interview

Michael Willard: We dont buy stories

25.10.2013 | Steven Brese

Living on his boat and working in public relations back in 1994 in Washington, Michael Willard decided to head for uncharted waters: Kyiv. He established an American PR and advertising company in Ukraine´s capital and went on to start his very own business in the same field. Unlike in the United States, he´s had to fight against paying bribes, but says his company has been better off in the long run for doing so. Willard is married, and in his free time likes to write and paint. He recently published the novel Urainia: A Fable, which is loosely based on his experience as a PR man in Eastern Europe

KW: What brought you to Ukraine?

M.W.: I was living in Washington on my boat back in 1994 and working as media director for Burson Marsteller. My boss asked me to go out for a drink with him on a Friday night. The situation in PR at the time was not so good and I was one of the last people hired, so I thought I was being let go. We arrived at a place called Garrys and we ordered a couple scotches. After the first scotch, my boss asked me if I would like to go work in Ukraine. So I said, Lets order another Scotch. We ordered another drink and I asked my boss, Where is Ukraine? He told me, I don´ know, somewhere in Russia. Let´s order another drink. We had another scotch and then I said yes. That was 20 years ago. I came to Ukraine because I wanted to do something different. The first thing I did here was lead a very large market reform program for [US-funded NGO] USAID. We had about 175 people in it and had offices all around the country. It was a lot of fun leading that. Then I formed Burson Marsteller´s first office in Kyiv.

KW: What was it like starting a company in Ukraine?

M.W.: It was fun. At that time, back in 1994, if you walked down Khreshatyk with a suit on you would get business. That was before all of the PR and advertising agencies were here. Then in 1996 I moved to Moscow for two years. In 1998, I got a call from one of my many bosses and he said, I´m not sure what we´re going to do with the Moscow office because of the risky markets and we´re planning to shut down the Kyiv office. I said to him, I´ll buy the Kyiv office. So I came back, bought the company, and started The Willard Group.

KW: What was it like in Ukraine when you first arrived?

M.W.: Well you have to remember that back then Kyiv was a totally different city. There were only a couple of places expats went to eat and it was not quite as bright as it is now. When I left America to come to Kyiv, one of my colleges gave me a shortwave radio, as if I was going to be totally out of contact with people.

KW: What are some of the differences between running a business in America and running a business in Ukraine?

M.W.: In Ukraine you are challenged to be honest. Everywhere you turn people want to give you bribes and people want you to give bribes. I never got into that. I came here when I was 49 - I´m 68 now and it still happens. I´m too old to change. I have never given a bribe. Let me give you an example. I drove to my wife´s folks the other day, which is about six hours from Kyiv. I got stopped by the militsiya [traffic police] as I usually do, and the police officer was actually a really nice guy. He comes over to me and points and shows me the line that I crossed, and, sure enough, I did cross the line. He realises that I don´t speak Russian so he asks my wife to get out of the car. She goes around to the back of the car and he suggested that my wife put a 100 hryvnia note in between the documents and she just laughed. She said, We just don´t do that. Write us the proper ticket. So, he just laughs at us and sends us on our way. That has happened so many times.

Many PR and advertising companies in Ukraine have a budget to actually go to publications and buy press. This is something I´ve been fighting since I got here. We run an agency where we don´t buy stories. We tell our clients that if they have a good story, it will rise to the top of the stack. We´ve even lost business on occasion because we don´t buy stories. Once you start buying stories, it´s a slippery slope. We choose not to buy stories because it´s wrong. I´ve even formed a Facebook page against buying stories. It´s not really the reporter´s fault and not even the publication´s fault. It´s the big Western companies that think buying stories is the way to do it. They think, You know, when you´re in Ukraine, do like the Ukrainians do. So, it´s encouraged companies that we want to work with come to work with us like Philip Morris, Kraft and Danone. I feel like if I ever started to give a bribe, big lights would shine down on me and there would be people rushing up to me with handcuffs.

KW: What is it like working with your wife?

M.W.: I like working with my wife, she´s the CEO of the company. The problem is that you can talk about business too much, and we probably do. She´s much more level headed that I am. I´m more of a dreamer and she has her feet on the ground. She´s probably better at the administration than I am I´m not really a detailed type person. She´s a good client person, and you really need that in this business. It´s difficult at times to separate work life and family life. We´ll be out walking with our child and our child will say to us, Stop talking about business! I´m married to a wonderful lady and we´ve been together for eight years.

KW: What kind of friends do you have in Ukraine?

M.W.: I probably have more Ukrainian friends than expat friends. I mean, I like the expat friends that I have but they are primarily in business, a lot of my friends are the CEOs that I have worked with over the years. I have a Ukrainian family. I have three kids here: two are adopted and one is natural.

KW: What do you do for enjoyment in Ukraine?

M.W.: In the early years I enjoyed the river and rented boats. I thought about living on a boat but my wife wouldn´t really like that. I have finished two fiction novels in the past two years. One book is a mystery novel. It´s about a lunatic that decides he is going to kill his Facebook friends and the story comes complete with a beautiful Russian lady. But I don´t have a whole lot of free time. I also like to paint. I´ve had three exhibitions in Kyiv, one at a gallery on Andriyivsky Spusk, another was at Pecherska Lavra and the third was at a Georgian museum that was fairly well attended and I´ve even sold a few paintings over the years.

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