ConsultantSees Shift In Ad Biz

When Bruce Macdonald arrived in Moscow in 1988 to set up an office for the international ad firm BBDO, the landscape was bare. A few Soviet billboards unimaginatively flogged run-of-the-mill products, and television and radio were sleepy media bereft of cloying sales pitches.

But as soon as Western companies started to come to Russia with the start of economic reforms, their advertisers appeared like mushrooms after a storm. The subsequent expansion of BBDO and other ad agencies here led to the ritz and glitz of Western-style commercials that now dominate the Russian airwaves.

Now, Macdonald sees another trend starting to take shape. Although the quality and themes of Western advertising may be here to stay, the future is with Russian firms, he says, and he's seeking to ride the wave.

"In the last three years foreign agencies have dominated the business so I have to ask what it's going to be like in the future," Macdonald says, calling the present 75 to 25 split in product advertising in favor of Western agencies "sad."

However, "the two most important media companies here are Premier SV and Video International," Macdonald says. "They either dictate or decide what will really happen in television both centrally and regionally."

Macdonald recently joined Premier as a consultant, advising the Russian firm on how to "gain experience and knowledge of how Western agencies work and what Western clients expect."

A senior source at BBDO indicated that Macdonald's departure from the office he founded after eight years was not entirely voluntary, although the source did not elaborate on any reasons.

Macdonald, for his part, says he has "no differences" with BBDO, adding: "I leave with lots of smiles." He remains secretary of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, which he helped found several years ago.

Judging by last month's Moscow advertising festival in which Premier SV and Video International dominated the competition, Russian agencies certainly have caught on to the art of producing creative television advertising. The successful firms -- Western and Russian -- have blended foreign production and marketing techniques with specifically Russian themes.

Premier, however, also has acquired a reputation for cutthroat business tactics. Its director, Sergei Lisovsky, helped run Boris Yeltsin's successful re-election campaign but his ties to national television channel ORT as its main distributor of advertising time have led to accusations of unfairness and dirty money. Macdonald waves off such criticisms as part of doing business here.

"During the presidential elections Premier SV and Video International both did a very professional job," he says. "That's likely to draw admiration or fear."

Media wholesalers may earn scorn from advertisers but do provide a valuable service here, he said.

Macdonald is one of a small but growing number of Western executives who have been snatched up by leading Russian businesses interested in learning more about the Western market. Perhaps like those in other industries, Macdonald sees more happening in the future on the Russian side than the international side: "Maybe it's nationalism, or protectionism or the pride of developing their own. I think you'll see a number of Russian companies asserting themselves more in a number of certain industries."

If so, some will have a good ways to claw back their dominant pre-perestroika position, owing to the ad-driven Western expansion here. Macdonald cites the decline of the country's cigarette industry as an example of how strong campaigns by Western tobacco giants virtually crippled their Russian competitors.