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‘It’s changed me forever’: Dentsu European boss on navigating staff through war


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

February 24, 2023 | 9 min read

Dentsu’s central and eastern European CEO shares the story of the company’s year supporting Ukrainian staff.

The Ukrainian flag flies above a concert orchestra playing outdoors in Lviv

A concert orchestra playing outdoors in Lviv, March 2022 / Ruslan-Lytvyn/DepositPhoto

“Everything happened on the way to the office. I was listening to the radio when they made an announcement about Ukraine,” says Slawomir Stepniewski. “I thought, Jesus Christ, how can it be possible? 300km from my city, it’s war.”

Stepniewski, who is Dentsu’s chief executive for Poland and Central Eastern Europe, has been leading the agency group’s response to the invasion from its base in Warsaw. He says of the experience: “It has changed my leadership style and changed me, I think forever.”

Though each of the Big Six agency holding companies operates in Ukraine, Dentsu employed the largest workforce at the beginning of the invasion – 500 people – through an affiliate partner. The company, Stepniewski says, had put limited contingency plans in place following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But on the day, he says, the team had to work faster than anticipated.

“I asked my board members for an urgent call. There were 12 people on the call, it was super reactive. We said, based on our experience of Covid, the most important thing was to be 100% sure about our people, to give them a sense of crisis management and stability, give them a sense of belonging and empower them to act.”

Stepniewski and his team, including chief operating officer Tomasz Dziekan, worked to locate their staff and affiliate employees in Ukraine and then to coordinate the company’s response. Staffers sped by car to the border to help evacuate refugees and their Ukrainian colleagues. Stepniewski estimates that 40% of staff in Dentsu’s Polish business opened their homes to Ukrainian refugees.

“They shared their houses, their flats, their rooms. It was unbelievable. I thought, this isn’t just about project management, it’s about humanity.”

Further support came from Dentsu’s EMEA operations, led by industry veteran Giulio Malegori. Dentsu’s offices in Warsaw, Sofia and Prague became hubs for refugees, providing food, childcare, sim cards, internet access and a place to rest. And they worked to communicate constant updates and information, to affected staff and to the wider network in Europe and beyond.

Slawomir Stepniewski, CEO of Dentsu Poland


The group’s parallel operations in Russia – a joint venture with OKS Group that dated back 25 years and employed 1,500 workers – complicated matters. Dentsu was named on a Yale professor’s list of international firms still doing business in Russia as the war began (about three weeks after the invasion, the company cut its ties to the country). Stepniewski says the “shame list” meant “enormous media pressure on the companies named, which everyday meant enormous hate and pressure from each and every corner to act. It was another dimension to deal with, after the situation with our people.”

Confusion among Dentsu’s clients provided a further dimension of concern. “They also felt totally disrupted and lost. Some of them wanted to stop spending on social media or on media entirely, they started losing their grip. We organized workshops with chambers of commerce for a broad number of clients and [EMEA] colleagues to say: ‘We are here to help you navigate this.’ Brands can’t be silent – customers are expecting that you will have a voice, that you will have your own point of view.”

As well as working to reassure clients that their investments were only going to reputable, “totally reliable” media properties, Stepniewski team worked to combine their own humanitarian efforts with their clients – something that helped make the overall effort more effective. “We asked them to support as much as possible.”

Three weeks after the invasion began, Stepniewski and his own staff were feeling the strain. They had been working “almost 24 hours a day,” as well as keeping Dentsu’s Polish business ticking over, and they were exhausted.

“A lot of people were extremely tired. We spoke with the team and I said ‘Guys, we have to take care of ourselves’.”

As well as physical tiredness, providing emotional support to Ukrainian colleagues also bore down on his Polish staff. “The families would come to our office and we’d met them and they’d tell us their stories. These were difficult moments for all of us. Even if you can handle it, there was too much pain.”

To cope, the company provided two hours a day for counseling with therapists, both for Polish and Ukrainian staff. “It was very difficult; people were crying. Crying was probably the best way.” More important, he recalls, was the solidarity of colleagues. “We organized meetings on Teams, but most of us came back to the office to help people and see each other face to face. It was very needed and it helped us to survive. We acted as a team. When I felt that I had no energy, someone was there to say ‘Slawo, take a rest, I’ll lead this time.’ It changes the dynamic: how we trust each other, how we collaborate, how we treat each other.

“We survived the first three months, but ‘survive’ is probably the best way to describe it. We felt strong, but the situation around us, it brought us down. It was difficult.”

Christmas at Dentsu Warsaw

Help – and hope

While direct humanitarian efforts haven’t ceased – the company’s central European team bought and shipped power banks, solar lamps, gas burners and thermal clothing to colleagues in Kyiv over winter – as the months went by, the focus shifted to longer-term means of support.

Office hubs became centers for second language learning, helping Ukrainians learn Polish or Romanian, while Dentsu staff helped them navigate the admin of refugee and immigration law. Pulling in support from Merkle, Dentsu created a Refugee Alliance to help train Ukrainians in Salesforce, Adobe and programmatic media; over 50 have already been through a course and another 40 are on their way. Fundraising efforts continued and so far the company has donated around £1.65m, adding to the millions donated by companies across the advertising industry.

“We created opportunities for some of the families that wanted to stay in Poland, for them to join our Polish team and work in the Warsaw office.” Since the invasion began, around 30 people have relocated to new positions within Dentsu while over 60 have found remote positions with Dentsu’s operations in the UK, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and the US.

And just last month, creatives spread across European territories worked with charity Apart of Me to develop an app, Nadiya (which translates in Ukrainian as ‘hope’), that provides children aged 5-11 with therapy exercises and gamified tools to deal with trauma and grief.

“You can offer money, you can offer support, but in the end there is nothing more precious you can offer than your time and engagement.”

At Christmas, the team hosted a Christmas dinner at Dentsu’s Warsaw offices for their Ukrainian co-workers. Each brought their families and together they cooked Ukrainian cuisine.

For Stepniewski, it was a “surreal” and moving way to bookend the year. “It was unique. For me, it was something unbelievable, something special.”

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