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Opinion and Insight

How the World Cup is Set to Transform Russian Advertising

Industry experts from Publicis, POSSIBLE, FCB and Geometry tell Laura Swinton why 2018 is going to be big for Russian creativity

How the World Cup is Set to Transform Russian Advertising

This summer, the world’s eyes will be on Russia. The country is preparing to host the FIFA World Cup 2018 and so Russia will be opening itself up to international visitors and audiences like never before. According to Kantar, the 2014 World Cup reached 3.2 billion viewers so if that trend continues, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to avoid any mention of Russia. So you’d best get prepared.

Football Mad Moscow

And while there are still several months to go until the first ball is kicked, within the walls of Russian advertising agencies the word ‘football’ – or, rather Футбольный – is on everyone’s lips.

“Many global and local clients are actively preparing for the World Cup, they are sure to create a lot of buzz. Football will certainly be the overarching theme of this year for most clients,” says CEO and Chairman of Publicis Communications Russia, Vladimir Tkachev.

Indeed, says Geometry Moscow’s ECD Oleg Tumanov, while hopes are not especially high for Russia’s chances in the tournament, there is a good chance that Russian brands will seriously raise the bar with their advertising. “The World Cup is definitely a great impulse and opportunity for the Russian market. Despite the fact that the Russian football team has low chances of winning a medal, all local brands are planning to play on this theme and make something great and valuable for their own audience. In 2017, we spent at least half of the year creating World Cup related strategy and communications for our partners and clients. Local brands expect a huge global competition on this field so the level of work is high. It inspires us more and more.”

However while local brands are keen to get involved and associate themselves with the football conversation, that’s just as true for official sponsors as non-sponsors. And while the sponsors can simply plaster their logos across every square inch of available adspace, relying on deep pockets over creativity, expect the truly ingenious thinking to come from those somewhat less official brands. 

Shilpa Sinha is the Head of Planning at FCB Moscow. She’s seeing off-the-chart excitement amongst consumers and clients alike and so every brand is determined to involve itself somehow. “What we’re seeing is many brands and clients who are not official sponsors are waiting to jump on the FIFA bus,” she says. “They have set aside budgets for it, buzzing, lots of brainstorming sessions around ambush and guerrilla marketing, content, local activation that will drive the salience ad engagement with their brand. And it really doesn’t matter if the brand is salient to the football-engaged audience or not because the way the event is going to go, the local population will automatically be sucked into the whirlpool.”

That sentiment is somewhat mirrored by Vlad Sitnikov, Chief Creative Officer and CEO at POSSIBLE Moscow. With the tickets more or less sold out, there hasn’t been much for agencies to do on that front. In terms of official sponsors, it’s a case of logos everywhere. 

“There are only two areas that are still interesting for creatives: beer and brands that want to get some of the buzz from the World Cup,” reflects Vlad. “However, these two opportunities are in the ‘grey’ zone: beer ads are banned in Russia, and FIFA is very active at guarding its brand. This could be solved in the following ways and they are present in almost every brief which introduces an idea that can, in some way, be related to football: the first ever Twitch live stream of a FIFA play between AI and humans, first football manager game for Telegram, native advertising in popular sport blogs, etc.”

Russia Kicks Off

Local brands and agencies are likely to be focusing on local markets, but internationally the event is likely to open Russia up to foreign visitors and allow the country to show off a different side.

Shilpa says that she is anticipating the ‘internationalisation’ of Russia. “The language barrier – and I’m a foreigner living in Russia – is one of the biggest barriers in visiting and experiencing this country. I think the language barrier is set to shatter or at least witness a soft breakdown,” she says. Across the country thousands of volunteers are being trained in major international languages and hotel staff and taxi drivers are getting basic English lessons. Until now it’s been very rare for restaurants in even central Moscow to have English language menus but all that’s changing. “I think as a result of this Russia will become more tourist friendly than ever before. This is what the domestic cultural trend is but I think globally this will spark a trend, the tipping point of Russian tourism.”

That’s something that has caught Vlad’s attention too. “Everything is in English now. There are still not many people who understand and speak it, but now all visual and audio navigation is in English. It’s very good. There are now more European tourists. However, there are no significant changes in behaviour, perhaps no one is really looking forward to the World Cup.”

This opening up may also expose global audiences to Russian pop culture. Russian Rap, for example, is huge in the country. There’s the likes of Face and Pharoah – and last year the Internet went crazy for the rap battle between Oxxxymiron and Slava KPSS (Gnoynyi).

