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Techno to Tech: Ukraine’s Latest Revolution is all About Creativity



Creativity is flourishing in advertising, filmmaking, music and tech – LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with some local agency folk to find out about the surging independent spirit

Techno to Tech: Ukraine’s Latest Revolution is all About Creativity
“As one Ukrainian writer said, Ukraine is a ‘country of sleeping angels’. We are always ‘on the threshold of better times’ and we expect progress to come,” says Vladislava Denys, creative director at Cheil Ukraine. There’s a romantic quality to the swell of optimism and creativity rising in the country. Recent history has been turbulent – and some struggles are ongoing – but that has given rise to a collective determination and independent spirit that is inspiring artists, musicians, filmmakers, fashion designers, start-ups and, yes, advertising agencies.  

First up, a little bit of background. The country has seen two revolutions in 21st century alone. The first, the Orange Revolution, took place between 2004 and 2005, triggered by claims of corruption and electoral fraud. The second, known as the Euromaidan Revolution or the Revolution of Dignity, kicked off in February 2014. Ukraine has also been fighting off Russian incursions in Crimea and along the along the eastern border. It’s not a populace that wants for a sense of agency, that’s for sure, and Vladislava thinks these recent experiences have forged an outward-looking, positive mentality and a self-belief. 

“We aim to communicate with the world and are open to cooperation,” she says. “The spheres of fashion and music are actively developing, more and more professionals from abroad come to us to shoot commercials, music videos and films. Local advertising agencies are developing more actively, and some of them are very successful and are trendsetters in the market. This is what allows us  to look to the future with optimism.”
Vladislava isn’t the only one to feel this way – Eugene Kaminskiy is the CCO of McCann and he marvels at the young creatives who have grown up surrounded by revolution. Ukraine has also been progressively trying to engage  with the rest of Europe and the political elite are hoping to bring the country into the EU – something that is also shaping the millennial and Gen Z artists coming into their creative power. “The integration of Ukraine into the European community, not to mention a heavy price we had to pay, gave us a vibrant outburst in all cultural areas. An absolutely new generation of young authentic musicians, artists, writers, and fashion designers was born in our country. They have nothing in common with what we are accustomed to, sometimes leaving us stunned with their unexpected achievements, even outside Ukraine,” says Eugene.

From an industry perspective, local agencies are hungry to make their mark on the world stage too – and their efforts are starting to get recognition. In 2017, Ukraine won its very first Cannes Lion – a Bronze for memorial campaign ‘Witness’ from the Ukraine Crisis Media Center. This year, creative agency Banda and design studio Republique followed that up with another Bronze Lion, this time for its work on the Eurovision Song Contest branding.

Eurovision brand video from banda on Vimeo.

As with other former USSR countries, the advertising industry is relatively new, forming only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to Eugene, that has imbued it with a hunger. “Understandably, the Ukrainian advertising industry is quite young, as compared to Europe, the USA and other developed countries. However, like any ambitious beginner, we are investing enormous efforts to be neck and neck with the world’s best. And it seems like we are already doing pretty good at that.”

It seems that even competing companies want to see the country rise together. It’s heartening that several of the people we spoke to brought up the success of Radioaktive Film at the 2018 Shots Awards, where it was named Production Service Company of the Year. Anyone working in production will already be aware of Ukraine’s strong reputation when it comes to production service (read more about that here), and that’s also underpinning a resurgence in local cinema.

But if you really want to immerse yourself in the country’s creativity, you need to check out the music scene. Techno and electronica are surging, with clubs like Closer, CXEMA, Rhythm Buro - and festivals like the Brave Factory Festival and Hedonism are popular too. “There is a great rise of techno culture in Ukraine,” says Sergey Beloshitsky, creative group head & copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi Ukraine. “You may have heard of Closer nightclub and Brave Factory Festival. Many clubbers through all over the world come to rave here.”

Where things are getting really intriguing is that this electro scene is intertwining with more traditional Ukrainian music. It is a hit with young people at home and is starting to find international audiences. “We have a talent explosion in the Ukrainian music arena,” says Darya Tafintseva, MD at Ogilvy. And Darya thinks that this love of ethnic music and culture is also rooted in revolution. 

Perhaps the best known current band is folk quartet DakhaBrakha, whose music has been used in an ad for David Beckham's grooming range House 99  and even the most recent series of Fargo.

Vladislava’s a fan too. “Our music is unique. It is developing an authentic ethno style with elements of funk and indie, and it amazes my imagination,” she enthuses. “Performers like Onuka, Jamala, DakhaBrakha are known to the world. I would say that they are the most risk-taking experimenters, music start-uppers. They are heroes of the entire creative industry.”

