About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

Yana Osman, a graduate of the bachelor’s degree programme in Journalism and the master’s degree programme in Management, now teaches at HSE University and works as a communications consultant at PR Inc. In this interview with Success Builder, Ms Osman explains how to find your superpower, why journalists make great PR agents who know how to get their materials published without paying a dime, and why you need to allow yourself everything in order to succeed in your profession.

Why did you choose to get a degree in journalism?

I graduated from high school with perfect grades and my teachers were pushing me in two different directions: one group said I should study the humanities and the other said I was good in math and should compete in Academic Olympiads. The first argument in favour of journalism and working with people came with a certain faith in my ‘superpower’ – when I understood what my greatest strength was. I have a very good feel for other people. Even when I was an eight-year-old kid, I understood what adults were thinking. I formed a special relationship with them as a result.

I lost my father in the second grade and I very quickly resolved to become just as strong as him so that I could take care of our mother, who was left with me and two brothers, the youngest of whom was just one. These events, and the inner turmoil I was experiencing then, made me ‘older’ than my classmates.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

I realised that journalism was the very field that would allow me to make the fullest use of my valuable qualities. I also had romantic notions of journalists travelling and meeting new people. The final argument in favour of this profession was the fact that my grandfather was a journalist. He worked for almost half a century as the chief editor of a newspaper in Shostka, the city where they made the celluloid on which all Soviet films were printed. I had an inner feeling that my grandfather had found his life’s calling, work that made his eyes sparkle and shine, and I wanted that, too.

What about your math skills? Those are even more easily monetised in today’s labour market.

If you are strong on the technical side but choose to major in the humanities, then you’ve got a head start. Among your professional peers, you’ll be like a soldier – organised, decisive, and most importantly, you won’t fall into an existential crisis under any circumstances. Although I don’t work as a journalist, I believe this education has been very helpful and has turned my abilities into practical tools.

I lean toward the humanities but have the mind of a mathematician, which gives me many advantages over people who are strictly creative types

I learned two fundamental things at HSE. The first is to think. You receive a range of information: you must analyse it, determine how reliable it is and look for ways to use it. Whatever I do, whether PR or shooting my own movies, the first thing I do is perform an analysis. The second important skill HSE taught me is the ability to read. This is thanks to an extensive literature course taught by Andrey Nemzer and Konstantin Polivanov. As someone who came to HSE from another city, I lagged far behind the other students in terms of erudition. If I had wound up at a less demanding university, I might not have noticed this difference in educational background. I wouldn’t have striven to catch up to my peers and wouldn’t have grown the way I did at HSE, which really does attract very strong students.

Why is it that journalists often excel at PR?

Journalism indeed opens the way to effective communication, which is important in any field — and you learn it the minute you start applying your knowledge in practice. We had excellent internships after our first year of studies. We weren’t even 18 years old yet and had jobs at Channel One and NTV. Our eyes were really opened to everything happening there, things we could never have imagined from just sitting in front of the TV. During my third year of studies, I realised that I was interested in more than just journalism: I wanted to work at the intersection of different disciplines and fields. I took HSE elective courses related to marketing and advertising that were taught by Yulia Pirogova. She instilled in me a love for branding, advertising and marketing communications in general.

With her help, I saw the world of marketing as not just tactical advertising: I saw the processes strategically and realised that before launching a message you need to conduct large-scale research, which I find fascinating. I was very inspired by the opportunity to use my mind’s full potential. Under the guidance of Yulia Pirogova, I wrote my thesis paper on sponsorship, advertising and marketing. At the end of my fourth year of studies, I got a job at the PR Inc. communications agency which at the time was affiliated with the DDF Russia creative group, part of the Omnicom Group international holding company.

In that case, why did you choose to get a master’s degree in Management?

I wanted to kill two birds with one stone by getting a free second education while I had the opportunity, and by working at the same time. At that time, Yulia Pirogova also taught at the Marketing Communications Department of the Faculty of Management and she advised me to apply. But there were 17 prerequisite management courses, and I hadn’t studied any of them. So, I took a month off from work and studied those subjects that were new to me, never leaving home except to buy groceries. Now applicants can use their portfolios to qualify, but I actually managed to pass that crazy exam.

What has helped you develop as a professional?

For me, the agency was a new world, where I came in as a junior manager and quickly built a career. In three years, I grew to be a team leader, and in two more years, I became a director of customer service. I was promoted each year, but I still faced an inner crisis. I helped promote major clients, but I had a sense of the inner scale of my ideas and wondered where I was personally in all of this.