Russia’s Technology Revolution

It’s not just posturing rappers and welcoming volunteers who are set to impress during the World Cup. Russian organisers are using the event to showcase a tech-forward, 21st century vision of Russia. The stadia will be kitted out with huge screens, free Wi-Fi and more, and the government is pushing a huge digital infrastructure project.  

“New technologies and digital innovations are now in focus at the state level in Russia,” explains Olga Beliaeva, Head of Strategy at Geometry Moscow. “We will see an increasing number of new projects and initiatives that will change traditional operating models in various businesses, trade, logistics, production, education, health care, communication, government services for population, etc. There are a number of legislative initiatives planned for 2018 to support and promote digital transformation. For example, there is a law in development to regulate relationships between humans and robots.”

Over 70% of the population are online and using Russia’s own tech sphere.  Any visitors to the country either hoping to see the football or simply to do business with Russian brands, agencies and production companies should probably swot up. “Similar to China, the digital landscape is totally unique,” explains Shilpa.

So, instead of WhatsApp, there’s popular messenger service Telegram. Instead of Google, the biggest search engine is Yandex. Instead of Facebook, think VKontakte. However the ol’ familiar, YouTube, is very much popular, competing directly with TV.

Interestingly, these channels are also creating space for vibrant, critical and often anonymous political discourse too. “The Internet turned out to be the only unregulated, uncensored channel of communication, and an amazingly fast growth of anonymous political and industrial channels in Telegram shows just that,” says POSSIBLE’s Vlad, citing the likes of Nezygar, Karaulnyi (everyone in Kremlin is following them), Besposchadnyi piarschik (Merciless PR manager), Mediasrachi 2.0, etc., and image boards such as 2vach («dvach»). 

All that digital revolution is of course having an effect on the country’s agencies, says Vladimir Tkachev. “If there used to be a lot of gossip about a trend towards combining creativity and technology, this year this is not a trend anymore, but a fact. Today creativity can't exist without technology. Neither it can without alchemy between media and creativity. Both clients and agencies should be ready for this. This will become the hygiene factor separating professionals from daydreamers.

Russia Goes to the Polls

The FIFA World Cup isn’t the only major event in Russia this year. March will see the beginning of the Russian election. Feelings in the industry are mixed about what, if any, the impact will be on consumers and clients.

Maria Kovaleva is the CEO at Geometry Moscow and she believes that the event is likely to trigger a lot of debate and discussion. She foresees two major themes. The first, and most controversial, is that ‘National Pride values’ are being pushed across the media and by the authorities – and that’s something she thinks older, lower-income audiences will embrace.

On the flip side, she also expects that the lack of strong opposition and the predictable outcome of the election will engender frustration among educated and liberal audiences. That’s worth paying attention to for higher end brands. “Such people might express their discontent and inner protest in avoiding social issues and search for personal achievement and creativity. That will make them appreciate higher non-standard services, narrow targeted digital and social media projects, non-standard activations, as well as technologies improving their personal life and giving them possibility to influence at least something tangible,” she says. 

However as Russian political advertising is quite separate to commercial advertising, what we won’t see is agencies getting involved. “One can safely say that the results of upcoming elections will make things predictable for the next six years. That is good for clients and consumers. But the elections have a limited impact on the Russian advertising market, because the market of political advertising in Russia is a separate entity,” says Vladimir. 

Russian Creativity Looks Forward

So it certainly looks set to be a busy and eventful year for Russian agencies – and no doubt as the World Cup gets closer we’ll see more in the way of campaigns and executions. But will that translate to international attention from fellow adlanders?

Shilpa at FCB Moscow hopes so. Following Cannes last year she made the point that, while there was a lot of buzz around China’s growing creative achievements, Russia had not attracted the same excitement. However, she argues, while 1000 Chinese entries netted 13 Lions, Russia only entered 100 pieces and went home with 10 Lions – are far higher hit rate. Perhaps the energy, money and excitement around the World Cup from clients will create more opportunities for Russian agencies to show off their world class creative skills?

“We have many local creative hotshots here and we have the big network agencies but I see that there is certainly much, much more room for big thinking and bolder ideas here. I see provocative thinking, long term thinking. I also hope to see more awards and recognition for Russian creativity at international festivals. Winning creativity that is really authentic, not staged and actually drives the business results,” says Shilpa.

“Russia has been a very creative culture, they have been creating from time immemorial. The fairy tales, the stories, the sagas, their own architecture. Creativity is in their blood. It just needs to be harnessed in the right direction and with the right thinking. So I think there is great potential in Russia as there are great people here.”