- Russia has been lucrative for many PR, lobbying, and advertising firms.
- Many of them scrambled to cut ties with oligarchs and their organizations following the Ukraine invasion.
- Insider identified 13 ad and PR firms that have represented Russian interests in the US and abroad.
Western PR firms and ad agencies have raced to distance themselves from Russia to comply with sanctions placed on people and businesses associated with the Kremlin.
Ad holding companies have handed their Russian operations over to local executives while public affairs firms have dropped big-name clients who had hired them only weeks earlier to lobby against the sanctions.
Some of these moves came as the war intensified and companies faced questions from employees about why they continued operating in Russia.
A lot of money can be at stake. Russian entities have spent at least $182 million on US lobbying and influence services since 2016, according to transparency nonprofit OpenSecrets.
Using public records from the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the Lobbying Disclosure Act, and the EU’s Transparency Register, as well as previous media reports, Insider identified 13 firms that have recently represented people and businesses with Kremlin ties, when the relationships started and ended, and where available, how much the firm earned from them.
There are some information gaps. Many firms on this list registered as lobbyists, which allows them to conceal some aspects of their work. For example, if the client paid the lobbyist less than $5,000 in a quarter, the firm doesn’t have to reveal how much it earned. In some cases, it is unclear if they will continue working with these clients. Other contracts, such as those of ad agencies paid to market state-owned clients in Russia, are not public.
The firms did not respond to requests for comment unless otherwise noted.
Client: Nord Stream 2
Contract length: August 2017 — February 2022
Contract size: $10.4 million since August 2017
Roberti Global was the highest paid DC lobbying and PR firm on the controversial gas pipeline project Nord Stream 2’s bankroll.
Nord Stream 2 turned to a prominent lobbyist and PR pro, Vincent Roberti Sr., cofounder and chairman of Roberti Global, who worked to bolster the controversial pipeline.
Clients: Alfa Bank, Nord Stream 2, LetterOne
Washington, DC-based lobbying and PR giant BGR has worked for scores of corporations run by Russian oligarchs, including Alfa Bank, whose founder Mikhail Fridman reportedly has close ties with Putin. BGR earned at least $5.67 million over two decades from Alfa, per Lobbying Disclosure Act filings.
Alfa hired BGR to gain access to elite government circles and think tanks in 2002, according to The Daily Beast, but most of its work remains a mystery. The public got a peek into BGR’s world in 2007 when unsealed court documents implicated it in a scheme that Politico and Bloomberg called corporate espionage.
While representing Alfa, BGR hired private intelligence firm Diligence, which posed as secret agents to obtain audit files on an Alfa competitor, IPOC, according to Bloomberg. KPMG, which was working on the IPOC audit, sued Diligence for infiltrating its ranks and won a $1.7 million settlement.
BGR also earned about $2 million from Nord Stream 2, lobbying to prevent sanctions against the project after the Trump Administration tried to stop it. BGR cut ties with Nord Stream 2 after US sanctions hit.
And Luxembourg-based, $22 billion investment firm LetterOne, hired BGR in 2015 to provide “strategic guidance and counsel on developing relationships” with the US. The company paid BGR $3.25 million since 2015.
LetterOne was founded by a group of Russian oligarchs in 2013. Two of its cofounders, Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, resigned from LetterOne’s board in March after the EU sanctioned them.
No documentation on federal databases indicates BGR has resigned from the LetterOne account.
Mercury Public Affairs
Clients: EN+ Group, Sovcombank
The Omnicom PR firm has worked with multiple Russian-owned entities, including energy giant EN+ Group and financial institution Sovcombank.
In April 2018, Mercury registered to represent Sir Gregory Barker, a UK politician who chairs Russian hydropower giant EN+ Group, to lift sanctions related to Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Mercury received $108,500 per month from Barker, according to multiple contracts. Politico later reported that Barker had paid the firm about $2.5 million.
The firm registered as a representative of Sovcombank on January 27 to help it avoid sanctions. Its filing stated that it would be paid $90,000 per month for providing “strategic consulting and management services, and government relations services, including outreach to US Government officials.”
On Feb. 1, Mercury argued in a letter to US officials that none of Sovcombank’s top account holders are “specially designated nationals” or “politically exposed persons” that would be subject to sanctions.
Mercury terminated its contract with Sovcombank on February 24, less than a month after signing the contract. It dropped Barker as a client on the same day.
Contract length: August 2020 — October 2021
Contract size: $150,000 monthly retainer
LetterOne, a hedge fund founded by oligarchs including Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, hired the influential corporate advisory firm in August 2020 to increase its profile in the US. Teneo pitched LetterOne to TV financial outlets like CNBC, Bloomberg, and Fox Business and coordinated meetings with think tanks, according to government filings. The firm even arranged LetterOne to sponsor a Bloomberg Invest event about long-term investing strategies, CNBC reported.
LetterOne paid Teneo $1.05 million before the relationship ended in October, according to government filings.
Client: Nord Stream 2
Contract size: $330,000 to $440,000
Brunswick Group used to count Nord Stream 2 as one of its biggest clients, according to the Transparency Register, an EU initiative that shows which organizations try to influence its policy-making decisions.
The Financial Times reported that Brunswick terminated its contract with Nord Stream 2; a Brunswick spokesperson told Insider it ended the relationship prior to the invasion.
