Never underestimate a Russian

Written by John Bonar

My relationship with Russia began in 1993 and has continued ever since. In the autumn of that year I received a telephone call from a friend who worked in the London advertising sales scene. “What do know of the Goodwill Games, John?” he asked.  “Nothing” was my response, followed up by “why are you asking me, you are the sports enthusiast?”

It emerged that my friend Darren, had been approached over the 1994 Goodwill Games scheduled for St Petersburg. The approach was to publish the official souvenir magazine of the Games on behalf of the Local Organising Committee. That concession was among the marketing opportunities offered to the St Petersburg government by the Games’ owner Ted Turner.

Ted Turner, owner of CNN, created the Goodwill Games to offset the boycotts of the Olympic Games first in the 1980 Moscow Olympics by the United States over the invasion by the Soviet Union of Afghanistan and then the reciprocal boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics by the Soviets and their Eastern bloc allies. The first Goodwill Games were held in 1986 in Moscow, the second in 1990 in Seattle and the third was scheduled for St Petersburg.

Being a savvy follower of current affairs Mr. Turner was well aware that he needed local help in St Petersburg to ensure the games went ahead smoothly. I understood he did not want to pay commercial rates for that so he proposed that the St Petersburg Local Organising Committee fund their expenses by selling the marketing opportunities he was prepared to allocate to them. I am convinced Mr. Turner knew full well that a few years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union no Russians yet knew enough about international sports marketing to turn the opportunities into capital.

Never underestimate a Russian

As it turned out the Russians also knew their limitations.

The man he was dealing with was the Deputy Governor of St Petersburg responsible for international business relations. A man who has gone on to grace the covers of the world’s news magazines and gest star coverage on US TV news channels. That’s right, Vladimir Putin, a former colonel in the KGB!

The next thing, another retired KGB Colonel, who had also served in Germany, and was now an accomplished sculptor of fine table centre pieces, arrived in London looking for people who knew publishing and also sports marketing. Through a fellow St Petersburg artist now resident in London, Vitaly Vinogradov, he found Darren and Darren found me.

The task seemed impossible. Selling high-ticket advertising aimed at Russians in 1993?

Excuse me, the last I saw of Russia on television were food aid parcels being tossed out of German trucks to the starving inhabitants of Moscow.

In 1993 five years before Google was founded, the internet was in its infancy and e-mail was a floundering experiment. Communications centred on the telephone, telex and facsimile machines. Reuters did a search for me on Goodwill Games and while the reams of paper they generated were dominated by sports results there was enough general background to justify calling the Games an international sporting event.

Somewhat reassured I produced the telephone sales pitch, the offer confirmation fax and rate card, the booking form and internal processing paperwork. Now, I told Darren, let’s test this.

By the end of the day I had earned £3,000 in commission!

I began diffidently phoning the London offices of the major advertisers with a synergistic relationship with sport:  Nike, Mars, Intel and so on. I quickly found that not only were these global marketers interested in Russia many had full-fledged dedicated offices, if not in the country itself then in nearby countries such as Austria or Switzerland.

Over 18 months I became the highest earner on the souvenir magazine, pioneered the launch of half a dozen high gloss consumer Russian magazine titles and my rapidly growing sales teams generated over £3 m in advertising sales. The company had grown exponentially to over 100 employees and I had been elevated to Marketing Director.

That was the zenith of Goodwill Publishing plc and it rapidly went into decline. Darren split from the Russian oriented organisation and set up his own company focussing on African and South American  event publishing. My consumer division was bled of its cashflow as the company bought a St Petersburg TV broadcaster and tried to turn it into a national channel. The ethos of fulfilling your promises of distribution and circulation had failed to penetrate the board’s psyche.

By the time the company was ignominiously liquidated I was long gone, sitting in Moscow as adviser to the chairman of Moskovski Novosti and trying to build a diversified publishing house.

I travelled the length and breadth of this vast country spanning 11 time zones from Arkhangelsk, across the Siberian tundra to the country’s Window on the East, Vladivostok. Since I walked along Moscow’s Tversakaya Street from the old Palace Hotel (now the Sheraton Palace) in 1994 to Red Square the capital has been transformed and the rest of the country is rapidly catching up. In 1994 Tverskaya was poorly lit. The old windows had not been revamped into retail show cases and the brightest light on the long walk was the American Bar and Grill sign off Mayakovsky Square. That busy friendly bar restaurant was to be staple of mine over the years.

I met many Russians, but never Vladimir Putin. However, I got a clear picture of him from the respect he engendered among Russians of all walks of life for restoring their pride in their nation. More telling perhaps are the young twenty year olds I met back then who swore they saw no future for any babies, are now pushing prams and taking toddlers by the hand.

Never underestimate a Russian!