If you want to take a ride in a time machine, take a trip to Russia. In the 16 years of the new economic system, the country has undergone more changes than other nations have experienced in 300 years.
Very passionate people live here. Dreamers and fighters. Romantics and Utopians. Our favourite clients are those who built their business in the wild years of gang wars, bank defaults and political crises. Their courage has enabled us to realise our most brilliant projects. Some are firsts for Russia, others are firsts for the world. Our project "Survive till Holiday", which was shortlisted in five categories at the last Cannes Lions Festival, was the first viral project in the history of Danone worldwide.
I had to go to Solovki to understand the meaning of my work. At the infamous island described by Solzhenitsyn in his Gulag Archipelago, I met a girl who said our slogan for an insurance company - "Value what you achieved" - helped her in real life. When her friend was on the verge of suicide, it was her last argument for him to keep going. He found the strength to live on.
Although borders are opening and global culture is expanding, there is no overestimating the staying power of the Russian mentality. It is still hard for us to make decisions and be responsible, because we haven't done it in 500 years. We do not smile at strangers, because we feel too sincere about showing happiness. We do not know how to save money, but economists call it a consumer boom. I am absolutely convinced that the Russian audience is unique and complex, and you had to be born in the USSR to understand the best way to work with it.
The most frightening disease afflicting the local advertising community is xenophobia. That is why our work is based on immersion in an international context and trends. It is part of any project and our agency's daily hygiene. We feel like part of a global community. And the global community has a great outpost in Russia - us.
We are not an advertising agency, although we are the only one in Russia to have won two golds at Cannes. We usually have to influence our clients' business in ways that go deeper than advertising. The "healthy people" concept for a pharmacy chain radically changed not only the business of our client, but the entire pharmacy retail market. With our concept and design, a chain of electronics stores increased its capital many times over and was just successfully sold. Armed with our ideas, clients get investments, good rental offers and hire the best people on the job market.
How do we create such strong and lively concepts? We never lose contact with our countrymen, not for a minute. We just journeyed across the country in a train wagon, asking people about their travels. It was more than research - it was a unique documentary film, the living voice of the target audience for our client, a new discount airline in Russia. Talking to people one-on-one is inspiring - it gives you a sudden epiphany about what the concept of the brand or advertiser should be. We are an agent of the people, we represent their interests to the client.
We have the coolest office in Moscow. Because you have to start with yourself. You can't tell the client to change if you're sitting in a cramped basement. It's not a matter of money. We transformed a collapsing attic of a Soviet industrial design bureau into a conceptual loft with our own hands. Everything was conceived by our employees for our own enjoyment - the huge space, the coloured glass, the spacious balconies. Now people live here, even our clients and partners. We not only have a kitchen and rooms for massage and yoga, but even little bedrooms.
The secret to our success could be that we can refuse a client, unlike network agencies. A year ago, we finished a project, and the client took on a new manager, who said: "This is all great, but I've come up with a different idea." We objected: you can't say that, because it is a lie. "I don't care," he said. Our reply? "Goodbye."
Independence is a great fortune and a great test. You have to take responsibility for your successes and your failures.
You can cover yourself with instructions from head to toe, but in the 21st century, they're not going to work. The world is changing more quickly than you can carve out those instructions. That's why at IQ marketing there are no rigid job descriptions for anyone in a particular role.
One day you realise you are normal after years of thinking you were an idiot. That's what happened with Kurt Cobain and Bill Gates. Everyone used to mock me. They said I would implode from my management fantasies. Then the book Funky Business fell into my hands, and I read it in a gulp. I celebrated for several days. I just drank, because it really was a big cause for celebration. I discovered that I was not seriously ill.
Shortly after the arrest of the Yukos owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, I came up with an idea for a campaign to remind other leaders in the business community that one of our own had ended up on the wrong side of the authorities and suffered from arbitrary justice. The idea was this: just imagine that you are one of the 500 most influential businessmen in Russia and you get a huge box that looks like a fancy gift from a boutique. But when you get through the wrapping paper, ribbons and pearl-studded pins, you find a numbered prison uniform with a note attached. It reads: "Leading news agencies acknowledge this model as the hit of the autumn/winter 2003 season. The first owners of these exclusive samples are the top 500 businessmen in Russia. Fashion designers say that in spring/summer 2004 the trends are unlikely to change. Be a fashion victim."
The night before the "gifts" were to be delivered, heavily armed men broke into the building and made the old ladies who were wrapping the boxes lie on the floor. The gifts were not delivered. I started having difficulties with the prosecutors' office, and it affected everyone around me.
We fully appreciated the power of the internet after New Year 2007. When we sent our unique holiday gift, "Table Be Set", to clients, partners and friends, someone put a picture of it on LiveJournal. Instantly, our reception was paralysed by calls from all over Russia asking if we could sell them the magic tablecloth. We had no choice but to produce another batch and sell them at stores in Moscow. Since then, we have had an extra, unexpected source of steady income.
After the tragedy in Beslan, the agency felt overcome with helplessness. For a month, I came to work and sobbed. And the whole agency was experiencing similar feelings. A client came with a brief to stimulate chocolate sales. At a time like that? After what happened, after 1,673 children and adults were killed or wounded in a school seized by terrorists, we just couldn't go on working as though nothing had happened. We realised that we had to do something. So we organised a campaign in Beslan. We took artists and paint on two aeroplanes to bring some cheer to children and their parents. The first day, after the period of mourning ended, we went on to the streets with all the children of Beslan and decorated the entire city: dim government buildings, schools, fences, even cars and private homes. The city came to life, it overcame horror and fear, children's laughter returned, and most importantly, the children were no longer afraid of going back to school.
I am convinced that it was the most important and powerful act in my life. I hope to God I never have to do anything like it again.
Natalia Stepanuk is the general manager of IQ marketing.
AT A GLANCE
Name: IQ marketing
Principals: Natalia Stepanuk, general manager
Staff: 50 (Moscow), 20 (St Petersburg)
Locations: Moscow and St Petersburg
What's the future of independent agencies? We are the future
How will you part of it? We will make it ourselves.