Brunswick is also known for high-profile and often controversial clients like Saudi Arabia-owned Saudi Aramco.
Clients: Alexander Ponomarenko and Alexander Skorobogatko
Contract length: 2018-2022
Contract size: $260,000 in 2018 to $100,000 in 2021
Ponomarenko and Skorobogatko are Russian billionaires and longtime business partners who hired Publicis-owned PR firm Qorvis soon after appearing on a 2018 US Treasury Department list of oligarchs close to Putin. Qorvis registered to provide “real estate and infrastructure development” services to Ponomarenko and Skorobogatko, who serve as chair of Russia’s largest airport and CEO of its parent company, respectively.
Qorvis declined to represent state-owned financial firm Vnesheconombank in 2019, when it hired a former Qorvis exec’s new firm, Geopolitical Solutions, to deal with potential sanctions, according to the trade pub O’Dwyer’s.
Strategic Marketing Innovations
Client: Evraz North America
Contract length: April 2021 — present
Contract size: $95,000 since April 2021
Its largest shareholder is Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, who has a 29% stake and faces UK sanctions.
Evraz North America hired DC consultancy Strategic Marketing Innovations to market its products to the federal government to secure “arms material R&D,” according to government filings.
When the UK sanctioned Abramovich and effectively, Evraz, it claimed Evraz provided steel to manufacture Russian tanks.
Client: VEB Bank
Contract length: October 2019 — June 2020, but formally terminated February 2022
Contract size: $62,500 per month
VEB Bank’s oligarch chair, Igor Shuvalov, has been a crucial ally to Putin, allowing the government to raise money for infrastructure and industrial projects. It was sanctioned when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
The International Centre for Legal Protection hired PR firm Geopols in 2019 on behalf of VEB Bank to avoid further sanctions.
Geopols founder Grace Fenstermaker, a former VP at PR firm Qorvis, wrote press releases and helped facilitate meetings between VEB and government officials like reps from the Department of State and journalists at outlets like Bloomberg, the Financial Times, and CNN, according to government filings.
Fenstermaker told Insider her work for VEB ended in June 2020; however, VEB was still registered with the Department of Justice until two days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Clients: EN+ Group, VTB, Magnit, Severstal, Gazprom Neft
London-based PR firm Hudson Sadler, which has an office in Moscow, has represented several large Russian-owned or -affiliated clients.
Its recent work included promoting the sustainability initiatives of Russian energy giant EN+ Group and retailer Magnit.
A Hudson Sadler partner also lists Gazprom among its current clients on LinkedIn.
The firm told the Financial Times earlier this month that it was stopping its Russian business because its partners “utterly condemn” the invasion of Ukraine.
FTI ended its work for Sberbank after the current sanctions targeting the bank, subsidiaries, and first deputy chairman, Alexander Aleksandrovich Vedyakhin.
Publicis-owned ad agency Leo Burnett’s best-known clients include McDonald’s and Philip Morris. For several years, its Moscow division also handled ads for Rostelecom, Russia’s largest state-owned digital services provider, according to reports and press releases dating back to 2011.
For example, “The Knopkins,” a Leo Burnett campaign illustrating a Russian family’s relationships with their mobile devices, won several industry awards and turned the family into a “household name,” according to the website of the exec who oversaw the ads.
A Yale School of Management report stated that Rostelecom is still a Leo Burnett client.
A Leo Burnett spokesperson referred to a release outlining Publicis’ plans to cede control of its Russian operations, but declined to say how that move might affect Leo Burnett’s relationship with Rostelecom.
Clients: Rosbank, Russian Railways, Rostelecom, Sberbank of Russia, Rosgosstrakh, VTB Bank
The Russian division of Omnicom agency BBDO promotes multiple Kremlin-owned or associated-organizations.
In a recent example, BBDO Russia produced a big-budget ad campaign called “Everything Is Possible,” which promotes state-affiliated lender Rosbank’s Visa credit card and stars Russian pop star Khabib and Ukrainian-born Russian actor Sergey Makovetsky.
According to BBDO Russia’s website, Rosbank remains a client — as do state-owned entities such as Russian Railways, Rostelecom, Sberbank of Russia, Rosgosstrakh, The Russian Federation’s Ministry of Finance, and VTB Bank, along with other, privately-owned businesses like Sovcombank that have been sanctioned.
On March 17, Omnicom announced it would divest from all operations in Russia. A spokeswoman said that Omnicom acquired majority stakes in some of its Russian offices, but that they would eventually drop their Omnicom names as ownership changes hands.
The spokesperson did not comment on whether the company currently known as BBDO Russia will continue working for its state-owned clients.
Clients: Russian Agricultural Bank, Kaspersky Lab
Omnicom’s DDB was also named in the Yale report on Western companies that are still doing business in Russia.
The report cited DDB’s work for state-owned Rosselkhozbank, or Russian Agricultural Bank, a top lender to Russian agribusiness. A pitch deck provided by Yale touted DDB Russia’s recent work, including a 2021 Rosselkhozbank ad starring restaurateur Arkady Novikov and actress Yulia Vysotskaya.
“The new campaign was launched to show the updated image of Rosselhozbank — a modern and innovative bank for people and about people — honest, working conscientiously, doing real business,” the deck reads.
Other DDB Russia clients in the deck that have been accused of direct ties to the Kremlin include cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab.