Ukrainian gets job at the top agency and moves to New York: interview

Ukrainian Alina Redkina moved to New York about a year ago, and today works as the senior graphic designer in one of the city’s best creative agencies, Kworq. Her provocative project, Bad Reviews, became one of the most talked-about social campaigns in America. Alina’s client saw the sales boost by 284%; the campaign itself was nominated for the prestigious Webby Awards and is now entered into Cannes Lions.

In the interview for AIN.UA, Alina spoke about building a career in the USA, as well as about the difficulties in her studies, life, and work.

Tell us how you started your career. Why had you decided to become a designer, and what had you been doing before moving to the U.S.?

Ever since I was a child, I had drawn pictures, but I refused to go to an art school. To draw on someone’s order seemed wrong to me. In my youth, I got keen on psychology, or rather even behaviorism. I was interested in the motivation of human behavior, what factors influence our choices, possible subconscious manipulations. I had always liked watching commercials as one of the manipulation channels.

I had always known that I would work in creative industries, but there had been no clear plan. I entered the Department of International Relations at the Kyiv Institute of International Relations (IIR) and started studying media, PR, and advertising. Then I decided that I want to work in advertising.

In my 4th year I got a work placement at the digital agency Escape.

I dared to write in a letter to the managing director that I had no work experience, I didn’t know which exact position I could take, but that if he hired me, he wouldn’t regret it.

And I was hired as an intern in the creative department. I did everything from copywriting to drawing storyboards. I learned a lot; I started taking courses in design and sketching.

How did you get to study in the USA?

I received my master’s degree, I owned an apartment, and there was a good start for an advertising career. And I started getting lazy. When everything goes too well, there is no incentive to improve, and you get bored.

My parents had always wanted me to get a second degree. They are Soviet people, and a sheepskin means much to them: it means that in the future, I’ll get a job and make a living out of it. When I graduated from IIR, dad said, “Either you stay and work in Ukraine, and you’re on your own from then on, or you go to get a second degree – we’ll pay for your study.”

It had always seemed to me that the U.S. was something beyond my grasp. In my childhood, I have often traveled to Europe, and it was more familiar to me, but the U.S. – it was challenging. When I was still in Kyiv, I found a university in Los Angeles (Cal State LA) and a program which appealed to me, but as I understood nothing in the American admission system, I missed the application deadlines. I would have to lose six months, but it occurred to me that if I didn’t go then, I wouldn’t go at all. I decided to fly and to do a Pre-Master’s to this university so that after finishing the program, I would progress to grad school automatically.

Initially, I had planned to get a master’s in communication studies, to reinforce my first diploma with an international counterpart. But the start of the academic year in my specialism was deferred from the spring semester to the fall, and I needed either to fly to Ukraine and return in six months, or to continue the Pre-Master’s study. I began looking for colleges and universities to transfer and not to lose time. Parents advised me to do design. Meaning, I had to quit communication studies and start doing graphic design and entertainment technology from scratch. I decided to take my chances.

What difficulties did you face, and how much did the study cost?

Being admitted to a Pre-Master’s is easy, it’s difficult to progress to the next stage. To do it, you must take the TOEFL exam, show your language skills, undergo a diploma devaluation (they partly carry over the test marks in the subjects you passed in Ukraine).

You also have to show who is sponsoring your education. You can come to the U.S. having just $1,000 in your pocket, but to get a visa you must prove that you can sustain yourself. You must have at least $27,000 per year on the bank account. The account may belong not to you, but to your sponsor: parents, husband, etc. The sponsor signs a contract confirming that he or she is willing to pay for your education.

I paid $3,500–4,000 for the three-month Pre-Master’s program, and $6,000–7,000 per semester for the university study (the cost depends upon the number of classes you take: I took the maximum workload).

While I was busy applying, it turned out that the immigration officer, by mistake, had put a tourist stamp onto my student’s visa and hadn’t added me to the database. I had 3 weeks to pass the exams, prepare a set of documents and get admitted, and now on top of that I get my documents rejected, as I am officially not within the country. Because of the stupid mistake, I had to run from pillar to post with dozens of letterheads and wait in long lines.

I managed to apply on the last day before the deadline. And that was a stroke of luck! Had it not been for those weird changes in my university’s academic schedule, I wouldn’t know about the paperwork error and could be deported, because the stamped date meant I would have to leave the country in two months.

What did you live on in America? Did you work part-time somewhere? And how did you manage to combine work and study?

