Holding an advertising agency together in the middle of a war

Kyiv-based creative agency IAmIdea was scheduled to begin production on a new campaign for Domino’s Pizza on Feb. 24. But before dawn, agency president and creative director Igor Finashkin received a call from the production managers. “They said the shoot is cancelled because the war had started.”

Soon after that, the first rockets started crashing into the outskirts of the city. “I don’t know even the word or the sentence how to explain that feeling,” said Finashkin, who spoke with The Message via Zoom from Kyiv. “You’re just doing everything to save your life, and to save the lives of your family and your team.”

IAmIdea copywriter Lera Gavrilyuk

In the next few hours and days, the peaceful lives of all 22 people working at the agency were shattered by the actions of the Russian military. With Kyiv seemingly a direct target, many—particularly those with families—wanted to escape the city.

At first, Finashkin took his family to his parents’ home 200 kilometres from Kyiv, before getting them safely to France. He stayed in the western part of Ukraine for a couple more weeks before returning to Kyiv.

Other IAmIdea employees had similar ordeals. Some fled Kyiv, but felt safe enough to return in recent weeks, while others left the country altogether. Someone ended up in Georgia, another in Germany, another in Lithuania, one in Stockholm and creative group head Irene Ilchanka, along with her common law partner Oleksandra Samorodova and stepson Noah, made it to Toronto.

On Feb. 24, Samorodova and Ilchanka were awoken at 5 a.m. by the sound of explosions as Russian rockets fell 20 kilometres from their downtown apartment. It took them 25 minutes to pack everything they needed for themselves, Noah, two cats, and one dog into one suitcase. “We left the apartment and never came back,” said Ilchanka.

They spent a couple of days sheltering in an underground parking lot, before moving to a friend’s house 30 kilometres from the city. When they saw the first footage of the attacks on Kharkiv, they knew they had to move further west. An 18-hour ride on an overcrowded evacuation train got them to the ski resort town of Bokovel. From there they eventually walked across the border into Romania.

Samorodova, a doctor, had worked for a few years in Toronto, and Noah had been born here, so they hoped to reach Canada. Samorodova reached out to some friends, who began to make preparations for them, including finding them an apartment. Ilchanka, Samorodova, Noah, two cats and one dog all landed in Toronto on March 11.

But as terrifying as those first hours and days were—as broken and uncertain as everything seemed around them—something interesting happened.

Pretty quickly, IAmIdea staff returned to their group chats and were emailing each other about work. They knew that in all likelihood their clients no longer needed whatever they had been working on, but it gave them something to do.

They even began joking about their deadlines. “To fight the stress, a very powerful weapon is humour—humour and creativity fighting the stress,” said Finashkin. “So that’s how we were trying to sort our emotional situation out.”

With the typical routines, rhythms, and expectations of a commercial economy on hold, marketing plans and advertising campaigns were put aside to focus on the war effort. “What everyone is trying to do now is to help each other,” said Finashkin. “If you’re asking how to describe February and March and even April in one word, that word is support.”

The IAmIdea team put its creative skills to work to doing what it could do best: Communications. “We have kind of an informational army,” said Finashkin. “[Ukrainian] advertisers are not starting commercial campaigns at all, so 90% of our work now is informational war, informational support of our country, and creativity to support our country.

“Our goal is to inform people all around the world what’s actually going on in Ukraine, to spread the word.”

They’ve created rousing rallying cries to inspire the population at home; videos directly challenging Russian propaganda; and ads calling on NATO to impose a no-fly zone over the country.

The work is first about helping Ukraine, but it’s also been good for the IAmIdea team. As much as their lives were broken apart on Feb. 24, their work, being part of a team, the daily status calls—even those interrupted by colleagues having to dash to a bomb shelter—gives them a sense of a normalcy, and a distraction from the horrors being visited upon the country. “You feel like you’re living a life,” said Ilchanka.

“We haven’t met for two months, I haven’t seen the guys for two months, but I don’t have a feeling like we are apart,” said Anna Iemelianova, an art director at the agency who has been working from Stockholm. “We are still a group of people who are an agency, you know. It’s not like we are falling apart. And this is important.”

As the shock of the first few weeks of war wore off, IAmIdea also started to think about how it could survive as a business with almost all of their client work on hold. “We are looking towards the future and moving towards it very intensively and energetically,” said Iemelianova.

It’s not easy to plan for the future when the future is so uncertain and a frightening path lies ahead. Even if the war were to end tomorrow, it’s unclear what work would be like. “The damage that’s been done to our country, it’s immense,” she said.

But they are trying. “We still want to be Ukrainian agency and we want to pay taxes to Ukraine, and be Ukrainians and live at home,” said Iemelianova.

For now, that means IAmIdea has—for all intents and purposes—gone global. “We’re trying to get more projects from outside of Ukraine because we want to save the team,” said Finashkin. “We want to pay salaries, we want to keep working. And we want to keep working for Ukraine as well. Because, as creators, this is the best thing that we can do to support our country.”

Iemelianova is exploring possibilities in Stockholm, for example, and Ilchanka will do the same from Toronto. (See the IAmIdea showreel and a recent ad for fashion brand Intertop below.)

Speaking with The Message six weeks after arriving in Canada, Ilchanka says she misses home, and if it hadn’t been for Noah and Oleksandra, she might not have left. “But I didn’t want my family to be separated. I didn’t want to split, that’s why we’re holding together.”

It was important for them to get somewhere safe and stable as quickly as possible for their son, she says. “For adults, it’s not easy, but it’s understandable. We can handle this somehow, but kids, they don’t understand what is going on.”

They settled in a donated apartment in Toronto’s tranquil Beaches neighbourhood, and quickly got Noah into a nearby school. “It’s his birthday in three weeks, and he already invited some of the friends he has here, so we’re super happy about that.”

It took her some time to get settled in and figure out some of the basics of their new—and hopefully temporary—life. “Simply to go buy some food, it’s like an adventure,” she says.

For a few weeks now, she’s been back to work, starting her day earlier than normal so she can connect with her colleagues and co-workers back home, and they keep moving forward as best they can while the tragedy of war hangs over them.

She’s grateful she and her family are safe, but it doesn’t feel like home, she says. And she has pangs of guilt for being safe when so many others in her homeland are not. “It’s the survivor’s syndrome, when you are safe you feel guilty about being safe.”

In those frantic 25 minutes in the very early morning of Feb. 24, Ilchanka thought to bring along what she needed to work, including her laptop and chargers. And, of course she has her phone, though the screen is badly cracked. “It’s dying, but that’s okay. It’s still working. I don’t want to change it because it was smashed when we were running—we heard the sirens and were running into the bomb shelter, and it fell,” she said.

“But I don’t want to change it because it’s a memory of the moment.”


David Brown