I don’t really like the word ‘marketer’ – in Russian it has a fairly negative subtext. Unfortunately, today there aren’t many impressive specialists in the marketing sector. I started my career-path in brand management, which is a field at the intersection between marketing and business. Despite what most people think, brand management isn’t just about making adverts – it’s also to do with defining the development strategy for the brand, the design of the products and their pricing, and sales-support. A brand manager responds to the financial indicators of the brand and to consumer insights. In other words, a good specialist has to understand (and analyse) what consumers want or might want. Obviously, you then need the support of advertising, once you’ve understood all of that.
In your last years at Coca-Cola you were a Senior Brand Manager, which is the next step from being a Brand Manager. What was the difference?
The difference was my level of responsibility, and the type of tasks that the role involved. They became more complicated – they started to include some strategic considerations, negotiations with partners, and solving financial issues. But for me, the main difference was that I was answering not only for myself, but also for the team that I was running – and I also had to motivate and nurture them. The higher your level of responsibility, the more projects you have that are actually outside of your own specific duties. For example, one of my tasks ending up being an attempt, together with colleagues from Coca-Cola HQ and agency partners, to work out what ‘happiness’ meant to a Russian. Obviously, the way a Russian understand happiness is very different from how an American might.
So what did that difference turn out to be?
Americans, and more generally people brought up in the West, believe that happiness can be found within a person – happiness with yourself. And every person has an absolute right to happiness, they have a right to be happy. It’s even written in the American constitution. For a Russian, happiness is more likely to come through suffering – we can’t be happy until we have been unhappy. That’s the enigma of the Russian soul. Our happiness is always somewhere ‘over there’, outside – that’s our fate. If you’re very lucky, you’ll be able to come across it. And as a rule, nothing depends on the person, and so it’s not worth devoting any effort to achieving happiness. But that’s a traditional perception, and now, of course, modern young people have a more active approach to the pursuit of their happiness and to defining their role in finding it.
And how would you personally define happiness?
I feel happy when I am moving forward, when I master something new, when there’s a goal, whether it’s at work or in my personal life. I am happy when I have an interesting project that attracts and thrills me.
And now, of course, you have such a project?
Right now all of my efforts are concentrated on succeeding at Avito, and taking the group that I’m responsible for to a new level. Moving to Avito was the biggest change in my life, because not only did I switch professional areas – from marketing to business development – but also the sector of the company itself. I left Fast Moving Consumer Goods for IT. Right now I’m studying on a fast-track course. The first month with Avito was like a crash course for me in the basic things and concepts that employees of an IT company use every day. At Avito I am developing one of the product lines of the company, ‘Services’ – where you can select and order services online, from maintenance and moving house to cleaning or courier services. This product line is still in its early stages in Russia, especially in regions where these sorts of jobs are usually arranged through personal connections. My job is to outline and implement a development strategy for ‘Services’ which would allow the full potential of the product line to be realized.
Did you start work straight after leaving ICEF?
I already started working part-time in my first year – I have good English and as a student I became an assistant-translator for directors who had come to Moscow to shoot adverts. That was how I met people from the advertising agency Publicis United. And at a certain point they invited me to lead a project – that was when I was in my third year at ICEF. After that project I joined the staff. I worked from morning till evening, ran to lectures in my lunch break, and did my coursework during the night. I was the black sheep of ICEF, in that after being here I decided to go into marketing. Most of my classmates went into investment banking or consulting.
Was it hard to settle on a professional direction?
No, I was inspired as a child. In the final years of school I started to read the journal Secret Firms. I remember there was a long review article which detailed the responsibilities of a brand manager, and in my head everything just fell into place.
Why did you decide to enroll at ICEF?
