5 Minutes with… Darko Skulsky
Whenever you speak to anyone from Ukrainian advertising about how the industry is growing one name comes up again and again. Get your Geiger counters out, it’s time to talk Radioaktive. The production service company has become one of the most prolific in the world – at this point you’d be quicker asking which award-winning ads they haven’t worked on. Libresse’s groundbreaking Blood Normal. Apple’s dynamic Bounce. Three’s time-skipping historical epic Phones Are Good.
2019 marks the start of an exciting new chapter for the team. They levelled up with a co-production credit in the heavyweight hit HBO show Chernobyl. They turned 21. And they’ve just embarked on a partnership with their friendly rivals at Polish production service company 24/7.
Darko Skulsky is the founding partner of this success story that’s been two decades in the making. He first moved to Ukraine in the mid-90s as a young man, unsure of what he wanted to do exactly but curious about reconnecting with his roots. And now he’s seen as a pioneer in the local industry and has built up an international reputation. And now, with Ukraine experiencing a youth revolution of creativity and innovation, he wouldn’t be anywhere else. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Darko.
LBB> Where did Radioaktive begin?
Darko> I started Radioaktive after I came out to Ukraine from the US in ‘95. My godfather was kind of important in the government, brought me out there straight out of college. He brought me out there to run his businesses. He had a lot of businesses – he was an oil and gas guy. After a while doing this, in 1995 at 21 years old, I realised that it wasn’t for me. I was about to go back to America and somebody I knew who worked at Leo Burnett Chicago was mandated to go out to Kiev to open up Leo Burnett because Philip Morris and Proctor & Gamble were opening up out there. She called me because she knew I was out here and asked me to help her open up the business.
LBB> So had you had any contact with the advertising industry before? Had it been something that you’d thought of going into?
Darko> Nothing at all. For two to three months, Proctor & Gamble had Leo Burnett to do a Door Step Challenge campaign… and I just kind of said I would do it. I produced it, figured it out and I made a decent amount of money. I didn’t know the terms at the time but I was a freelance producer working inside the company and I shot this video for them.
There was no real production market in Ukraine at the time. I started talking to people I knew in the industry and they explained the business to me. I went to Cannes that year, in 1995, and started giving out business cards and hanging out with people and bumped into people at companies like Markenfilm. And, on September 17 1998, we got out first job – a music video for Germany. And now we’re here, 21 years later.
LBB> When you were a kid then what was it that you imagined you wanted to do? Was there another trajectory you thought you would go down?
Darko> I wanted to travel. I wanted to travel for business. I went to school in Washington DC to study international business. That was my plan, but I didn’t know what business that would be. That’s one of the reasons I was intrigued about going to Ukraine.
I have Ukrainian roots and went to Ukraine growing up, so I had that heritage and it was an easy choice to start off with, even though it was very much the ’Wild, Wild East’ when I got here. So I had the idea of business but I didn’t realise that I was going to get into this creative world.
And once we started working a lot of people I looked up to helped out; people from Markenfilm, and I bumped into Daniel Bergmann very early in my career just when he was starting out Stink. He was the person who gave me our first commercial job after shooting music videos for a year. You learn little by little by little and before you know it you’ve been working for 21 years.
LBB> So as well as growing Radioaktive as a company, you must have also seen the whole growth of the Ukrainian ad industry, which was non-existent before the ‘90s. Now you’re at that 21 year mark, how do you look back and think of that?
Darko> Well… there was no commercial industry in Ukraine when we started. It was all distributors doing advertising – that was one of the reasons that the advertising industry started to open up. So I was there before advertising. And then when the advertising industry started, we were the ones who started to bring in more talent, directors and even creatives to come up with concepts for local clients.
I guess we were one of the pioneers, especially with the idea of bringing in foreign talent to shoot commercials locally. But that kind of dwindled off because one of our goals was to work on a more global scale. It was very difficult coming out of Ukraine, so after doing the local work for the first eight to ten years, which was a big concerted effort and a wild ride, we started entertaining more foreign directors and foreign production companies to shoot here in Kiev. Independent was one of the earliest to do so back in the day, and Stink. And all of a sudden we started growing and growing, just with our reputation for doing good work, for the craft, the dedication. And so we became a service provider rather than a full service company.
LBB> I’ve been chatting to people off and on over the past few years about what’s going there and people were saying because of the past decade’s revolutions, the current generation of youngsters are really fearlessly creative and proactive. What do you think?
Darko> These guys are taking over the world, it’s amazing. It’s as if the entire country is like Berlin was 18 years ago or Williamsburg 12 years ago. It’s young people going for it, doing their thing, testing the waters, failing a lot, succeeding once in a while, pulling each other up and doing really cool things. I think Ukraine is in a really good place right now. Hopefully the government is following.
LBB> I’d love to talk to you about the recently announced partnership in Poland with production service company 24/7. How did that come about and why was Poland the right market?
Darko> I was talking with one of my partners, Jane Yatsuta (MD and EP) about how we could expand. We do already work in Georgia.
We have a very good friend and competitor in 24/7- we share similar values and we do a lot bidding against each other but we share a lot of ideals. There are a couple of companies out there like that, like The Lift in Mexico think similarly to the way we and 24/7 do. We were running out of certain kinds of locations – maybe don’t always have the right kind of modern architecture for some kind of American ads. We were looking at other markets that were close to us – we didn’t want to travel to a country where we didn’t have any influence. We border with Poland and it’s easy for us to bring in equipment and whatnot. 24/7 were also interested in giving a bigger offering than what they had with Poland, Spain and Portugal. Out of respect, neither of us wanted to step on each others’ toes and neither of us wanted to dwindle our resources. We wanted to give Poland the full respect it deserves. So we wanted to constantly have our best people there when we could afford to have them there. By splitting it up we were able to have very good people constantly on two feet, together with amazing people who are already part of Poland, to push over our production service values in that market.