I could have left the profession completely and done something new, but in the end, I chose a different path — I began experimenting. This is how teaching came into my life. I was invited to lecture at the Faculty of Management using case studies from my work at the agency. I taught a small course on crisis communications and took part at the same time in a course on branding taught by Yulia Pirogova. Then I was invited to teach a course of my own making to master’s students as part of the main programme. Initially, it was called Communications in the Public Sphere. It has since undergone some changes and now focuses more on creativity. In its current form, it is called Creative Technologies in Brand Communications, which more closely reflects who I am. I like that the course develops along with me: I try different methods and experiment from one year to the next.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

I have truly invested my personal and professional experience in this course. I thought for a long time about how to tell students about communications crises in simple language. When I began writing screenplays, I brought new knowledge to teaching. This resulted in course material devoted to the path of a character in which I consider case studies of crisis communications in Russia and abroad based on a movie character’s development. This structure is very easy to understand, while also being entertaining and effective for work. For me, this is an ideal option for interdisciplinary work and it works in all areas. For example, the agency benefits from my additional areas of activity because I stopped the exhausting work with clients to focus on creative things, which has made me more efficient and happy. Everything I do now can be summed up in one phrase: I create completely new stories that, despite their novelty, harmoniously combine everything that I know and can do.

How to understand ‘creativity’ in the context of marketing? Where does it find expression?

Creativity has a reputation, for understandable reasons. It is the visual ‘wow’ effect, but in reality, it is more than just the picture. For example, I introduced a creative exam as part of the course. Instead of a test, students make projects. They split into teams and promote something they like, whether a band, a startup or a volunteer organisation. Working together, we then come up with a strategy to promote the project with a minimal budget. In the first lesson, I tell the students to forget about needing money to do PR. Having limited resources forces you to think and invent something cool and completely new. I remember a number of outstanding projects. For example, a team of young women recorded a song on TikTok to promote the popcorn brand Holy Corn, and on New Year’s Eve, I received a sack of popcorn as a gift and a link to a flash mob at which other people were dancing to their song while opening a package of Holy Corn.

I try to convey to students that any idiot can do PR with a big budget, but delivering a message without any money — now, that’s a challenge

I learned something very important at the agency: a good head is more important than money, and if you come up with a cool story that you can sell to the media, you won’t have to pay anything to promote it. Never once in my work have I paid anything to have my material placed in the media.

How has your education in management affected your professional activity?

The master’s degree was very different from the bachelor’s in that we did the work in a team — as it should be in marketing. You team up with ambitious people whom you barely know, and that’s how I encountered the phenomenon of unofficial leadership. At the agency, all the roles on the team were clearly defined, and here, on the one hand, you had to become a leader, but on the other hand, you could be ignored in that position. But by using my superpower of empathy, I was able to communicate with the other team members. This was one of my main insights at work: when I became a leader, I never said, ‘I’m in charge here’. I just did my job well.

How long did it take before you were given a leadership position at work?

When my department head left after two years, I myself approached the founder of the agency and said I could do the job. I was 23 at the time. The answer I got was, ‘You don’t have enough experience.’ I was terribly offended, but I didn’t leave. I stayed with the team, where I was accepted as an equal. After a while, I was no longer asking questions of others, but answering my colleagues’ questions. In this way, I became the unofficial head of all the consumer market projects. Ten months later, the founder of the agency herself invited me to lead the unit.

I think I have been successful in my career not because I am good at working with the media, but because I respect the people on my team and try to find each person’s strong side, even when they don’t see it themselves. The same is true with my students. My mission is to show each of them their ‘superpower’ that they themselves don’t see. Some have been told that they are bad students. They get used to this imposed sense of helplessness and don’t do anything. My job is to change their attitude to themselves and show that each of us has incredible potential. It is impossible to be a genius in every area, but you can be very happy and effective doing whatever inspires you.

What is a communications agency, and what role does journalism play in that?