For three reasons. Firstly, because graduates of the Bachelor’s Programme at ICEF receive two diplomas – a Russian one from the HSE and a British one from the University of London. The qualification from UoL is highly respected by employers, colleagues and friends. Secondly, the fact that the teaching was in English was a huge advantage. The third reason was the Western approach to the curriculum, timetable and relationship with students. I was always a little embarrassed of the Russian approach in education, when they cram some knowledge into you so formally, you learn some texts by heart, pass your exams and you’re done. At ICEF we were taught to think and express our ideas, to research questions and figures, and to carry out analysis. And apart from that, at ICEF we learnt to speak and write correctly, to express our thoughts in a way that could convince other people of our point of view. Those are the most valuable skills that I gained from my time studying at ICEF – I use them at work every day.
Did you find it easy to switch to studying in English?
Yes – I had studied at a specialist English school, and lived in America for two months, so English wasn’t really a problem for me. On the contrary, I really enjoy speaking in English, as it’s my first language (after Russian, obviously), and ICEF really helped me develop my grasp of professional terminology in English. In general I have a knack for learning foreign languages. Given that I’m currently working in a company with Swedish management, I’d like to gain a basic knowledge of the language. I think that in order to understand the people that you work with, you have to know their language, their culture, their mentality. In general, working with people from other cultures really enriches your worldview, as it teaches you new things. And as for work ethic – we have things to learn from the Germans, the English, the Swedes and in general from Europeans. They are very organized, they know a lot and are curious, and they aren’t lazy - they don’t stop putting in effort, and are constantly keeping you on your toes.
Your career in Russia has only included spells with foreign companies – was that a conscious choice?
Of course. Right now I can’t see myself at a Russian company – because the mentality and work ethic are both so different, and it’s even more apparent in marketing than in other areas. In terms of marketing, I don’t see a single Russian company in which I could have gained the experience and knowledge that I have been at foreign firms.
And how about working abroad?
I’ve thought about it – but eventually I decided to prioritize developing my career here in Russia.
Which country would you have wanted to move to – not just in terms of where to work, but also where to live?
My top choice would be the UK – I have a lot of friends there, and there are interesting opportunities there too. If not the UK, then France or Spain. I know French and Spanish, so it would be much easier for me to adapt to life in those particular countries.
You have a very full work schedule and fairly little free time – how do you use it effectively?
I plan my diary carefully. As it turned out, when I moved to Avito I also changed a lot of things in my life. For example, I played sport, I went swimming, I started playing tennis more seriously and meeting friends more regularly. In general, my social circle expanded. The key to success is to plan out each day; my diary is always planned out from 8 in the morning until 10 at night for the coming two weeks – including weekends. Otherwise I just wouldn’t be able to plan my life. But you also need a bit of spontaneity sometimes, of course – about 30% of the time. If it’s more than that I’m not comfortable, because I have enough uncertainty and adrenaline at work. In life, I like to have surprises only in small doses.
Have you got any more free time at Avito?
No – I’m working a lot now. It’s just that for me, a change in one area of my life produces changes in the other areas of my life too. I really believe that you can’t leave any stone unturned, and I sometimes sense moments when I need to change something. That’s probably why I decided to walk away from a lucrative career at Coca-Cola and immerse myself in a field that was completely new to me.
So what’s your favorite way to relax?
It varies. I really like to walk; I switch on some music and walk around parks or along rivers. I can meet friends, but I also need to recharge my batteries by myself. From the age of 15 I’ve been working on large pieces of embroidery – each one takes about three years, and then I give it to my family. I sit down to work on it, and it’s like meditation: it’s a therapeutic activity that literally creates flowers, and in one piece there are more than 100. I also play the piano, I pick whatever songs I like and sing them. Occasionally I also go watch tennis competitions – I really love the sport.
Many institutions are rolling out entrance exams in the near future. What advice would you give to young people who are only now working out their future specialization?
Choose something that you are really interested in doing. Many people are guided by “Dad said” or “my whole family studied medicine, and so will I”, or – here’s another – “it’s easy to get in for this”. But if you apply to an institution for a reason other than just ticking a box, it’s important to understand what you like, and what sort of activities you enjoy. Other than that, you probably also need some luck.
Anastasi Chumak, exclusively for ICEF HSE
Translated by Joseph Gamse