Russia: A private view into Russia

Two leading advertising creatives, one from Russia and one from the West, cast their eyes over six recent Russian ads, assess their artistic impact and debate if the work can hold its own in the global marketplace.

Think Russia and your head will fill with cliches: Cossacks, vodka, revolutions, counter-revolutions, and the anti-communist rhetoric that had us believing "the Russians are coming".

None of this seems appropriate here, because they've been pushed aside by advertising cliches. I was hoping not to understand the "Russianness" of this selection, yet most of it was familiar.

Fuelled by Gazprom and a fierce entrepreneurial spirit, this sprawling country has a drive that has broken down walls. But these ads are less ambitious. They're the kind you find on the box in every corner of the world.

It would be so easy to feel smug that none of them will trouble the D&AD judges next year. But here's the thing. In just 20 short years, Russia has been able to learn, emulate and adapt the sophisticated advertising and marketing practices that took the West more than 100 years to develop.

I suspect that, as in other emerging markets, Russians are determined not just to catch up, but to overtake their Western rivals. They just need to get better at being themselves.

The stick insect-cum-spring onion work for Greenpeace (4) is an unclear warning about how genetic fiddling can increase the risk of bugs in your food. I've seen this before, but that's the point. The Russians are watching, catching on and catching up. Fast.

Continuing the food theme, while looking for some Russian facts, I learn President Putin's grandfather was the private chef to Rasputin, Lenin and Stalin. Surreal, but not as surreal as the Twixels (2) ad. A fantastical display of the conversational topics that Twixel eating can inspire you to chat about ... white knights, Mini Coopers, clenching bronzed buttocks; there's not much to lose in translation.

There's also not a lot to lose in the ING (3) spot, either. A handsome young couple set out on their life together with an elaborate stairway serving as a metaphor for progress. When the stairs go wobbly, ING comes to the rescue as a set of golden guardrails. Oh dear.

And so to Nike (6). This is a good, emotive piece of work, it just feels like it's been beamed out of Portland and dressed up with snow and a few local heroes. Variations of this exist in many countries, which brings me to the point that I want to make. Russia gave us Tolstoy, Pushkin, Mandelstam and some of the world's greatest writers. They gave us avant-garde; the Bolshoi ballet, whose only serious rival was the Kirov. They gave us Prokofiev; Tchaikovsky and the Rachmaninoff Five. There's plenty of "Russianness" to draw on. It's just that Russian advertising hasn't found the quality of its own voice ... yet.

But there are clues Russian advertising will get the confidence to assert itself on its own terms. The fish-snacking bear ad for Vici Seafood (1) is one. A guy in a bear suit sits on the sofa throwing down fish snacks while watching, to his amusement, a bear catching salmon on TV. Turns out the TV-watching bear is the bearskin rug come alive. It's mad, funny and feels a bit, well, Russian.

Next we visit someone's mental rubber room with a web video for Actimel (5), which is the darkest thing I've seen for a while. A businessman goes berserk in a lift after repeated delays. He pulls out a Makarov handgun, terrorising everyone. Apparently, the good people at Danone can put all this anti-social behaviour right with Actimel. Doesn't work for me. I'm hoping that it's because I'm not Russian.

My hope is that Russian advertising will find the creative courage to match its commercial ambitions. This year, eight countries are represented in the Gunn Report's top ten TV and print ads. Granted, Russia is not yet among these stars, but it will be. Yes, I think the Russians really are coming.

- When I was asked to do a "special Russian Private View", I hoped I wouldn't regret it. It's sometimes difficult to find great Russian advertising these days. Since Russia is still an emerging market and a media-driven market at that, you won't find the same calibre of advertising you might find in the UK, or other Western markets. We still do poorly in regional and international awards shows, for example. So, it was with some surprise that in my review bag were a few ads I actually enjoyed.

First, a simple spot for Vici Seafood (1). There's a bear sitting on a couch, enjoying Vici snacks and getting a kick out of watching some sort of Animal Planet-type show, which is depicting another bear trying to catch the salmon swimming upstream.

What I like about this ad is the lack of a product demo or voiceover that tends to dominate most TV ads in Russia. A brand that has the ability to make fun of itself. A delightful, simple spot that, if I didn't actually hate seafood, or seafood snacks for that matter, might entice me to try the brand.

Next, a 90-second Nike (6) spot shot in Russia using real people and Russian sports stars. Nike has always set a high standard for creative TV commercials, and, although I appreciate the production values, music and Rudyard Kipling-esque "you'll be a man, my son" emotion the spot gives, I couldn't help but think the Nike creative bar is higher than this delivered.

I also wondered why the "Just do it" logo was used at the end of it. I can't seem to recall Nike using the slogan for years because just about everyone on the planet knows it all too well. But, still, a good effort for a local Nike spot.

I had to watch the Twixels (2) ad over and over again because I didn't get it. I guess I'm not that bright, so I asked some fellow creatives if they understood it. All I got was blank stares.

I can only assume that Salvador Dali influenced this "gem". Although it is visually different, the spot was just trying too hard. I would have loved to have seen the original brief.

The insurance sector in Russia is growing like mad, and we're seeing more and more work in this area. The spot for ING (3) shows a young couple and child enthusiastically climbing a flight of stairs that starts in the sea and rises to the heavens above. Where's Led Zeppelin's signature tune when you need it? Call me crazy, but showing young people climbing stairs to heaven is not the image I would want when talking about life insurance.

The next spot I watched was a viral for Actimel (5). It has been shot in the style of a CCTV security camera and shows a businessman losing it in a lift. I give credit to both the agency and client in wanting to do something a bit different in this category. Making it viral also took guts, since traditional TV advertising in Russian still rules.

The message "survive till (sic) holiday" is to tell the viewer that somehow Actimel is a good stress reliever. A bit of an over-promise, otherwise, God knows, I'd be drinking gallons of the stuff. In terms of its viral capability, I guess some people got it, but I'm still waiting for it to appear in my inbox.

And, finally, a clever ad for Greenpeace (4). I guess there are more environmental issues than just saving baby seals off the coast of Canada.

Anyway, a green onion depicted as an insect, warning us of the dangers of eating genetically modified foods. Simple, cleanly art directed and a strong single-minded message that engages the reader.

In fact, I think I'll spend those extra rubles and make sure that my next purchase of green onion is organic. This is exactly what an ad is supposed to do. Baby seals, green onions ... I wonder what's next?

There! No regrets.