‘Crisis has hardened our spirits’: Ukrainian agency Bickerstaff on business amid war
The week before Russian soldiers began their assault on Kyiv, The Drum spoke to Bickerstaff’s creatives about an innovative fashion campaign they’d made. A year later, they share how the team and the business have held together in the face of war.
Maidan Square, Kyiv, in March. One Ukrainian creative says they endured a ‘month of silence’ from clients after the invasion / Fotoreserg/DepositPhotos
Away from the frontlines, advertising and politics have become entwined in Ukraine. In January, while the German government deliberated whether to allow the export of sought-after Leopard 2 tanks, ad agency Bickerstaff staged a ‘social flashmob’ that encouraged the public to take a selfie in leopard-print clothing and spread the protest slogan ‘Free the Leopards’.
Undertaken for its client, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the work helped dial up public pressure on the German government, which eventually permitted the tanks to be dispatched.
Bickerstaff’s creatives have a good eye for ways to get social and political issues in front of the eyes of the public. In fact, their feline stunt was just the latest in a string of campaigns created in spite of blackouts and airstrikes over the past year.
Since the beginning of the invasion, they’ve managed to not just stay in business, but pick up new client accounts, crack new markets and collect industry acclaim. According to founder Ilia Anufrienko, the agency is bigger now than it was at the beginning of the conflict.
“During the first days of the war, there was a lot of confusion – it was hard to believe that all this was really happening,” he tells The Drum. “But we quickly cried out all the tears and all the fear, got ourselves together and began to work at an extreme pace. We’ve managed to maintain it throughout the year.”
In the initial weeks of the invasion, strategist and managing partner Maria Kochurenko says the agency faced “all our Ukrainian clients freezing their projects, our entire team working remotely from all around the world, problems with electricity and constant sirens and shelling.”
Furthermore, cash flow problems caused by the invasion meant that some staff left the company for more stable employers, including agencies abroad. “Alas, not everyone got through this period – the agency had problems with salary delays, especially during the last spring,” explains Anufrienko. “Fortunately, our partners and key people decided to stay, so with their help, the agency quickly recovered.”
For Kochurenko, March was the most difficult period. She recalls “a month of silence,” from clients and for the agency’s own output. But the company, previously known only among Ukrainian peers, soon enticed western brands to consider it as a potential agency partner. In the last year, it’s picked up briefs for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in the UK, activism platform Campaigns for Humanity in the US and Unicef Poland. In June, it was awarded a Cannes Lion for its campaign promoting the island of Khortytsia, a key location for Ukrainian heritage.
Anufrienko says the business had to work around the regular blackouts – caused by deliberate Russian strikes on energy infrastructure – to meet its new commitments. “We were perfectly aware that if we wanted to work with western partners, we needed to ensure stability and a high level of quality: no one wants to put their budgets at risk. Therefore we have adapted our work processes and made sure we have a backup team for each project.” He adds, “the additional paragraph that says: ‘war is not force majeure’ made the contract signing process a lot easier.”
That led the agency to hire more people than it employed at the beginning of the invasion. “Now there are 22 of us. We have not simply survived, but strengthened our team with incredible individuals, created many helpful projects and secured significant partnerships,” says Anufrienko.
One new hire, Veronika Seleha, joined at the end of January as chief executive officer. She tells The Drum that the agency’s newly international portfolio means it’s more resilient. “We have a strong balance between commercial-government-social initiatives,” she says, and that diversity has given the agency “courage” for the future. It’s “never dull,” adds the new CEO.
The radio silence among Ukrainian clients eventually lifted, and Kochurenko is particularly proud of a campaign created for dairy brand Galychyna. The team created a one-off, regionalized branding campaign to link the client to Ukrainian national pride.
She explains: “Our brief was the following: to create communication that will be relevant during the wartime and for some time after. We really wanted to support Ukrainians during this difficult period and once again emphasize our strength – the unity of Ukrainians.”
To tap into that idea, the team created 13 alternate brands for Galychyna, to match the 14 historical regions of Ukraine (the brand is already named for one, Galicia).
“It helped us to unite every corner of the country on supermarket shelves. We managed to create not just a successful creative campaign for a brand, we managed to create a campaign that united an entire nation. It was a campaign for the people,” she says.
Seleha says that the war itself has kickstarted demand among brands to change their approach. “There are a lot of clients in Ukraine, in need of rebranding or in need of the creation of something new. A taste is changing, a tone of voice is changing, there are new opinion leaders for the society, new heroes and their principles as well,” she explains.
A different return to office
Kochurenko says that, more than anything else, she’s stuck with Bickerstaff because of her colleagues. “When we are working on a brief, we are united in everything – together looking for insights, brainstorming ideas, preparing presentations, and defending projects in front of the client,” she says.
But since the beginning of the invasion, Bickerstaff’s team has been entirely digital and remote, “scattered all over the globe,” according to Anufrienko.
“The new reality means new solutions. We completely switched the agency to a digital format,” Kochurenko adds. “After the global pandemic, we improved our remote work skills and learned how to organize all our processes.
“Of course, Zoom is our best friend now. All meetings are there – with clients, partners, with the team. We replaced our scrum board with Notion and continued to work.”
So, although the business is expanding, Kochurenko is focused on another goal: finally re-joining her co-workers in a reopened Kyiv studio. “We’ll always remember the times when the whole team was in Kyiv and we all went to the office. This is what we miss the most,” she says.
“In a creative industry, the atmosphere in which people work is super important. Often our ideas were born somewhere in the smoking area, on the balcony, or on the way to lunch with a colleague. Now we don’t have these important ‘tools’ that we used to have.”
The team hopes they won’t stop at reopening in Kyiv. The agency has opened its first international office in Lisbon, an achievement Anufrienko is “especially pleased” about.
“No matter how naïve it may sound, I am just a creative whose priority is to establish a place that will not only declare: ‘For all the good, against all the bad,’ but also make positive changes through specific actions. We may not earn all the money in the world with this attitude, but even before the war, socially significant projects accounted for a large part of our life as an agency.
“The crisis has hardened our spirits and made us stronger than ever,” she says.