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Mariia Leonova: Advertising in independent Ukrainian media is an investment in security
Editor's Note: This story was sponsored by Stars4Media, a programme co-funded by the European Commission aiming at facilitating cooperation between media professionals, and accelerating media innovation and cross-border coverage in Europe,
Over the past year of Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine, our team at The Tellers Agency has considered closing up shop twice and seeking opportunities elsewhere due to the state of the advertising market.
At the outbreak of the full-scale invasion, thousands of employees directly and indirectly related to the advertising industry lost their jobs overnight. For many industries struggling to survive in Ukraine at the moment, advertising has become one of the last things on anyone’s mind.
But instead of total collapse, the advertising market has somersaulted from pre-war confidence in the future, to zero revenues, to finally, an evolving and partial recovery. Nobody sells classic advertising anymore. Brand stories about help, rescue, motivation, unity, and patriotism came to replace traditional advertising in Ukraine. The industry has learned to adapt to a totally different work environment along the way.
The following article is an attempt to understand the changes that the advertising industry has experienced in the last year, as well as a roadmap of how the advertising market in the media in Ukraine is currently being built.
Advertising in the media before Russia’s war
The Ukrainian media market was growing actively before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. More and more independent and niche media appeared (e.g. SPEKA), large market players became attractive to investors (Tomasz Fiala bought Ukrainska Pravda in 2021), and donor-dependent media began to actively generate commercial revenues (Zaborona, Hromadske).
In 2021, the media advertising market grew consistently, largely due to delayed demand. All the planned campaigns, events, and sponsorship projects that were supposed to take place during the Covid-19 lockdowns were finally able to see the light of day.
According to estimates of the Ukrainian Advertising Coalition, digital media advertising (which also includes advertising on social networks and banners) grew by 50% compared to 2020.
The media industry actively developed during this time, with various outlets competing with one another not so much in terms of revenue generated or in the number of brands advertised, but rather in terms of image. Media companies looked to build a specific brand in the business and advertising community.
Media companies also began to experiment with native advertising on the short-form video sharing application TikTok; interactive layouts and games appeared on websites, attracting the attention of the audience and creating a higher demand among brands. Entire production departments with their own designers, creators, producers, editors, and journalists formed new commercial media teams. It seemed that everything was gaining a lot of momentum and the only challenge soon would be to enter the blue ocean of non-competition — to come up with such a value proposition that was not yet on the market. One could only envy the media companies with an advertising model that allowed them to be self-sustaining.
The expectations for 2022 were extremely positive and encouraging. Many companies ended the year with signed contracts for cooperation for the upcoming year. Everything changed on Feb. 24, 2022.
Russia declares war against Ukraine
On Feb. 24, 2022, the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the production of all planned advertisements came to a halt. Contracts were left unsigned. The "unforeseen circumstances" clause in contracts had become a reality.
My last “normal” work call was on Feb. 23 with a pharmaceutical company, just 12 hours before Russia’s full-scale invasion began. With the threat of war looming, I proposed the idea of a campaign around how to pack a first aid kit. The client said they would prefer their products to be associated with peace, not war. We never returned to our conversation. With the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the company continued to work with pharmacies even in areas where the Russian military was advancing and raised money for Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
The financial crisis caused by Russia’s full-scale invasion has affected most Ukrainian media companies. Those dependent on advertisements suffered the most, as businesses either suspended their operations or refocused on volunteering. Most media companies didn’t even have funds to cover operations for a few months. Instead of suspending operations, however, they began to look for opportunities.
Donors became the first “life jacket” to support their operations. In the first weeks of the war, international organizations provided urgent support to allow editorial teams to continue working, covering much needed funds for relocation, insurance, and transportation.
But it quickly became clear that relying on donors was not possible in the long term. Ukrainian media needed to rebuild and diversify their revenue models. Since reader revenue couldn’t cover the high cost of operations, media companies had to get back into advertising.
But how do you even talk about this when all anyone is doing is monitoring the news about Russian attacks, making donations, evacuating, and working to adapt their business to the new and constantly changing environment?
This is how our company, The Tellers Agency, did it.
The Tellers Agency (called Infopoint Agency prior to 2023) came out with an official release in the third month of the war. The main goal of our service was to help independent media companies work with businesses through advertising. We gathered a strong team of sales managers and creative producers and got to work. But instead of reaching out to companies to offer our services, we started with market analysis. When contacting companies we wrote a simple, “How are you? Where are you now? Is your company still operating?”
The questions ended up providing real insight. Some companies replied by telling us that they were no longer operating due to a missile attack on their warehouse that resulted in major financial losses. We then created a "map" of business areas and the level of their losses due to the war. We began to adapt advertising ideas to new realities. All past approaches and ideas were now unethical and out of date. Stories about successful entrepreneurs were replaced by stories about civilians on the front lines. Instead of promoting the company's products, we offered to talk about their volunteer initiatives.
By the spring of 2022, market players were ready to continue talking about brand communication in the media. The market by then could be described as the following:
- Companies reduced marketing budgets or were unwilling to spend much due to high levels of uncertainty.
- Communication departments of brands were afraid to be seen in the public arena due to the fear of society not accepting other information except that which was related to the war.
- The media industry suffered from a lack of specialists (some joined the military, some went abroad and found a job there, some were laid off due to budget cuts).
- Due to a high demand for information related to the war, media outlets did not have the bandwidth to focus on advertising.
- Some large companies that had suspended their work in Ukraine due to the war stopped interacting with the Ukrainian advertising market.
- Some outlets in Ukraine themselves refused to work with certain clients because they continued their activities in Russia.
Advertising in the media is no longer just about business interests
The war has drastically reshaped the advertising industry in Ukraine. Brands no longer demand unprecedented creativity, preferring humanity and simplicity in their messaging. Attention to design has given way to simplified formats as the essence of the message has become more important to the audience.
Companies also talk less about themselves as a new community has come to the fore: the people of Ukraine as a symbol of resistance to Russian aggression. The language in the industry is now one of hope and unity for victory.
The hope at The Tellers Agency is that potential foreign partners will see the speed with which Ukrainian companies are developing even during a war. Independent media in Ukraine is also an entry point for businesses to gain access to quality audiences, that is, those who have a strong set of values and consume responsibly. Many of these outlets have English-language versions and a respectable foreign audience.
It can be difficult for those of us working in Ukraine to convey to potential foreign partners how much we have changed and grown, in all spheres, despite this brutal war. So how does one communicate the importance of cooperation with Ukraine, a market that has the world’s attention, to potential partners abroad?
As CEO of The Tellers Agency I believe the following to be the most convincing: As long as independent media exist, they will continue to tell the truth. The information health of a society allows it to fight for its democracy and independence. By advertising in Ukraine’s independent media, you are investing in a peaceful future for Ukraine and the whole world.