In my first year of living in America, my parents covered the expenses. In the U.S., you don’t have the right to work full-time if you’re an international student. You can earn money just off the books, and I would take no such risks.

After a year, when I was already enrolled in graphic design, other students and professors started hooking me up with some freelance projects. This was how I began earning something bit by bit. Still chicken feed, but I understood that I could already work in design – this raised my self-esteem. Bearing in mind that in the spring I opened Illustrator for the first time, as previously I had drawn by hand only, and by the end of the semester, I would have already been making photorealistic cover pictures (meaning when you take a photo and redraw it so that the picture is identical).

American education is completely different from the Ukrainian and even European ones. You choose what classes you want to attend. And I took all the most difficult ones in the first semester: they just caught my fancy; I didn’t know they were hard-core. Illustrator was among them. The course required us to have the basic Illustrator skills, and I had never in my life worked with this program. I had to catch up at a furious pace.

The study in the U.S. is based on practice – you do projects and collect points. The theory should be studied in the spare time – you just get a list of books to read.

In the first year, I studied a lot, really a lot. By contrast, the next one was easy for me, because we would cover the subjects which I had already done independently. This gave me some free time, and I started freelancing. And in a year, I was already working as the art director in a toy company.

What was this company? How did you get hired?

A small European toy brand called Nobi, with the production facilities in Hungary (with a separate brand, Hungary Plastic). But part of the staff is in Ukraine because the owner hails from Ukraine.

When I had summer vacations, my family and I went on a journey to Europe. And a friend of ours, who happened to be working in Nobi’s marketing team, asked me to come and share my opinion, as I had already had some experience in PR, copywriting and design.

I thought I would drop in for a day and then hit the streets again: after all, I’m on vacation. I sat there listening for a while, and I said a couple of words, because I still wasn’t a part of the team. But they asked me to come the next day. Then the next day.

Eventually, I effectively worked there for three months, despite having no offer, no specific position, and receiving no pay. For this help, they presented me with a premium MacBook Pro, so, essentially, I was in the black.

At the end of August, when I was going to leave, the founder called me and said: “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse. I’m firing the creative director and giving his job to you. Put together a team, it may be international, you will manage it remotely. Congratulations!”

The salary was variable, based on the results. Around $1500–2500 a month, depending on the work performed (I handled two companies belonging to one chain simultaneously). I still couldn’t pay for my education, but it was enough to make a living.

I rented a one-bedroom apartment and was living alone. It’s possible in Los Angeles, but not in New York.

Why did you decide to leave?

I had a heavy schedule. Studying in the USA while constantly flying to Ukraine, to Europe got me a nice sleeping disorder. No one would take the time difference into account – people would call me at 2:00 or 3:00 am, and I could have a meeting at 5:00 am.

I got used to such a schedule, and the director was satisfied with my work. But every time I came up with some crazy projects, wanting to do something big, they preferred not to take risks, but to keep moving in the familiar direction. And I got bored.

I no longer enjoyed the work, no longer enjoyed LA, although it had become my home by that time. There I had some friends, some worn paths, but I understood that I had stopped growing and moving forward. I reached my career ceiling in this company – here I wouldn’t advance above the level of the art director. That is why I decided to leave. To take a step back and work as a designer.

How did you search for a new job? And how did you get into Kworq?

I was looking for a position for several months, mainly via LinkedIn, although I also used job aggregators like Indeed. I sent my CV and portfolio around and began receiving calls and letters, so I understood that I was in demand. I had a full suite of expertise: I had worked as a copywriter; I had got a designer’s portfolio and some team-leading experience. I had done animation, instruction manuals, brochures, packaging – whatever comes to mind.

Then I decided to start all over again and to write just to those companies which were of real interest to me. I made a top list of companies having projects in different cities, but, as a rule, they had no vacancies. So, I searched for their directors’ contacts and wrote to them directly.

I hadn’t known about Kworq, I just stumbled across it in Google. In 2019, it was named the best creative and design agency in New York, according to Clutch, the best content marketing agency in the USA and a top-5 production agency, according to Agency Spotter. Its client list included Jaguar Land Rover, Ray-Ban, Verizon, Louboutin, NARS, etc. And its projects had picked up prestigious awards in the advertising industry time after time. So, I got interested and added it to my list. And when I saw its website, I understood that that was just what I needed.

