Stephen Woodford, Chief Executive, Advertising Association looks back at the events of the past year, sharing how the advertising industry became involved and how it continues to support Ukraine through innovative campaigns and initiatives.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on the impact of the war in Ukraine. Read more

The world woke up to the news on February 24, 2022 that Putin had finally invaded Ukraine. The threat was trailed in the media for weeks before via UK and US intelligence briefings, even at the UN, but was disbelieved by many, even in Ukraine. Surely Putin could not be so stupid and it was all mere playground bully posturing. But the last year has taught the world two big lessons – the Putin regime’s ruthlessness is only matched by its incompetence, and Ukrainian bravery and resilience has no bounds. The galvanic effect on democracies has been remarkable, as they rapidly threw their political, diplomatic, social and economic support behind Ukraine and cut their ties with Russia as fast as possible. This same urgency was shown across our industry. The conflict was at the top of our Board’s agenda as it met a few days after the war started. Our board members shared what their companies, or their member companies, were doing to support Ukraine and exit Russia. Companies were concerned for their people in Russia, in some cases helping them leave or move to other operations in nearby countries. What was remarkable was the speed, clarity and unity of purpose. At the AA we were quickly liaising with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and DCMS, sharing the latest intelligence on what the advertising industry was experiencing and how it was responding.

One initiative which quickly stood out was the job opportunity platform In collaboration with the Ukrainian National Association, helps connect Ukrainian advertising professionals with employers from across Europe so they can safely be resettled. This made it easier for brands and agencies to help support fellow industry professionals and it was one of the first examples that showed how our industry was united in practical support of Ukraine. Advertisers, media, agencies and production companies could now easily post job vacancies, giving opportunities to colleagues in Ukraine moving to the West or to work remotely.

Since the war began President Zelensky has shown he is a communications genius. The heroism and character of the Ukrainian people is brilliantly encapsulated and inspired by his videos and speeches – the best rhetoric from a wartime leader since Churchill. His ‘I need ammunition, not a ride’ response to the US offer of evacuation in the early days set the tone. Churchill was memorably described by wartime CBS broadcaster Ed Murrow as ‘mobilising the English language and sending it into battle’ and Zelensky is his 21st century equivalent. Whether he is on the war-torn streets of Kyiv in his now-famous green sweatshirt, or standing alongside world leaders, Zelensky harnesses simple, emotive visuals and stories. His speech in Westminster was a brilliant example and, like Churchill, his gift for rhetoric is matched by that for theatre. Presenting a Ukrainian flag, signed two days before by frontline Ukrainian troops, to House speaker Nancy Pelosi in Congress, or the fighter helmet given to our own House speaker Lindsay Hoyle, along with another perfect soundbite to ‘give us wings to protect freedom’ were moments that win hearts, minds and billions of dollars, euros and pounds of western military and economic aid. His rhetoric and theatre is matched by practical action. For example, he has set up United 24 Media and turned to our industry to help tell the story of the war from a different narrative perspective. United 24 Media’s aim is to keep people interested in Ukraine’s struggle by providing the real story in a creative, upbeat and entertaining way to boost morale. I’m sure all this and much more has inspired Ukrainians to hold firm despite the unrelenting pressure and odds, and sustains their sky-high morale and belief in their eventual victory.

The West has kept up the economic pressure alongside the military support. The UK Government announced stringent sanctions, first focused on financial markets and transactions to limit the Russian economy, to reduce and constrain Russia’s capacity for war. These were followed by more targeted sector-specific sanctions announced in May, related to the communications industry, which came into force in July. They prohibited the direct or indirect provision of specific services, including consulting, public relations and accounting services with anyone connected to the Russian economy in Russia or the UK itself. Following this first wave, the Government announced further restrictions in September on UK exports of advertising to Russia, ramping up more pressure on Russia’s economic capability by disrupting crucial supply chains.

In addition, innovative and supportive campaigns and actions were seen within days of the invasion, with practicality and creativity at the heart of the industry’s response. Campaign created a podcast with advertising and media agency chiefs to discuss how advertisers in the UK should respond; the Advertising Producers Association raised £196,000 in just three days; the Ukrainian creative agency Banda released a heart-breaking short film titled #StandWithUkraine which communicated the devastating effect the war had caused in such a short period of time; ITV held the Concert for Ukraine which raised £13.4 million for the Disasters Emergency Committee; Three ended their sponsorship of the then-Russian owned Chelsea FC and the Government forced the club’s sale; major brands and agencies pulled their operations from Russia entirely, including WPP, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe, IPG and P&G; and here at the AA we created a hub dedicated to Ukraine on our website to help advertising practitioners navigate these turbulent times by gathering relevant information from the UK Government surrounding exports and sanctions, as well as industry coverage on the ongoing situation. You can view our hub here.

The advertising industry has given opportunities to Ukrainian colleagues and continues to do so. Here’s just one example from Tetiana Shcherbina, a Business Analyst at Out of Home specialist business, Evolve. She shared her experiences with us of how the industry has supported her, after moving from her home in Ukraine, where she left behind family and friends in search of a new job and home. The following is her own account:

Back in January 2022, I decided to make my way to the UK in search of new job possibilities. I started out my journey in Ireland, I had always known of its beautiful scenery and was enticed by the potential to work amongst it. I found it a struggle and soon via a UK government scheme was contacted by a lovely lady who offered to help. She opened her home to me and from the start took a real interest in my job search and having worked in the OOH space herself she had a few contacts.

Through LinkedIn the job at Evolve OOH was posted and I was put forward, after being contacted by CEO Robin Hall who wanted to meet me, I set about preparing for my interview. Having been a university teacher back in Ukraine, I knew working in the OOH industry would be a big change, alongside understanding and adapting to the culture differences in London.

After accepting the role at Evolve OOH, I was pleased to meet the rest of the team. Straight away I knew that this was a very sociable office with a strong collaborative approach. The team have always been supportive of my growth, in particular, my line manager who provides open and honest communication. It’s a real privilege to work with a range of international clients as I am exposed to even more cultures and preferences, one of the many perks of my role.

Overall, my time in the OOH industry and living in the lovely area of Greenwich is going great. London has such an array of new events and experiences that there is never a dull moment. The passion within Evolve OOH for creating the best strategic plans is admirable and learning form such an experienced team of people is a real joy. The industry is a whole new environment for me, but one that I hope will continue for many years to come.

There will be more we can do, I am sure. Sadly, the war shows no sign of ending quickly. We must continue to support our colleagues in Ukraine, be that through finding roles for them here in the UK to using all the creative, technical and strategic communications skills we have to help keep the stories of the people involved in the public eye. Finally, on a personal note, if like me you are a military history geek, I recommend the ‘Battleground Ukraine’ podcast on Spotify. The realities of the conflict are brought to life by military historians Saul David and Patrick Bishop and each week it reaffirms my belief that Ukrainian bravery, western democratic values and NATO firepower will prevail over Putin’s brutal attempt at tyranny. 

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