A couple of years later, I moved to the Bates Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency, heading up their Russian tobacco account. I was so young, I didn’t even think about how appalling that product was. I saw it as an exciting opportunity to work with a global brand and to take on a challenge. Because cigarette advertising was banned in Russia, I had to rely exclusively on below-the-line approaches. We tried in-store promotions, samples, road shows, concerts, and anything else we thought would get our target audience — people 25 and younger — to change their behavior and ultimately become smokers.
Selling cigarettes is really selling behavior change. The appeal of smoking is being cool: socializing, holding a cigarette just so, building self-esteem with the product. Through the tobacco campaigns, I learned how to target human behavior and self-image to market just about anything. For example, in Russia, where nearly everyone eats yogurt, I introduced a brand called Yogo Yogo. Instead of advertising, I hired actors to dress up as a strawberry, a peach, an orange, and a cow, and I sent them into the Moscow Metro with a boom box playing the Yogo Yogo jingle. On the subway trains there, nearly every kind of behavior is illegal. You can’t spit, run, or eat without a penalty. The actors got arrested, as I knew they would, and the press had a field day writing about these costumed fruits locked up in the metro jail. It made Yogo Yogo seem rebellious: the “naughty” yogurt. Kids loved it, and the product did well.
I gradually became recognized in Russia as a pioneer in below-the-line marketing. But Moscow was a rough place. I had run-ins with the mafia, got caught up in a case of tax evasion against the company for which I worked, and barely managed to leave the country before being killed or placed in jail. I then moved on to work in other Eastern bloc countries: Yugoslavia, Poland, Bulgaria. My last stop was Romania, which in the mid-1990s was an artist’s dream, a blank canvas struggling out of Communism. Young people had very little entertainment or pop culture, and consumer goods were limited. They were hungry for everything.
My usual techniques — innovative media parties and celebrities — were front-page news there. I was working with about 20 product accounts, including brands of shampoo, whiskey, cigarettes, and washing machines. At one point, I brought together three of my youth brands — a pager company, a jeans company, and Coca-Cola — and partnered with MTV to throw Romania’s first rave. It turned out to be Romania’s Woodstock. We hosted the party in an airline hangar that could hold 7,000 people, but 50,000 kids turned up. They banged the doors down; cars were carried away. All of these kids were desperate to be part of our scene, and we didn’t even have major celebrities, just an MTV VJ. The power of MTV can make a campaign so successful that any brand that taps into it is golden.
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In 1997, I was approached by Michael Holscher, who ran a Romanian program for Population Services International. He wanted to launch a mass-media campaign to educate kids about AIDS prevention. Not only did he want my help, he wanted me to donate my time, and he said that he was asking five advertising agencies to bid on the project. I wanted to do it. I knew that my agency could win. By then, I had relationships with Romanian media stations, actors, and companies. I asked a rock star friend and his band, Holograf, to write a song about safe sex, and when I pitched PSI for the account, I brought the band into the conference room to perform the song. We mocked up a CD with safe-sex messages on the cover and a condom attached. It won us the account, and the song, whose title translates as “I Do What I Want, but I Know What I’m Doing,” ended up being a huge hit in that country.