Graduated with his bachelor’s from the Faculty of Business Informatics (now the Faculty of Business and Management) in 2008 before completing the continuing education programme in E-Commerce and Internet Project Management at the HSE Higher School of Business Informatics (HSBI) in 2010.
Sergey is now the Executive Director of the digital agency CreativePeople. He has received various industry-focused awards, serves as a member of the jury for Russian and international competitions, and is a conference speaker in the field of digital marketing and design. Sergey is also an invited lecturer of HSBI, where he teaches a course he designed called ‘Online Advertising Agency Management.’
«If No More Problems Exist at Your Job, You Can Just Retire»
About the project
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 graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
As Russia’s digital economy gains momentum, participants of the sporadic market of digital services need to pave a path for success using their experience, professional instincts, and basic knowledge. In the latest edition of Success Builder, CreativePeople Director Sergei Prokofiev discusses what it’s like to build a business alongside other HSE alumni, how to protect designers and monetise creativity, and what one should learn in order to find a job in the digital sphere.
I thought IT specialists learned more on their own. Why is a master’s necessary for this field?
When I studied at HSE, I didn’t have the faintest idea why I was doing it. From my very first year, I would work on freelance projects periodically; for example, I made some extra money as a photographer for the school, and in 2004 I came to CreativePeople. This is really the only real job I’ve had throughout my professional career. At the beginning, though, this was a student business where we indulged quite a bit, but just not in work. By 2008 we had grown up along with the company and started working on serious projects. Only then did I realise that business informatics is the faculty that I’d always been looking for. And with this knowledge, I came to HSBI to learn how to work on online projects not only on the IT side, but from an economics and marketing approach as well. In 2010 I got my degree and gradually adjusted my education in the direction of my actual field. At the same time, I improved the quality of the projects I developed at CreativePeople.
rubles is the average cost to develop a site in Russia
In your opinion, what does the word ‘business’ mean in terms of the work you do?
It is when you not only approach your favourite thing to do from an emotional point of view, but you also completely associate your material goals with this thing and you are able to manoeuvre rationally. In the fifth year of the business informatics programme – at the time it was a ‘specialisation’ – I thought I was moving over to business and would start really working. It became clear that all of my future endeavours would be related to the internet, development, design, and advertising. It was a new way of thinking. I was no longer managing myself, but other people as well, which happened due to the company’s growth. We continue to grow to this day. In the early stages, there were four of us, and when I finished HSBI, we had 12 people, with some working remotely. Now there are 60 of us, which is the latest, but not the last, step in our growth.
For an IT specialist, managing people seems to be like an extreme. What competencies did you need for this?
Indeed, it’s not easy. Above all, I think it’s emotional. A business like this is initially friendly and like a family, and it’s hard for me to establish any sort of distanced relationship with my co-workers. I’m still friends with a lot of the team, no matter what position they hold on the company’s hierarchy. It takes effort to transition from a purely human, friendly relationship with colleagues to a rationally working relationship. For me, this was and partially continues to be difficult.
At the company’s onset, we made the right decision in minimising our work with friends as clients, and we were right. Decisions in client engagement have to be made rationally, and to a certain degree cynically at times. Another important moment came during the company’s growth when it was clear that many people around you were doing the work better than you. You have to deal with this and start using it to your advantage – that is, learn to delegate responsibility. I haven’t yet understood all of these management intricacies fully, but that’s my goal.
What is your current position at CreativePeople?
I’m the executive director and operations director; that is, I am responsible for everything relating to the daily functioning of the company. I have two managing partners who also graduated from HSE – Alexander Kovalsky, who graduated from the law faculty, and Sergey Kalyuzhny, who is from the political science faculty. While I’m more of a manager, Sasha (Alexander) is responsible for design and Sergey – for the creative components. But we solve all strategic problems together. The company grew out of an HSE student council that has long transformed into a CTC initiative group. We just celebrated the company’s 15-year anniversary. It’s time to aim for 30 years, and I am fine with the idea that by the time I’m 50 I might still be participating in CreativePeople.
The education you have allows you to work from anywhere in the world. Why the office life?
First I’ll explain why having your own business matters. I’ve had opportunities to leave work and make a lot more money than we were making at the time. We started from the ground up. No one gave us any money, and we are still completely independent. This is partially because we had a crazy interest in what we were doing, and this is still true. Working in a large company like Gazprom would allow you to make the same amount of money, but you wouldn’t be able to determine your own growth path. Additionally, business involves a certain boldness, a completely different level of responsibility. Imagine when all 60 employees and their well-being depend on you.
