Russia: In need of creative love

While Russia's ad market is growing, creative standards are still lagging behind. But the Russians are a creative people and a generation of David Abbottskis will soon emerge.

Russia is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and advertising is keeping pace with the strong growth of the past few years.

The streets of the cities are awash with billboards and you cannot change channel on the TV without catching an ad. Why is it, then, that creative standards are lacklustre, with just one campaign from Russia featured in the Gunn Report for 2005?

It is difficult to talk up Russian advertising creativity. Richard Pinder, the regional president of Leo Burnett for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is more certain than most that the country is on the cusp of a new, more creative era, but he does not gush about the product as is.

"In Russia, it's patchy," he says. "There tend to be great ideas or well-executed ideas, but not great ideas well executed. It hasn't yet found its voice."

No-one is saying Russians are not a creative nationality. "Think classical music, poetry, literature: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Dostoievsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekov, Pasternak, Nabokov," Gerry Corish, the general director of the Russian agency Lowe Adventa, says. "Russian creativity exists and we are familiar with a lot of it. It's just that it seems very grand, worthy and mostly some time ago."

The first drawback is that advertising in Russia is very young. It is still only 15 years or so since the Iron Curtain was raised. Up to now, a lot of ads have been information-based and the media infrastructure is not really there yet. Finding outstanding craft skills - great directors or photographers - is next to impossible.

Against this, with huge growth in many sectors, advertisers do not necessarily need to produce a thing of great wit or beauty. They just need to tell people that they're out there. "As long as you get your basics right, you actually have to try to fail," David Meikle, the group managing director of Ogilvy Group in Russia, says.

Meikle points out that in some categories such as tobacco, where Russia is one of the biggest markets in the world, growth has slowed. He argues that this is creating some of the more interesting advertising in the country. He says: "The tobacco market is saturated and tobacco advertising is more sophisticated." Ogilvy recently launched the Pall Mall brand with what Meikle calls "unusually striking visuals".

Confectionery is another Meikle singles out. "The category is probably quite busy, but new entrants don't have to have great advertising to survive," he says. "Kraft has some of the best in category - it's fighting a rear-guard action against new entrants."

At BBDO Moscow, Igor Lutz, the president and creative director, points out that there is already work done in Russia that can hold its own in other territories. He cites his agency's work for Sneakers, Wrigleys and Bounty.

There is, however, a potential cultural hindrance to outstanding creative work - the legacy of the Communist regime is, arguably, an in-built reluctance to attract attention. "It's the 'tall poppy' syndrome," Pinder says. "There's no doubt it has not been a culturally rewarded thing to stand out."

Another culturally unattractive proposition appears to be the whole business of working in advertising. "It's not a lack of creativity in Russia, but a lack of creative Russians in advertising," Corish says. "Ad agency work is perceived as lacking creative credibility, is servile and often seems foreign. Until we have the leaders in Russia, the David Abbotskis or Frank Loweskis, famous for producing great work, it is going to be a slow improvement process."

Lutz argues it is the rapid growth of advertising that has left creatives short on inspiration. "It's growing too fast," he says. "Young people who are perhaps too well-paid are becoming lazy very quickly."

The network agencies mix local and imported creative talent. But the best people are not always drawn to Moscow. According to Pierro Leone, Grey's regional managing director for Central and Eastern Europe and Turkey: "The problem is that the good people haven't been going to Russia because of the harshness of the place."

But Leone does see a change: "Life is improving: Moscow's becoming a style city, more of a centre of attention."

He is also sceptical about Western judgments on the levels of creativity in Russian advertising. "What is creativity?" he asks. "Bill Bernbach said that creative advertising is advertising that sells. If you look at the growth of business in Russia and correlate that with advertising, you would say it was very creative."

It is true that the pace in Russia is so furious that there is very little time for agency executives to think about their reels. At Saatchi & Saatchi in Russia, the general manager, Jane Wagner, helped to set up the agency two years ago. "It's so incredibly fast," she says. "If I work for a week, it feels like a month. You get so much done."

Wagner has faith in the upward curve of creativity and, in common with the other big agency heads, she talks ambitiously about aiming for Cannes in the next few years and claims that the momentum is there. "Clients are wanting much more creativity," she says. "Two years ago, it was 'let's get the job done', now they are more interested in creativity."

"I think the market is changing," Lutz says. "Media inflation is quite high and the market is becoming tougher and more competitive, which makes clients think about communicating effectively and then we come to creative advertising."

Meikle believes that the environment is also right. Russians are really into advertising and would be hugely receptive to something different and fresh. "We should be looking at what Collett Dickenson Pearce did in the 70s and what Saatchi & Saatchi did in the 80s and the confidence of 'follow the bear'. The opportunity is here," Meikle says.