Holding together an advertising agency in the middle of a war –

KYemen-based creative agency IAmIdea was due to begin production on a new campaign for Domino’s Pizza on February 24. But before dawn, the agency’s president and creative director Igor Finashkin received a call from production managers. “They said the filming was canceled because the war had started.”

Shortly after, the first rockets began to crash into the outskirts of the city. “I don’t even know the word or the phrase to explain this feeling,” said Finashkin, who spoke to The message via Zoom from Kyiv. “You are doing everything to save your life and to save the lives of your family and your team.”

IAmIdea Writer Lera Gavrilyuk

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

Finashkin first took his family to his parents’ home 200 kilometers from kyiv, before taking them safely to France. He stayed in the western part of Ukraine for a few weeks before returning to Kyiv.

Other IAmIdea employees have gone through similar ordeals. Some have fled Kyiv but have felt safe enough to return in recent weeks, while others have left the country altogether. Someone ended up in Georgia, another in Germany, another in Lithuania, one in Stockholm and the head of the creative group Irene Ilchanka, together with her common-law wife Oleksandra Samorodova and her stepson Noah, surrendered in Toronto.

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

They spent a few days sheltered in an underground car park, before moving to a friend’s house 30 kilometers from the city. When they saw the first images of the attacks on Kharkiv, they knew they had to move further west. An 18-hour journey on an overcrowded evacuation train took them to the Bokovel ski resort. From there, they finally crossed the Romanian border.

Samorodova, a doctor, had worked for a few years in Toronto, and Noah was born here, so they hoped to come to Canada. Samorodova contacted friends, who began making preparations for them, including finding them an apartment. Ilchanka, Samorodova, Noah, two cats and a 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.

Soon enough, the IAmIdea staff returned to their group chats and emailed each other about the job. They knew that in all likelihood their clients no longer needed what they were working on, but it gave them something to do.

They even started joking about their deadlines. “To fight stress, a very powerful weapon is humor – humor and creativity fight stress,” Finashkin said. “That’s how we were trying to sort out our emotional situation.”

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

The IAmIdea team put their creative skills at the service of what they knew how to do best: communication. “We have a kind of information army,” Finashkin said. “[Ukrainian] advertisers do not launch commercial campaigns at all, so 90% of our work now is informational warfare, informational support of our country and creativity to support our country.

“Our goal is to inform people around the world about what is really happening in Ukraine, to spread the word.”

They created catchy rallying cries to inspire people at home; videos directly challenging Russian propaganda; and advertisements calling on NATO to impose a no-fly zone over the country.

The job is first to help Ukraine, but it has also been good for the IAmIdea team. Even though their lives were shattered on Feb. 24, their work, being part of a team, daily status calls — even those interrupted by colleagues having to rush to an air-raid shelter — give them a sense of normalcy and a distraction from the horrors visited on the country. “You feel like you’re living a life,” Ilchanka said.

“We haven’t met for two months, I haven’t seen the guys for two months, but I don’t feel like we’re apart,” said Anna Iemelianova, artistic director of the agency which works from Stockholm. “We’re still a group of people who are an agency, you know. It’s not like we’re falling apart. And that’s important.

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

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

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

For now, that means IAmIdea has, for all intents and purposes, gone global. “We are trying to get more projects from outside Ukraine because we want to save the team,” Finashkin said. “We want to pay wages, we want to keep working. And we also want to continue working for Ukraine. Because as creators, it’s the best thing 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.)

Talk 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 separate, that’s why we stick together.

It was important for them to find a safe and stable place as quickly as possible for their son, she said. “For adults, it’s not easy, but it’s understandable. We can handle it somehow, but kids, they don’t understand what’s going on.

They moved into a donated apartment in Toronto’s quiet Beaches neighborhood and quickly got Noah into a nearby school. “It’s his birthday in three weeks, and he’s already invited some of his friends here, so we’re really happy about that.”

It took him a while to settle in and understand some of the basics of their new – and hopefully temporary – life. “Just going to buy food is like an adventure,” she says.

For a few weeks now she has been back to work, starting her day earlier than usual so she can communicate with her colleagues and co-workers at home, and they continue to move forward as best they can as the tragedy of war hangs over them.

She is grateful that she and her family are safe, but it doesn’t feel like home, she says. And she feels guilty for being safe when so many others in her country are not. “It’s the survivor syndrome, when you’re safe, you feel guilty for being safe.”

During those frantic 25 minutes in the early morning of February 24, Ilchanka remembered to bring what she needed to work, including her laptop and chargers. And, of course, she has her phone, even though the screen is badly cracked. “It’s dying, but it’s okay. It still works. I don’t want to change it because it was broken while we were running – we heard the sirens and we rushed 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.”

Marilyn J. Hernandez