I wrote a letter to the creative director, also the co-founder. He replied they were a small company, about 10 to 11 people, and had no vacancies at the moment. He offered me a freelance project, but I declined: I was interested just in full-time. Meanwhile, I was invited to an interview in San Francisco.

They offered me a good position with a good salary, $70,000 a year. I had asked for $50,000, but the director crossed it out and advised me not to joke around like that anymore. That’s when I realized I was worth more.

Just when I received that offer, the agency was joining another company. I would have to wait until the merger process is finalized, and only then start working. That said, I still had several months left.

Los Angeles is not far from San Francisco, and in fact, the changes wouldn’t be anything to shout about – slightly more bums, a lot more IT guys. It rains more often. Apart from that, it’s the same.

And I wrote to Kworq again. Before that, I read the creative director’s blog and realized that he was quite straightforward and had a sarcastic sense of humor, like me. Less of the American political correctness, “no bullshit” – just to the point. And then I thought that I should not bow and scrape then. I wrote him a straightforward letter saying that money was not important for me at that stage; I was interested in projects, I wanted to create things, I was ready to work 24/7, I could be loaded with anything – “no bullshit.”

I got the answer at once: “Tomorrow, 10:00 am, in the office.” The office is in New York, you know, and I’m in LA. And he says, “Okay, let’s do a video interview, right now.” I remember I was still wearing my pajamas, and I barely had time to spruce myself up somehow. The video interview was just classic: me wearing a formal shirt up and pajama trousers down under the table. But I made it through, and in several days, I flew to meet the management on-site anyway.

I remember being asked for my opinion on stressful environments. Like, we’re not a mainstream American company, we’re tough, we can swear at each other. And I tell them, “Guys, I’m from Ukraine. If Americans swear in stressful situations, it’s nothing compared to what happens when a large Ukrainian family gathers at the table to enjoy a festive meal.” Just later, when I was walking out after the interview, I thought, hey, what have I blurted out – what if they would think I have a dysfunctional family?

In two hours, I received a message saying I’d gotten the job, and I had two weeks for moving. I sold all my LA stuff, packed the bags and set off to New York.

Was their offer smaller or bigger than that in SF?

Smaller. Actually, salaries in the advertising business in New York are lower than in the rest of America. Because there is more competition. There are thousands of candidates per place, no worse than you. The staff turnover is immense. I’ve been working in the company for 8 months, and in the meantime 5 or 6 persons were replaced. We’re now joking about me being a Kworq veteran.

A graphic designer’s salary in New York is about $50–70 thousand on average. Art directors can get $70,000 to $120,000. Also, in IT companies, designers’ salaries can be above the market average, but people there mainly do presentations, which is tedious and dull. This is how a friend of mine works. The pay is good, but she hates her life.

As a matter of fact, in America, it’s considered improper to disclose what salary someone gets. They don’t ask each other such questions here; money talk is taboo. And then if you ask how they got it, that’s just a personal insult. Everyone here talks about inspiration, future prospects.

And in the context of prospects, New York is very cool. This is the advertising business capital. All the head offices of global companies are situated here. If you work in the advertising business in New York, each your year counts for 10. Even now, if I quit my company, I can get a job wherever I want.

What position do you hold now? What do you do in Kworq? What projects do you manage, and what are their budgets?

After six months I was promoted from a graphic designer to a senior lead graphic designer. The company itself has grown a little – when I came here, the staff were 8, and now there are about 20. I manage a department of 10 to 15 people. I lead the company’s main projects and do everything from brand strategy to animation design. My duties vary depending on the project. If it’s videos, then I contribute to developing the idea and the script, editing and designing VFX; if it’s a social campaign, then – everything from the strategy to the final design.

I cannot disclose our company’s revenue, but, for instance, just in the last two weeks, two projects which I managed in parallel made us a profit of about $100,000. Given the fact that we are a small agency, we handle a large number of projects.

One of my latest projects, Bad Reviews, was nominated for Webby 2020, in the Social Campaign category. We are now applying to Cannes Lions, and I think, we’ll be able to get a prize in one of the 15 available categories. Because the project’s results are really very cool for the American market. Our campaign has boosted the client’s revenue fivefold and has become a social network virus.

Tell us about Bad Reviews. What kind of project is it, what are the results, and how much time did it take to show its provocativeness?

It is a social campaign for a French niche perfume brand called Etat libre d’Orange. Etat libre d’Orange is an elite brand famous for its provocative fragrances. They are not for everyone: you either fall in love instantly, or totally hate them.

