After Russian bombs went off in Ukraine on Friday, February 24, a few of Kyiv-based creative firm Bickerstaff’s 17 employees were able to flee the city.
Founder and creative director Ilia Anufrienko left Kyiv for the Polish border with his children and pregnant wife, due in three months. After an hour drive, a 10-hour wait at the border and another two-hour drive to Krakow, he and his family are safe.
Anastasiia Rekun, PR manager, left Kyiv before the attack on February 20, driving more than 2,000 kilometers to safety in Croatia. It’s a place that “will become my home and place of work for some time,” she said.
Maria Kochurenko, a strategist, undertook a dangerous two-day trip with two friends and her dog to reach safety in Berlin, where she’s looking for work on projects to help her country. Oksana Peicheva, chief executive officer, fled Kyiv with her two children for Western Ukraine.
Sergey Artemenko, a senior copywriter, escaped Kyiv with his girlfriend, who also works in advertising, and their dog, Danthe, to a small town near Ukraine’s capital. In addition to using their professional skills to fight Russian misinformation, they are making tents for armed forces and gathering donations and food.
“We do everything we can to help our loved state survive,” Artemenko said.
Most of the team, however, remains in Kyiv “trying to do their best to survive, and at the same time, to do their work,” Peicheva said.
Bickerstaff paid all employees one month’s salary in advance when the bombings began. Staffers are keeping in constant touch, helping each other relocate and checking in daily on their status.
But for those still in Kyiv or elsewhere in Ukraine, it’s difficult to concentrate on work. Artemenko devotes most of his time to volunteering — finding medicine and food, as well as providing transportation and asylum for refugees.
Rekun had difficulty doing anything in the days following the attack. “I did not sleep at night and followed all the news to understand that my family was safe in our house in Kyiv. I texted my mom four to six times a day, “‘Are you okay?’”
For many, that fear is still strong. Even from Western Ukraine, Peicheva describes feeling a “strong psychological pressure.” Adrii Hetmanchuk, a designer, says he “tries to stay calm and reasonable, but it doesn’t always work out.”
But fear isn’t the only emotion among Bickerstaff’s team. Yana Brusentseva, a manager at the agency, just feels anger. “I am angry that my usual life will take a very long time to return to normal,” she said. “I have a lot of worries about work, as Ukrainian businesses have been hit hard too. But I believe people will cope.”
She added that her ability to focus has declined “as a lot of strength and energy goes to help people who are in an emergency situation,” she said. “I cannot sit at the laptop while someone does not have water or food.”
All commercial projects at Bickerstaff have been paused to support the war effort, and also because commercial activity in Ukraine has ceased during the war. Instead, Bickerstaff is pouring its efforts into three social media projects for the Ukrainian military and is developing briefs for another four activations to fight Russian misinformation online.
“Yesterday, we produced global projects on how businesses can influence the environment,” Anufrienko said. “We fought for awareness, sustainable values and tolerance. Today, I am coming up with comic explanations for my daughter that these [missiles] are salutes in honor of our trip, so as not to injure her psyche or say that [they] can kill us.”
Supporting their country is keeping Bickerstaff’s employees motivated to work. As Peicheva says, “I am full of desire to help my people and my country. That makes me stand up every morning, hug my children and go ahead.”
“No one needs to be inspired,” Anufrienko added. “We know the truth is on our side and everyone is ready to work hard for over 100%.”
Support from the creative industry has helped as well. As Kochurenko sees it, “Now there are no Ukrainian, German or other advertising teams. Now there are people who are trying to help my Motherland.”
But the future is murky. Beyond fighting with the will to win, most staff are living day to day.
“I keep thinking, ‘What’s next?’” Hetmanchuk said.