I want designers in Russia to be “built” in terms of management
Now about working in an office. It’s more about what you like. I periodically let myself fly somewhere and work remotely. Plus I don’t like being on vacation and doing nothing. I like changing my surroundings for a bit and working. It allows you to look at work processes in a different light.
For me, the office and working with different people are both a source of motivation. My family and I once went to Krasnodar for two months, and after three days I was whining and went to see friends at the office. I really need to see people doing something around me.
What in your opinion is now assumed by the word ‘creativity?’
In a more philistine sense, the word ‘creativity’ is oftentimes just a synonym for showing off. In reality, this isn’t true – we have a creative department that develops ideas and advertising concepts, but they also have a lot of routine work when it comes to solving creative tasks. It happens. Overall, we understand ‘creativity’ to be solving problems in an unconventional way, not necessarily only in an emotional way, but in a fully rational way as well. Creative professionals themselves seem fairly routine, so a specialist in creativity is not someone who uses chemicals to achieve a state of enlightenment. The creative process has clear algorithms. I can say the same about design. It’s not associated with art, and we don’t have unrestricted artists working for us. Even if you’re an artist, on our team you’ll be carrying out very concrete tasks.
Does this creativity fall under your own duties and responsibilities?
At the company I’ve always focused on streamlining and organizing various processes. I traditionally tend to take over the strategic projects or ideas started by my partners and I move them forward. But I myself like developing something alongside designers and learning something new. When I have a spare moment, I go to the branding department where I get inspired and also try to contribute something. But all of this ‘creativity’ is around 10% of my own time, while 90% is spent working with the CFO, lawyers, and department chiefs discussing specific problems, hiring staff, planning, strategizing PR, etc.
Another creative aspect of my life is the lecturing I do, particularly at HSE; I get to prepare for a presentation, conference, seminar, or some other educational event.
In what area do you consider yourself an expert? Which topics interest you as a speaker?
I teach designers and beginning entrepreneurs a lot about management and about leading an agency and sales team. I don’t consider myself a guru, thought, and overall it’s easy to talk to designers about management since they don’t know a lot about the subject. I just have experience working with designers, and I can help determine their priorities. I want designers in Russia to be ‘built’ in terms of management. Oftentimes they end up being defenceless, and their work and confidence decline because they typically work individually and encounter clients who aren’t very professional. They tend to be constantly drifting in the market, a market that is in a rapid stage of growth and hasn’t yet formed a clear set of standards for specialists.
We make any page so that it’s easy to flip through and quickly get an idea based on the headings
Lately I’ve been working with them as part of the Design Weekend project. I was recently asked to teach a small lecture series on agency management at HSBI, and now I am mastering the craft of teaching and syllabus writing, and I’ve started viewing teachers in an even more respectable light.
Can basic education at least keep up with what’s happening now in the IT industry?
I think it’s practically impossible to talk about the most advanced technologies within the framework of basic education. The sphere changes too much for that. That’s why it’s currently a goal to teach people to understand everything relating to the fundamentals and to give them a roadmap for further seeking out new knowledge. As for web programming languages and the newest popular frameworks, it’s impossible to integrate them into an academic programme in a timely fashion without having to redo everything every six months. I think here we can solve the problem of integrating basic education by coming up with future specialised intensive courses and by bringing in practitioners who have relevant experience in a field. At HSBI, for example, this unity exists between basic education and modern practices thanks to the fact that a portion of the subjects there are taught by people in the IT industry who talk about what they’re doing right now.
What is a creative agency like as a business? How does it function and what kinds of people are hired?
We always wanted to be in the creative industry, but we are still more of a digital agency. For example, we are taking on a completely new brand and currently carrying out a branding campaign. We’re also developing a digital promotion strategy, as well as sites, landings, banners, etc. for it. In CreativePeople’s initial stages, we focused largely on simpler products – corporate sites, business-card sites, and promo sites. Now we have a lot of service design work. We design products and services for companies in the digital sphere, and we also produce tools that help them conduct their business and participate in the promotion process. This is all called service design.
We have a broad range of tasks that we divide into four areas and four teams, each with its own management team, designers, and sometimes its own tech specialists. It ends up being an agency within an agency. All of the teams meet about a single client and work together. There’s a branding department that focuses on brand identity, logos, and individual style. We also have a division that creates and develops websites and then carries out subsequent website support and development. By moving the client from department to department, we guarantee well-rounded results.
What kinds of specialists do digital agencies need most right now?
The market still doesn’t have a concrete definition of ‘digital.’ There’s a digital communications channel, which might be a website or mobile app capable of augmented or virtual reality, as well as the internet of things. This is all the digital sphere. Each of these markets is developing, and there are never enough specialists. The problem of having a lack of designers has been solved, but even in this area they are separated based on how sought after they are. For example, UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) designers are in high demand.
