The ad man from Belarus Visitor: Sergei Smirnov recently spent a month at a Baltimore ad agency observing American advertising and public relations techniques.


Sergei Smirnov came to the United States to learn about advertising management, hailing from a place where advertising so new that the first university classes weren't even offered until a year ago.

Smirnov, 29, a native of Belarus, came to the Reeves Agency in Baltimore for a month recently as part of a delegation of three from the independent states of the former Soviet Union. The program -- called Community Connections International -- offers foreign entrepreneurs the chance to gain firsthand experience in the principles and practices of market economies.

"I tried to see how the process is organized, what they're doing, and how they planned the work," said Smirnov, who has spent the past two years at an 18-person agency in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. That agency, Magnart Advertising Ltd., has Motorola as its main foreign client.

Smirnov, who was here from mid-April to mid-May, found the jobs more specialized in the Baltimore advertising and public relations office. In Minsk, Smirnov is responsible for helping clients determine what concepts they need, developing a plan, picking out the necessary media to advertise and doing limited public relations and event planning -- jobs that would be doled out to several people at the Reeves Agency.

"The goals are the same everywhere, but the difference is who is responsible for the work," he said.

The program that brought Smirnov to Baltimore was offered through a grant to the University of Maryland University College.

Smirnov said advertising has existed for only about five years in the formerly Communist country of Belarus, which is between Poland and Lithuania to the west, Russia to the north and east, and Ukraine to the south. "It's very young," he said. "But we have a lot of creative people."

Because the market for advertising is still limited in Belarus, most of his company's clients are from Europe.

To Smirnov, American advertising is more direct than what would be done in his country. "We try to create advertising that doesn't look like advertising -- advertising that is not so direct to the consciousness of the customers," he said.

Humor and subliminal messages are popular ways to get the point across in advertising done in his office, said Smirnov, who speaks English well -- a language he started studying at age 13. He also speaks Russian, Belarusian and Esperanto.

Ask him how much clients spend on advertising with his company, and Smirnov will tell you he can't tell you. All spending and budgets are confidential, he said.

Smirnov started his career as an engineer, but three months of working in a plant changed his mind. He was living in Bulgaria and was intrigued by the commercials he saw on television. So he embarked on a new course of study and hopes to have his marketing degree from Belarusian State Economic University in 2000.

One important financial consideration -- the high cost of using the Internet -- makes the way the job is done different in Belarus, Smirnov said. He estimated that sending or receiving Internet mail costs $5 an hour -- a significant amount in a country where the average salary is about $100 a month.

In talking with employees at the Reeves Agency, Smirnov found the agencies shared a fundamental problem -- meeting deadlines. That, despite one of his most vivid observations about his first trip to the United States -- that Americans are extraordinarily time- and work-oriented.

Although the daily business at the Reeves Agency held few surprises for Smirnov, he plans to take back the agency's tradition of a weekly meeting to brainstorm about new business. "In my agency, we did some things but not regularly," he said.

The staff at the Reeves Agency gained perspective from his visit, too.

"I wanted to learn more about how stories are placed in the press in this country that is very much controlled by the government," said Annette Saxon, vice president, public relations.

"It sounds like I might have a very different job over there. The scope of what they do in public relations is not as wide as it is here."

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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