It is an agency that carries out a full cycle of communication. It is not just a PR agency. We can develop strategy, do branding, GR, analyse reputational crises, and so on. For example, we came up with a strategy for promoting the Sochi Olympic medals, staged a Mexican carnival at the World Cup, developed branding for the Moscow Cultural Forum, implemented a crisis case study with the Vakhtangov Theatre, and served as the GR office for the Gett taxi service. At the same time, agency founder Olga Dashevskaya teaches us to think according to various categories of business, and this is extremely valuable for clients. We are not PR agents, but communication consultants because we do not provide the standard set of tools that a client wants at the start: we conduct our own expertise and offer the client the best option based on the business task.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

However, the client must have courage and faith for creativity and innovative solutions: he or she must be prepared to hear the consultant explain how things can be done differently. It is often difficult for us in Russia to establish working relationships on equal footing because PR people are treated like ‘a young woman who calls and offers a press release’. In my opinion, this paradigm needs to be changed, including at the level of education and the positioning of the profession.

We often hire journalists at the agency who are in shock for the first few weeks at how many tasks a PR specialist actually has. You have to see it to believe it. A creative specialist really does have a huge number of tasks. A journalist can write a piece and immediately receive public recognition, whereas a PR person might work a full year before seeing any result. I would like the profession of communications consultant to have greater credibility.

I often hear that it is no longer necessary to work in one profession your whole life. What has changed?

It’s just that we are becoming more self-aware, we analyse ourselves and go to psychotherapists. There is a need to understand yourself better in order to be happier. This makes it possible to move beyond earlier decisions, to change directions and try new things. This means that the crises we experience at the age of 30, 40 or 50 are in no way the end, but turning points during which you can acquire new skills and move in a new direction.

I faced my first crisis at the age of 27 when I realised I wasn’t ready to spend my life doing only PR work, that there was something more. I had a frank conversation with the founder of the agency and we agreed to work together just three days a week, with me spending. I would spend the rest of the time acquiring additional knowledge and self-actualisation in new areas. I began switching over to completely different things — teaching, writing columns, writing stories, making movies, recording a podcast — and this had a positive influence on my work at the agency and the agency as a whole.

When you say, ‘I want to do what inspires me,’ people look at you and themselves at the same time. They’re thinking, ‘Maybe I should do what inspires me, too’. And so, over time, new forms, people and formats of interaction appear at the agency, and these changes influence the results of the work. For a long time, however, I couldn’t bring it all together: I couldn’t connect all my different interests in a single point. I won a grant to the film workshop of the V-A-C Foundation for Contemporary Art where I was able to do my first work as a documentary filmmaker.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Thanks to this interdisciplinary approach, ideas that previously took days to develop now require only a few hours to put together. By strengthening my additional competencies, I could carry out work on all my projects more effectively. After I allowed myself to pursue all my interests, I was included in the global rating of communications specialists under 30, which also noted my social and creative activities. I really invest a lot of time in teaching and mentoring and students voted me Best Teacher twice, in 2019 and 2020.

Now I understand that you don’t have to be super successful in every area of activity. You can create one absolutely incredible thing that brings them all together

I simply overcame the fear of allowing myself to be unique. We are all unique, and this is a fact. Like an erector set, we can piece together our calling from different spheres, adding new details to what is already there instead of rejecting our experience. That’s why we no longer pay homage to the idea of a single profession for life and have the freedom to try new things.

What is your podcast about, and why?

You could say that I made an audio series out of my life and I based it on the structure of Hollywood screenwriting guru Christopher Vogler. ‘Yozhu ne ponyatno’ (‘Unclear as Day’) are very short episodes of from one to 10 minutes each in which some real-life story happens to me. For example, I try to become famous, to like Dobermans, masochism and carpaccio, I learn to split lobster claws so as not to splash my neighbours with the juice, I discuss my bare ankle with a stylist and try to learn how to hold a sword like Duncan MacLeod. The stories are funny, but their message is serious: it’s all about how each of us can give ourselves the right to act as the main character. In an essay on the philosophy of childhood, philosopher Giorgio Agamben, says that the Romans had an exceptional expression, ‘vivere vitam,’ which has passed into modern Romance languages as ‘vivre sa vie’ or vivere la propria vita’, which means ‘to live your own life’. This is very similar to the mission of my podcast.

I believe that I can share knowledge and at the same time be in the position of a student with every person I meet. And I’ve been very lucky with my teachers. For example, one year ago, Fedya Tormosov, a second-year journalism student at HSE and a future podcaster, came to me for advice. Now he’s sold his podcast for a million rubles — which was the first such sale of a Russian-language podcast. Now I am also a podcaster and Fedya has already met with me as a mentor and given me many useful tips about the podcast. It turned out to be reverse mentoring, where the younger one teaches the elder.

I continue learning every day, taking two or three different courses at the same time, constantly being in the flow of new knowledge. The main question I face now is how I can do everything differently.