Andrey Barannikov talks Russia, Putin, the World Cup, and PR

CEO Barannikov's firm, SPN Communications, is one of the largest in Russia and was heavily involved in promoting the 12 host cities during the recently concluded soccer World Cup.

Andrey Barannikov (second from right) and his team at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Andrey Barannikov (second from right) and his team at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

What has your agency done to support the World Cup in Russia?

It’s been communications, not only as a PR agency but also events. This particular contract is more connected with event management.

We were responsible for several important events before the World Cup and last year’s Confederation Cup. We managed the Confederation Cup and World Cup draws. The most important event we organized was the FIFA Congress and the FIFA team said it was the best congress they’ve had in 15 years.

Who are your clients?

There are two World Cup-related clients - FIFA and another called LOC, the Local Organizing Committee. LOC is headed by Alexey Sorokin.

Tell me more about the World Cup work.

I’m happy and very impressed with the number of tourists who came. In comparison with the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 it’s 100 times more tourists from everywhere: Latin America, Africa, Europe.

I was amazed that the second country after Russia that got the most Fan ID registrations was the U.S., which to my understanding is mainly people coming from the U.S. and supporting other teams, like Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Russia, or other countries.

I met a lot of Americans. They probably don’t 100% understand the philosophy of this game, but they’re definitely interested and ready to visit any match. This is different from Russian culture, which is mostly connected to the national team. But all the stadiums are full.

It was an amazing atmosphere. I’ve been to each World Cup since 1998 and I don't see a particular difference. It’s much more interesting here, especially for all the foreigners who come to Russia.

Many people in the cafes and restaurants, 90% are coming for the first time. They now know how to pronounce the names of Russian cities. The infrastructure was prepared on time, which again is not typical for Russia. The architecture of the stadiums is not perfect, but in terms of view and comfort it’s one of the better World Cups.

What will the World Cup do for Brand Russia?

For 20 years we have the same discussion about the reputation of Russia in the world. And Russia spent a lot of effort and money to improve this. For me, this is more important than the Olympics or any other event in Russia. It’s important for guests coming for the first time, opening up Russian culture, cuisine, cities, and people.

Russians always take care of their guests. They want to show their country, city, or house in the best way. I remember from the Soviet time, we were all very poor. My father’s salary was about $150 per month, but there was a tradition that you bring any guest that comes to your house everything you had in the fridge, you needed to cover the table. This is the Russian philosophy, Russian culture. We try to bring as much as we can, and hopefully it will influence a lot of people in the world to change their view and see Russia in a better way.

How can Russia improve its image abroad?

The World Cup is a chance to change a lot of things in understanding Russia, not only in terms of normal tourists. For example, the discussion about Ukraine and Crimea features much less in the Russian media now. It looks like everybody is not so interested in raising this issue again. In terms of Putin and Trump, every meeting makes things better.

Putin is a fantastic person who is respected everywhere in Russia. Go outside and ask about him and everyone would say they are happy with Putin as our president and his policy and care for the people. He is definitely respected within his own country.

What’s the biggest misconception about Russia in the rest of the world?

People think Russians are cold people and not interested in the rest of the world, not very polite, and very private. Of course, it is completely different. Russians are very open. Unfortunately, we haven’t had many chances to show it to the rest of the world. So now is the best time and best opportunity.

What about Russia's anti-LGBT attitudes and journalists disappearing?

We need to separate legends and real stories. Journalists disappear all over the world. It can happen in any country.

In terms of LGBT, I don’t think it’s the attitude of Putin, federal power, or police - it’s the attitude of the majority of people in Russia. Personally, I’m quite OK with it, but we need to respect those people also. In Moscow, even with all my tolerance, I sometimes felt a little disappointed with some of the pictures I saw. Now I see it less, probably because I am becoming older and more conservative. Now I find myself more comfortable in this atmosphere to be honest. I am a very free person and very open minded.

How many people do you have in St. Petersburg and how many in Moscow?

About 50 In St. Petersburg and 150 in Moscow. Moscow is the main hub because it’s like London in Great Britain. If you want to be serious you need to be in Moscow and even though I was born in St. Petersburg and created the company there, I’ve been in Moscow 20 years. Everything is in Moscow and the major part of our businesses are connected with Moscow.

What are your annual revenues?

Revenue in 2016 was about $23 million. Hopefully this year we will be more successful due to the World Cup.

How do you rank in terms of Russian and international PR agencies?

There’s been a national ranking for five years and we were in first place for the first two years and this particular year we got second place behind Mikhailov & Partners. We were never lower than third, including Weber Shandwick, FleishmanHillard, all the companies operating in Russia.

Why did you decide to join the global PROI network?

We started as an independent Russian company. After that we joined Ogilvy as an affiliate, working with Matthew Anderson and then Stuart Smith. From time to time we had long discussions with WPP about whether they would buy the business and finally they didn’t, so we’re still operating as an independent company.

But we have lots of clients who need services outside Russia. We need a strong network and I’ve known some of the people at PROI for more than 10 years from different international conferences. They stopped working with their previous Russian agency and we negotiated for three months and have already got our first business with them.

Will you stay independent?

At the moment I’m satisfied with the position of the company in the market. I think I did a lot for the development of PR in Russia. We have invested not only money but also physical efforts to make the profession more understandable for Russian media for example.

How does communications and marketing work together in Russian companies?

Our industry is going through a difficult period. When I was  young, brands like Ogilvy made me get up after I read David Ogilvy’s book about advertising. It was like a legend for me. Now it’s completely different all over the world, including in Russia. Youngsters don’t care about those legends. They don’t care about Ogilvy, SPN Communications.

There are three people sitting in a room and if there is no room, they’re just sitting at home and clients do the same thing. They don’t care, they just see the efficiency of the work. But these bloggers do more work than a whole agency of 500 people.

Is media relations still important?

It is important but there is an alternative. Media relations, especially TV, is more widespread than the web. On the other side, you need to create your own media and story. If you don’t have effective storytelling it wouldn’t work.

What are the big social networks in Russia?

VK is like the Facebook of Russia, though Facebook also exists, and personally I use Facebook much more than VK. But VK is mostly for the rich.  Moscow is more into Facebook, but Russia is more into VK. It’s a short name, but in Russia it’s called VKontakte which means, in contact.

What about WhatsApp?

WhatsApp is widely used, and I’m sure you’ve heard about Telegram Messenger, which was created by the same guy who invented VK - Pavel Durov. He’s from Russia and I feel sorry he now lives more outside of Russia. Telegram was officially forbidden in Russia because it refused to hand over the encryption keys, unlike WhatsApp, which agreed to do this [though WhatsApp doesn't centrally store encryption keys].

The funny thing is Telegram still works and it has different channels, for example there is one for PR specialists. Channels can be on any theme you wish, theater, restaurants, PR. It’s much more effective than any official media. Another channel has all the stories about politics in Russia, including unofficial, so it becomes like a competitor with ‘real’ media.

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