— When did your independent life begin?
— Where did you go?
— The Internet boom was starting. I sold my car, computer, CD collection, DJ gear and mixer panel, and left for New York. There I soon opened a web design agency. Then I managed the Internet subsection of the company Euro RSCG. After six years, I was earning ten thousand dollars a month. We had some big clients, such as Intel and Volvo. This meant orders worth millions. But everything collapsed on 11the September 2001, when the Twin Towers were blown up. An economic recession began. Orders stopped coming in. When the money ran out, I left for Spain, where I worked as deputy director of a company responsible for an IT service. And I was educating myself all the time.
— How did you come to Russia?
— I was called by a Russian friend, an investment banker, whom I had got to know in New York. After the crisis he returned to Moscow. One day he rang me and said: “Come on over!” I definitely did not like Moscow at first. I left sunny Spain in October, and here it was pouring with rain, cold rain which soon turned into wet snow. The city seemed uncomfortable to me, and the people unfriendly. At first I lived with my friend. He moved around Moscow in a car with guards. And he told me “Don’t go around the city on foot, it’s very dangerous”, Two weeks later I went out alone for a walk anyway, and… nothing terrible happened. How I laughed at my own fears! I soon began to gain new friends.
— Is there a particular concept of friendship in Russia?
— It isn’t easy to find someone after your own heart in Russia, but once you do, it will be a long, strong relationship. In Russia, friends are almost like relatives, who help you in every way they can. Four months later I opened the Cygen interactive agency in Moscow. I had to invest ten thousand dollars, My friends helped me fill in the tax declaration and explained the nature of Russian laws, which are quite unlike American or German or Spanish laws. And for all this, they wouldn’t take a kopek from me. There was an advantage in our firm not having to look for partners, they were already there. We made use of our earning made while we were in New York. We had customers from all over the world: Volvo USA, MCI Worldcom, Red Bull, Vitaminshoppe, New Balance, Schering Plough, TBWA and Saatchi & Saatchi. It makes sense to operate in Russia because the workforce is cheaper here.
— Did your interest in music help? After all, you were continuously working as a DJ.
— Being a DJ is largely a hobby for me, but it does bring in some money all the same. Once or twice a week I still earn something as Dj Two-Zero, because it’s something I really like doing. I get paid five or six thousand roubles for a party.
— Why did you close the Cygen agency?
— The company, which was engaged in design, began bringing in less profit. The people there wanted to receive good salaries, drive expensive cars and hang out in expensive clubs. As a result, I had to part company with them. In 2008, an American friend and I decided to open a new advertising agency, ‘Kollektiv’. In addition to us, a Russian programmer was involved. But the American partner ended up marrying a German woman and going back to America. The Russian programmer was keen on getting money but not so keen on earning it. We parted on good terms, he went away with a good pay-off. As a result, I was left as the sole owner of the company called ‘Kollektiv’. I had two MSU graduates working for me, they were both 23 years old. In 2012, when I couldn’t pay their wages, they said: “We are all one team, we’ll work without pay, you can pay us when some money comes in.” Two months later we were doing fine, and I said: “You helped me out in a difficult period, so I’ll make you partners in my company.” We three became the co-owners of ‘Kollektiv’. Then one of the lads left the company to open his own business, so now there are two of us at the helm. We have three people working under us.
I think advertising agencies in Russia offer very good creativity, but the client is sometimes not bold enough to bring it to life. Everyone wants something unusual, but when it comes to choosing, clients often settle on a more boring variant. That is why we simply do not see enough creative proposals.
There has never been a problem with creative ideas in Russia, but in my view there are problems with high-quality implementation.
I would not recommend opening an agency during the crisis without any investments to cover at least the wages of around five staff and office expenses for the next six months to a year. These are difficult times. It will take at least a few months before you can win the first tender and implement the project, and you still have to wait for the money thereafter…
The Russian market has very great potential for the development of the creative sector of services and products. But the total slice of the pie is becoming smaller and smaller, and the conditions of the game ever harder. There are advantages and disadvantages to opening an agency in Moscow. It is not all that difficult to find inexpensive office space and staff. It is much more difficult to attract clients, particularly foreign companies which believe in your local experience.
— Can you say how much you pay them?