From folk and techno, we move to tech. Ukraine’s IT skills are renowned – but while the country has long been a well of cheap, skilled workers for international companies, homegrown start-ups are booming, says Yurii Hladkyi managing partner and CEO at creative digital agency Grape.

“Earlier, Ukrainian IT companies were focused only on outsourcing services. Companies made a big step ahead when they decided to become creators of a high-quality IT product,” explains Yurii. “Already today there are a lot of Ukrainian companies that have become famous for their worldwide successful IT solutions.”

“OK, let’s count: Grammarly, Petcube, Looksery, iBlazr, Preply. Surely, you have heard about one or two start-ups from this list,” chips in Sergey. “They were all born in our country.”

And where there’s tech and innovation, there are advertising agencies hovering around the edges. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t until recently that brands felt the need to invest in digital marketing. “We are finally heavily working with digital. Before the price of TV advertising was so affordable that advertiser did not have any reason to invest to other channels,” says Darya. “Now digital has just become inevitable.”

The talent pool in Ukraine, both in tech and in creativity, is the source of enormous pride. The culture values education and in global rankings Ukraine’s education system performs well. According to the 2017 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, Ukraine is ranked 35th out of 137 countries for higher education and training. It has the fourth biggest population of people with a higher education in the world. 

“We are an educated and hard-working nation,” says Yurii. “A lot of young and smart people come into advertising. A lot of them don’t have experience in it, however, this doesn`t prevent them from making progress, bringing new and unusual ideas. The advertising industry in Ukraine today is represented by literate and interesting people who are often hired by foreign companies.”

It would be remiss to talk about the Ukrainian industry without mentioning the ongoing conflict with Russia. Not only is it the first question that springs to mind for many outsiders, but it’s also a driving force behind the wave of creative energy and independent spirit pulsating throughout the country.

There’s a lot of passion among the industry figures that we speak to, but the consensus is that the live conflict is limited to the eastern border of the country, where there are attacks and deaths on a daily basis. In the rest of the country, life carries on and a visitor to a city like Kiev or Lviv would struggle to spot the signs of a country at war. In fact, Ukraine has even been hosting major global events such as this year’s Champion’s League Final and 2017’s Eurovision Song Contest.

But that’s not to say there’s no effect on the local advertising industry. As well as the economic impact, Eugene at McCann reckons the situation has also given rise to a risk-averse mentality. “Notwithstanding the recent achievements, there is still is a great amount of low-quality advertising in Ukraine. There are few clients and agencies risking to implement genuinely breakthrough creative solutions so far,” he says. “The Russian military invasion along with economic problems have contributed significantly to the situation.”

The economic domino effect also makes it difficult for the local industry to retain talent, points out Vladislava. “Ukraine has experienced several serious economic and political crises and continues to be a buffer zone between the western and eastern European worlds. Constant currency leaps and corruption put local and international businesses at risk, with the result that many advertising professionals, especially youngsters, constantly emigrate from the country,” she says.

Everyone we speak to is keen to emphasise the optimism in the country and insist that the geopolitical situation should not be the only thing that colours one’s understanding of Ukraine. Yurii at Grape thinks that the Ukrainian government needs to do more to promote the good things happening in the country. “We have a very weak PR policy,” he says. “Government representatives work very poorly with the country’s brand at a state level. Yes, we have big political problems, but why do we focus only on the bad? After all, there are also a lot of positive events in the country – why not show them to Europe?”

Perversely, while difficult economic circumstances have held the local industry back in some respects, they’ve also helped foster creative ingenuity. “We are very creative... and fast... and flexible. In our economy you cannot survive otherwise,” says Darya.

Sergey at Saatchi & Saatchi agrees. “We are 100% sure, we are great in ideas and strategic vision. These skills are being boosted thanks to low budgets,” he explains. “There are situations you have no budget on execution, which means you need to have a great idea to reach KPIs.”  

Ultimately, what Ukraine is experiencing is a creative revolution. Over the course of the 20th century it was dominated by the Soviet Union and the 21st century has seen its people buck against political corruption and fight to protect its territory. It’s only now in a position to really craft its own modern identity – and creativity is an integral part of that journey. It is finding its voice… and it is really starting to sing.

“Ukraine is a country of an ancient culture and universal human values, with people open to the whole world,” reflects Eugene. “It was not until fairly recently that we got an opportunity to follow our own path of independent growth, thus striving to find our place in the forward-thinking world community through trial and error.”

Image credit: Karl Karalyaka
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LBB Editorial, Sat, 27 Oct 2018 22:34:39 GMT