth rates that dwarf almost every other global market, agency growth rates form a mixed picture.

Reliable figures are hard to come by. BBDO Russia Group's chief executive and chairman, Ella Stewart, admits it is hard to estimate the average growth rate for all agencies, but adds that for some large agencies it is likely that Russia is a profitable market.

"I am sure the growth rate for the five largest agencies is above the rate of the ad market itself," she says. "The growth of agencies in BBDO Russia Group has been consistently higher than the overall ad market growth for the last five years."

But not all advertising agency managers report such healthy figures.

Corish says the cost of doing business is one of the factors limiting growth. "The ad agencies are not yet making significant money," he says.

"Margins are tighter than they have ever been. The cost of doing business in Moscow is extremely high. It is an extremely tough business environment."

New employees are among the biggest overheads. While average Russian salaries run to several hundred US dollars a month, Corish says an agency account manager can expect to start on $2,000 a month.

This huge disparity in income is another of the concerns that linger in the minds of executives. "Disposable income has increased dramatically over the past ten to 15 years," Corish says, "But, unfortunately, it has not been standard; some have done well (since the fall of Communism) and some haven't. While disposable income growth has been more widespread in Eastern European markets, the differences in Russia are higher than anywhere else. The younger, well-educated people have done well since 1991, but the older generation has been unable to adapt, so there is a huge disparity in incomes."

Media inflation is also a concern. Stewart says: "The demand for media space and time constantly exceeds supply, especially in TV. And TV is still the most effective medium in Russia, and therefore a major part of most advertising budgets."

TV is by far the dominant medium, accounting for 41 per cent of media spend - largely because of its ability to reach across such a vast country. Inflation in the medium reached 25 per cent in 2004, between 25 and 30 per cent last year, and is expected to remain at this level this year, according to industry research.

(Radio averaged 30 per cent, while outdoor fluctuated between 12 and 30 per cent as supply struggled to keep up, and even press averaged 12 per cent over the period.)

The problem of media inflation has been compounded by recent legislation that has only added to the costs of the advertising business. Earlier this year, the Russian State Duma toughened up the Law On Advertising in such a way as to force many client companies to rethink their communications strategies.

The new legislation will ban the use of children in alcohol ads, while celebrities and actors posing as doctors will no longer be allowed to promote medicines and health supplements. And it cracks down on TV advertising in particular. From 1 July, TV ads must not exceed 15 per cent of daily broadcast time or 20 per cent in each hour, and ad breaks must not last longer than four minutes. From 2008, TV advertising will be cut by a further 5 per cent per hour.

The only silver lining to the new laws will be less clutter, Corish says.

Clutter is currently stifling any opportunity to create cut-through. While the old regulations stipulated the maximum percentage of TV ads in a 24-hour period, ads tended to cluster around peak-period time slots, creating ad breaks unimaginable on British TV. Corish says: "I counted 13 consecutive beer commercials in one ad break recently. The job of trying to make ads stand out is just ridiculous in such conditions."

However, there is much hope in the industry for continued growth. TV is not only the best way to cover the entire country, but is also still extremely cheap. Stewart points out: "In the developed Western countries, the price of TV per 1,000 contacts exceeds the same index in Russia by three times."

Outdoor advertising also faces new legal restrictions, with a total ban on outdoor tobacco ads and tighter controls on the placement of posters from 1 July 2007. Despite this, Edemskaya believes outdoor - one of the media least affected by inflation - will play a far more important role in the media mix in years to come.

She says: "Outdoor in Russia today is becoming big and the research behind it is very sophisticated. Both print and outdoor are very effective, but outdoor is still remarkably cheap on a cost-per-thousand basis. The challenge for us is to find a balance between high media prices and our clients not growing at this rate, because for them it is a case of an increase in price meaning a decrease in profit."

While research suggests that online is gradually gaining ground as a viable medium (some estimates say growth last year reached 70 per cent), Corish sees more opportunity in below-the-line work.

"The biggest growth area in any sector in recent years is below the line," he says. "We have to make our creative ideas work across the mix."

Growing sophistication means an improved market for agencies, some argue.

Meanwhile, the frenetic daily pace of agency life continues.

It is perfectly normal, Stewart says, for a Russian advertising agency "to create and shoot a commercial within two weeks or to find advertising space in the city centre within a month. There are even more extreme examples, when we have shot a commercial in only four days."

However the Russian advertising market develops in years to come, agencies look set to never be short of work, only short of time.


Become a member of Campaign from just £46 a quarter

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to ,plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a member

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

Partner content