I realized that a classic ad with a sexy man in the background wouldn’t do. The name “Etat libre” translates as “Free State”, and the logo is reminiscent of the French flag. The first association which sprang to my mind was – the French Revolution and the famous Eugène Delacroix painting “Liberty Leading the People.” After delving into the topic of the French Revolution, I concluded that it is quite close to the brand’s philosophy. Etat libre revolutionizes the perfumery market. Since their fragrances are provocative, why not make their campaign provocative too?

We combined some famous paintings by European artists of 16–18 centuries, mainly French artists of the Revolution period, with negative comments to Etat libre perfumes from the Internet.

The paintings were selected so that it was unclear whether the commentary relates to the painting or the perfume, and whether the commenter speaks jokingly or seriously.

The comments were so absurd and ingenious that no copywriter could have made such stuff up.

The combination of the paintings and the negative comments creates a sense of being at a museum and just overhearing people’s chat. Some understand and see something special in the painting, and some don’t like it.

The result surpassed all of our expectations. In the first 45 days since the launch of the campaign, Etat Libre d’Orange USA increased their total sales by 284%. The website traffic grew by 393%, and the overall number of orders, by 309%. More than 1.1 million views, more than 35,000 likes, 1,000 reposts, and 700 comments.

The most valuable thing for us is that people engaged in a debate with each other – some said, “Is it a joke?” – and some wrote that it was the best ad, and that just because of it they should buy the perfume. The brand got an army of fans who became its ambassadors of a kind.

What is your life like in New York? How did your standard of living change, compared to LA?

I hated New York. I came here previously, and in a couple of days turned into a lump of malice, because the skyscraper walls press down on you, there are crowds of people, everyone rushes… You can’t even stand on a street in Manhattan, you can get knocked off your feet. Not my kind of atmosphere.

Los Angeles and New York are complete opposites. But wasn’t that me who wanted some radical changes, to get out of my comfort zone, to place myself in such circumstances where I would have to “survive”? It may be not the nicest word, but regarding the pace of living, New York is everlasting stress. I adapted quickly, but I don’t think I’ll stay to live here for more than 2 or 3 years: I prefer seeing the horizon instead of concrete buildings.

Living in New York is generally more expensive than in LA, but this doesn’t affect the quality. I can’t say I cruise around to the Bahamas every week: if I earned this salary in LA, I would live much better. In LA, I was living alone, and in New York, I have housemates. I can’t afford to rent a good apartment on my own.

Approximately 30–40% of my salary is taxes. A good figure at the beginning doesn’t get as good in the end. It’s unlike Ukraine – whatever sum they name to you, that much you get. Here we get less.

We have a loft-style duplex. My neighbors are a couple – a director and a screenplay writer. The flats in our house are only let to creative people, and so every other person here is a musician or an author.

Can you compare the advertising industries in the U.S. and Ukraine?

In Ukraine, people are more relaxed, less afraid to lose their position. For Ukrainians, a mistake is a mistake, but here it means that hundreds if not thousands of people are already snapping at your heels.

The approach to the process is different, as well. In the USA, 80% of project work is research. A project’s success is based on storytelling, and design is just a visualization tool. Everything starts with research, then a strategy and a message, and only after that the idea and the design come.

In Ukraine, this model is turned upside down. In the beginning, we come up with a “wow idea,” and then try to write a story and a message to match it and fit all the strategy accordingly.

I’m not saying this is wrong. A great many Ukrainian projects come through, but this approach is less stable. In the USA, success is calculated and projected in the very beginning. This is, likewise, not always good. I think that is why American agencies value European creatives. We are like an adrenaline shot for them.

I combine the American approach with the Ukrainian one. My colleagues say, “Let Alina devise a concept and sketch out a multilayered strategy, and then we’ll narrow it down and adapt it to the realities.” For me, 70% is storytelling, and then 30% is design.

Do you visit Ukraine often? Do you plan to come back or stay to live in the USA?

I love Ukraine very much, and previously I used to fly there twice a year for a month or two at a time. Now the schedule is busier, and you don’t always get the chance to fly and stay for two weeks at least. Everything depends on the prospects and the work.

I’m not tied to a specific place. I can move to any country in Europe if there are interesting projects there. I can easily change locations, and I adapt quickly. It’s easy to move if you know that you have a home and you can always come back there. Lately, I want to do something useful in my country as well. So, I’m open, if my help in social projects is needed in Ukraine.