— From 1500 to 2000 dollars. I would pay more, but we have big expenses. Take for example our project with Volkswagen, for whom we made a video advertisement. The process of making a media product is quite labour-intensive. You have to pay a creative director to compose the original scenario, a copywriter to write the text, and a director. There can be up to 45 people involved in a large project like that. The production company manages some of them and we manage the others.
— Whereabouts is your office?
— It’s in one of the basement premises not far from the Frunzenskaya metro station. It’s a bad thing, of course, to have such a modest office. I don’t invite clients to the office. If necessary, I go out to them, We are having to economize now. Previously our office was on Tverskaya, we shared it half each with another company.
— How much is the rent?
— We pay two thousand dollars a month for premises of 50 square metres. In Germany, a basement like that would be no more than 500 euros. Moscow is a very expensive city.
— How did the sanctions crisis affect your business?
— At the end of the year, orders were down by 30%. January was better, but in February and March we had to invest serious money to cover the losses. They pay money very quickly in Russia, unlike America or Germany, where you have to wait about three months to get paid. Now we have a very big client, Domodedovo airport. We produce booklets and other printed products for them.
— How did you learn Russian?
— I studied with an MSU professor. The lessons were quite expensive. But he not only taught me the Russian language, he also explained the difference in the meanings of different words, and historical cultural associations. I began learning Russian quite recently, three years ago, when I got married and realized that I would be in Russia for a long time.
The advertising market has grown both in quantity and quality over the past five years. According to the latest figures, it totals 340 billion roubles. From last year’s results, Russia is among the five biggest advertising markets in Europe and holds 11th place in the world’s biggest advertising markets. The improvement in the quality of the creative product us confirmed by the rising number of international awards at such prestigious festivals as Cannes Lions, Clio, Eurobest and many others. For the first time in history, Russia won the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions, under a new heading: Innovation. There are people in the creative market who are ready to move the industry forward in spite of the difficult current economic situation in Russia. Right now, by creating high-quality, accurate and optimistic advertising, agencies will help the client’s business to get out of the downward trend and thus strengthen the economy as a whole.
— Why was that?
— As I said, I got married. My wife Yelizaveta is 20 years younger than me. She is an actress. We got to know each other in making a short film about a German getting to know a Russian girl. The Russian director and scenario writer Nikolai Khomeriki was looking for an ethnic German, and happened to find me. I was taken on as the leading man. I wasn’t working for money, once again it was a matter of helping out a friend. Liza played a secondary role, but in real life she became my wife. She flatly refuses to leave Russia, she is a patriot, her parents live here, and her career is going successfully, in spite of her having to spend a lot of time bringing up our little daughter Charlotte. Liza is now acting in a serial running on the main Federal channel.
— Are you renting an apartment?
— Yes, we have taken an apartment in the centre. We are paying 66,000 roubles for 40 square metres. It is a small apartment, but it is in what they call a “Stalin house”. It has been well renovated.
— How much do Russians and Germans differ in their way of thinking?
— Working in business, I suddenly discovered that the Russians have a southern temperament, like the Italians. For example, to make a German shout, you have to try very hard, it takes a long time to get him to do it, but a Russian gets there in no time and starts shouting right away. On one hand this is bad, because it takes up a lot of energy when the matter could have been settled calmly. On the other hand, it is an outward expression of emotion, a Russian person is open, he has no hidden agenda.
— You have been in Russia 12 years now. Have the Russians changed in this time?
— Russians have become more positive, more democratic, there is less showing off in their behaviour. But a certain problem arose a year ago. It now seems to the Russians all the time that foreigners relate badly to them. This brings a certain tension into relations. But I should like to say that their fears are unfounded.
— Do you have any favourite places in Moscow?
— I very much like the Novodevichi monastery, it is particularly attractive at sunset. There are many green avenues there. I take a skateboard with me when I go walking there, and tennis racquets. I love the bars on the top floors of hotels. Moscow is a city where the distant view is always screened from you. But from on high, a most beautiful panorama opens up. I order beer or whisky and admire Moscow, and watch the aircraft coming in to land.
— Is it worth coming to Russia in this time of crisis?
— My oligarch client say that the biggest fish grow in cold water. I think it’s worth the risk!