Like everyone else, we are experiencing a lack of good programmers and developers, and we oftentimes have to look for specialists in the regions because they cost a lot in Moscow. A while back, we opened up our own remote development office, and we work with partners from other cities. Anything involving the digital realm has no territorial boundaries; we have employees not only from other cities, but from other countries as well. This is particularly true for top-notch international designers.
What is happening in the world of advertising and branding? What are the trends and new languages? A certain immunity has formed for older quality advertising communications.
Everyone is long accustomed to the fact that the user doesn’t have time for anything and has to consume content in an abridged format. We make any page so that it’s easy to flip through and quickly get an idea based on the headings. I think we’re in the age of abbreviations, speech bubbles, and quotations, but there are small texts on the site for anyone really interested.
A tried and tested way of getting the user interested in a crazy abundance of content is to use infographics or longer communication such as gamification, which involves communicating through game-based processes. People talk a lot about native advertising, storytelling, and about the fact that brands have to tell stories the user finds useful. Really, the internet has a lot of low-quality content – it might even have mostly this. Very few sites have an editor or content manager; this would raise the cost of high-quality content. For example, in order to create a website, one can use a ready-made and constructed platform, but content has to be unique, and a team of professionals are the only ones who can make it unique.
Choosing a website’s design is a completely subjective matter of taste. Can a bank, for example, go to CreativePeople for an animated site with unicorns?
A client’s preferences are of course welcomed, but really everything has to stem from the goal the client is pursuing. For example, at CreativePeople we want our site to demonstrate our level of mastery over tools like design, video, illustration, and graphics.
The number of bumps in the road and an immunity towards failure are generally criteria for a business’ success
In practice, once a client’s main objective has been determined, you decide if it’s better to solve this task rationally or emotionally, and possibly with a combination of the two. Secondly, it’s necessary to take a complex approach towards a problem. This will make the work faster and more economical, and the agreed upon design will be predictable. If you take this approach with each product, you carry out projects better and more quickly. Say someone orders banners from you, for example, and each time you torture yourself thinking up a new idea each time. You don’t have to do that. It’s easier to come up with a system – what will the network look like, what kind of image will be used, how can 100 items be cut out, and what contractor should be utilised for the order. This concerns any type of product.
About creative agony, by the way – are there any idea generation methods you use?
There are a lot of creative methodologies. One of the first that I became familiar with was the theory of the resolution of invention-related tasks (TRIZ), while the latest is called lateral thinking. It’s simple at first glance – you have two different things, so try to merge the two. You have a single united thing, divide it up. If you have something standing on its legs, turn it upside down on its head. Or for example, our creative department has its own set of fairly standard methodologies, including brainstorming or working in creative pairs so that you aren’t talking to yourself and have someone who can be critical and unwind your ideas. Applying these practices is itself complex creative work.
web studios exist in Russia
What are some self-development lifehacks that you acquired during your time in the creative industry?
I’ll admit that I’m lazy in real life. I think the only thing that helps a person avoid staying in place is being critical of oneself. This helps me too. If you find someone who will be objectively critical of you and, what’s also important, sometimes praise you as well, this will seriously motivate you to change. It’s necessary to accustom yourself to new challenges, and if no more problems exist at your job, then this means growth has stopped and you can just retire, which is something that would be nice to earn in the first place.
Now specialists from a diverse range of fields are actively developing their presentation skills. It seems this is an irreplaceable skill on the labour market. How does your company view this trend?
This is truly an important skill, even for programmers. At CreativePeople, we have an internal lecture series where we bring in talented colleagues from the market to talk about their experiences. Our employees also present at the company themselves, which helps give an understanding of the type of problems being solved at CreativePeople. It also gives people the opportunity to improve their presentation skills.
Where should someone start if they want to launch a digital agency?
We take graduates from the faculties of design and management and mix them up in a blender [laughs]. Any business has two components – a management component and a technological one. This is why if you want to create websites or something else in the digital sphere, you will initially really need a person who has an excellent understanding of technology. Now the market is such that one can only compete using quality of the product they produce. But this doesn’t mean that in addition to a cool product you don’t need a great manager and sales specialist.
Entrepreneurship is popular now, but people aren’t taught about it. The number of bumps in the road and an immunity towards failure are generally criteria for a business’ success. You can go work at a different company and learn how the business works from the inside, but there’s the risk of staying too long in a contracted position. Overall, you shouldn’t be scared of gaining your own personal experience and being honest.