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I met my Ukrainian peers at Cannes Lions last year – they’re now family

By Tom Cunningham | Senior vice-president, corporate communications

June 15, 2023 | 7 min read

As Cannes Lions approaches and the war in Ukraine rages on, IPG’s Tom Cunningham reflects on the value of work – and on chosen families.

Cannes in France

IPG’s Tom Cunningham reflects on a year working in concert with Ukrainian colleagues / Adobe Stock

On the first night of the Cannes Festival last year, IPG hosted its annual welcome party on the beach. I saw old friends and colleagues and met new ones, including Serhiy Uryn, the CEO of McCann Kyiv. It was 2022 and only four months had passed since Russia had invaded Ukraine.

During those months, I’d worked with IPG colleagues around the world to find ways we could provide support on the ground to our colleagues in Ukraine, including safe passage for family members to neighboring countries like Poland. Serhiy was the first person from Ukraine I’d met in person since the invasion.

Full disclosure: I cry pretty easily. Any ad that features teachers or military veterans is instant waterworks for me. So, sadly for Serhiy, when I met him on the beach and started to offer my sympathies and condolences, I burst into tears.

He stopped me quickly and nicely but firmly said: “Tom, we don’t need sympathy. What we need is work. That’s why I’ve come to this festival. To tell the people here that Ukraine is still open for business. We have talented people who need a livelihood and a sense of normalcy. Hire us to work on your campaigns. That’s what you can do to help.”

The salesmanship worked. We hired McCann Kyiv to create the graphics and stage design for our 11th Annual IPG Inclusion breakfast for the Cannes Festival later this month. Our breakfast will be great – our guests on stage include many of IPG’s most important clients, as well as Black Panther star and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Danai Gurira, fashion designer Fe Noel and many others.

While I’m very much looking forward to the content of our breakfast, what I’m most excited to see is the stage design fully realized, the one that the McCann Kyiv creative team developed with us over the last several months.

On the first Teams call with the Ukraine team, I (again) tried to express how sorry we all were that they continue to endure such profound horrors in their homeland. Oleh Kozik, the group account director working on our project, essentially ignored that part of what I said, and instead began asking questions about the event concept, scope, timelines, themes, budget and objectives.

And in every subsequent meeting, the Kyiv team showed up prepared, sharing fantastic designs with unexpected ideas, asking us good questions, and showcasing multiple executions for us to talk through.

What we ended up moving forward with is a design centered on a pair of colorful hands, coming together in a gesture of hope, but also with a sense of urgency. The theme for the breakfast is, ‘Don’t whisper, shout!‘, encouraging us all to be upstanders, not bystanders.

And while I know the conversations on stage at the breakfast will surface important topics, like how to create products and marketing that are unstereotyped as well as accessible, what I’ll also be focused on is how to remain engaged on the war in Ukraine, and how to be an upstander for my colleagues there, even as the world moves onto new crises.

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On our last Teams meeting with the Ukrainian crew, I took the call from home. During the call, my rescue tuxedo cat jumped in my lap, and I introduced Serhiy and Oleh to Coco. They smiled and told her it was very nice to meet her. At that moment, I couldn’t help but feel my immediate chosen family had grown a bit more, and that I’d be thinking about them long after Cannes is behind us.

Since I don’t want to end on a sappy note (too late!), I’ll add that the McCann Kyiv team came in ahead of schedule, on budget, and with unexpected, extra deliverables. So I won’t whisper it, but will shout it: hire this agency, stat.

Tom Cunningham is senior vice-president of corporate communications at IPG. Check out our War in Ukraine hub where we've covered how the invasion has impacted agencies and brands and of course the people.

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