LBB> What’s amazing about Radiokative is that your reputation really precedes you – and nowhere more than with Ukrainians. Whenever I speak to Ukrainian agency people, they tell me of the Radioaktive success story and they seem really proud of what you’ve done for the country’s reputation as a whole…
Darko> In the local community, for sure, we certainly have a pleasant superstar status. A lot of the production companies that have spawned have spun off from working with us or learning from us. But on the flip side they also give us mad respect – they don’t look at us like an evil empire. Just the opposite. They give us a lot of respect.
It’s crazy, because my friends who are not in the business - other Americans or foreigners who have started businesses - look at radioactive as if it’s a twenty year overnight success story! They’re like ‘where did you guys come from just now?’, but we’ve been working at it for such a long time, just to pop up in the last couple of years.
LBB> Production is all about problem solving – is that something that resonates with you?
Darko> We try to instil in our employees the idea of what a service company should be. A service company, for us, is there to solve problems. It’s a microcosm of tiny little issues that could happen and we are all about trying to put our best foot forward to try and solve whatever problem the client has. There’s always a smile. You know, we’re in the service industry – the high end level of the service industry but I think we try to instil that in our people constantly.
LBB> I think we’ve seen across the world on a local and global level, where production sits in the business of advertising is changing. We’ve got agencies and brands bringing it inhouse, production companies hiring strategists and creatives… but it seems that the service industry, in a way, because of the nature of it, perhaps its more stable? You can’t really inhouse that on-the-ground knowledge and connections…
Darko> There’s creative agencies doing production and post production and production companies doing creative, but that makes everyone battle for the same piece of the cake. But that’s not my – you can’t take away anybody’s desire to try to spread their business, to creative or whatnot. We’ve been trying to stay in our lane and we stay away from anything that is not natural to us.
We call what we do ‘post creative’ instead of ‘services’ in the office at least, we try to keep that attitude. Give us your ideas and we will try to maximise the way that we can help you, the director, realise them.
You said the word stable – I would love that, but I’ve been in Ukraine for twenty years and we’ve had three revolutions and wars and everything else! Somehow, though, because of our attitude to support the ‘post creative’ we have stayed relevant. People still want to work with us because of what we intrinsically have to offer. I think that’s something that Radioaktive has embedded in its soul.
LBB> Over the past 21 years, which projects have been the real milestones for you?
Darko> Getting a co-production credit on Chernobyl was huge. In the advertising world, a lot of people already knew us but it felt like the grown-ups looked over to us and said, ‘ok, you can have a seat at the table now’. That was a big thing.
We have been growing in stages from time to time.. in 2005 we did a Steve Rogers job for Subaru, which made us feel that we were growing in the right direction. But then we did an Apple job with Sam Brown about four years ago and all of a sudden America looked over to us and were like ‘oh who are these guys?’. It opened up the American market to us.
In the UK market we’ve been slowly and steadily growing , we’ve done a lot of work with Gary Friedman at Independent and VW button won a lot of awards. When we did Coldplay it put us on the map, just because music videos internationally make a lot of noise.
Recently we did Apple bBounce with Pulse – it made everybody turn around because we made this 5500sqm set in 12 days, a slice of Manhattan in 12 days, which was pretty amazing. Everybody was like ‘wow’ now it’s a little bit easier in the commercial world to approach people and speak to people.
LBB> And are you seeing much work and interest coming from India, China, and the rest of Asia? I’ve heard that these markets are starting to look at eastern Europe as well for production service and locations.
Darko> We’ve done about ten or so decent projects. It’s only in the last two years. We’ve done a couple of Japanese commercials in the past two years.
We did a couple of sales trips to that part of the world and those markets are definitely a large part of the future of advertising and they have great ideas, so we’re definitely interested in doing more and more.
LBB> Outside of work mode, what sort of things do you like to get up to?
Darko> That’s crazy, I used to have an amazing social mode to my life. I think my daughter would use the word epic – but work is (and this is such a corny answer) my life. And besides that there’s my family.
When I do have time, I like to travel with my family. We have a bunch of pet projects between our country house and whatnot. We’re lucky enough living in the middle of eastern Europe that we get to travel a lot as a family. I know it sounds horrible and it’s a bit of a cliché to people in our industry but I kind of ‘live’ the business too much. I love it. I need to know what everyone is doing. What does this guy want? What does that guy want? People come to our office, a lot directors, a lot of producers, a lot of owners and I always want to know what their state of mind is. As niche as advertising is, people live it. It’s the most important thing in the world. When I first started living with my wife she'd say, you’re just making ads… but now she even lives it. My whole family lives advertising.
LBB> Radioaktive has just turned 21, so looking to the future , where you want to go next?
Darko> There are a couple of different directions. One is working very closely with the Ukrainian government – they’re so into everything we’re doing. They took me on a roadshow to Toronto to deal with selling creative services to the world – they’re very supportive to us. I see that as a definite direction, working closer with Ukraine as a country, not just radioactive but about growing creativity in Ukraine.
Two, I think our people are growing up so much – I have two amazing EPs and six amazing producers, an amazing MD and partners.
As far as the kind of work we do, we’re always trying to get to the next level and we’re always looking for something that can supplement what we have to offer.
And we’ll see , you know? We just want a little piece of the pie and to make people happy.