Life in Ukrainian advertising: ‘The morning starts with texting the team to say I’m alive’

The shattered remains of a building in Kyiv / Deposit Photos

First-hand accounts of working in Ukrainian advertising amid the ceaseless daily barbarism of war.​

Only a month ago, Marina Chernyavskaya’s morning routine was every bit as ordinary as anyone else’s in the advertising industry. There was the small talk and the jokes over filter coffees, the ‘huddle’ meeting to go over plans for the day. Today, she and her colleagues have a new ritual. “The morning starts with just texting the team [to say] number one, ‘I’m alive, I’m safe.’ Number two, if I need some help, if I’m OK, have food, water. And number three, if I’m able to work today, because everything changes from hour to hour.”

As creative group head at Bickerstaff, a Kyiv indie agency thriving until the Russian invasion began last month, Chernyavskaya has typically been accustomed to working on campaigns for banks, wellness clinics, sportswear brands and tourist bodies. Now it’s war communications. “We don’t have any commercial projects, because all of our clients froze the flow on the first day of the war.”

Remarkably Bickerstaff continues to function, with its team using their expertise to support the resistance by working on campaigns for the Ukrainian government and humanitarian causes. But this work, however vital, pales into insignificance against the ceaseless daily barbarism of the war. Having reached Amsterdam, Chernyavskaya is working from a place of safety. But her family, friends and some co-workers who remain in Kyiv and its neighboring areas are not, and they are never out of her thoughts.

“It’s pretty hard, because I have a lack of focus on the work. And I have to read the news to check if my family is fine, because all of my relatives, my parents, my brother, my granddad, they’re all in Ukraine. I’m calling everyone every hour checking they’re safe and sound. I know that I’m likely to be safe at the moment. But frankly speaking, I guess I would rather be with my family.”

The war has forced Ukrainians to make unimaginable family sacrifices. On the second day of fighting Iryna Begma, head of growth at tech firm MacPaw Inc, fled from Kyiv with her two children to their great-grandparents’ house on the outskirts on the city. For 10 days, they sheltered in the basement, until the encroaching menace of Russian rockets became too loud to ignore. The family briefly returned to Kyiv, where they were met with the carnage wrought by a bombing near the Babyn Yar holocaust memorial, only 500 metres from their home.

“I went to the supermarket, and I saw everything destroyed to ruins ... And the next day, the hardest decision I’ve ever made was to leave my husband in Kyiv and go with my two children alone to western Ukraine because my child of five was asking, ‘What are they wanting? Why do they want to kill us?’”

An evacuation bus took Begma and her children to the Carpathians, a region of such relative safety that they no longer need to sleep underground. “Right now, it’s hard to be a mom alone with two kids. But at the moment, I’m safe. And I bless God for being safe with my kids in here.”

Chernyavskaya and Begma’s harrowing stories, shared as part of The Drum Show’s special spotlight on Ukraine, put into perspective the trivial things we get so worked up about in the advertising and technology industries. And yet, though these working worlds feel inconsequential against the backdrop of war, it is important to the pair that they have returned to support their homeland’s resistance against the Russian onslaught.

“On the second, third day of the war, everyone was still in shock,” says Chernyavskaya. “But we took a call with the whole team, and we decided that the best we can do for now is to do something we are good at. So, we started working on tasks from governments and different ministries. We make digital banners, print communications, some videos. Also, we are helping with brand identities and some small communications from foundations that are busy collecting humanitarian help.”

The two primary campaigns Chernyavskaya and her team have been working on is a no-fly-zone lobbying plea to Nato and the European Union to “help us close the Ukrainian skies to save our lives” and content designed to be seeded into Russia to show its citizens the horror of the war and counter disinformation. The latter effort shares something in common with a UK initiative that is fundraising to subvert Russia’s adtech infrastructure and get trusted information into the country. But for Bickerstaff’s team, that has been easier said than done.

“Before it was actually possible [to post] in Russia to Facebook. We’ve been posting over there, and we had some results. But still, it’s uncontrolled. The communication with Russia is pretty hard because everything we do in Ukraine is immediately blocked – even the webpage where Ukrainian forces post photos of Russian soldiers in Ukraine for their parents to find them and to identify them. This webpage was blocked in Russia on the first day of its existence. So we have some difficulties, obviously, but we are still working like this.”

Begma’s company, meanwhile, has been leveraging its online network to raise donations for humanitarian relief through its pre-existing MacPaw Development Foundation. Software engineers have been volunteering in the hospitals, supporting the Ukrainian army, and donating blood and money.

“Our engineers have created an app to see which apps have links to Russia in order to protect user data," Begma says. "We have also created a shortcut that helps to save battery power on iPhones, which is critical right now, because many cities have [lost] electricity. We have been also trying to tell the truth through our applications because we have many users from Russia and Belarus. But after two days of our massive approach to the Russian audience, [the Russian censorship agency] Roskomnadzor blocked our blog post, meaning that we were doing at least something right to let the Russians know the truth.”

On what those of us looking on in horror can do to help, Begma praises the likes of General Motors, Apple, Amazon and Lenovo for ceasing activity in Russia and urges companies to stop their activities in the country, “because every penny, every cent, is like a silver bullet pushed into our homes and our people.”

“The best we hope for,” she continues, “is the financial support of people in need. We have stable financial operations, there is no need to support our company. But there’s a severe need to support the people who are left without homes; people, children who are dying of dehydration or women who are giving birth in the basements and having to flee with the children with bare feet. This is something which we really need.”

Main picture courtesy of Deposit Photos, which is making its image library available to media for free to show the truth about Russia’s war in Ukraine.