On the other side of the desk, blinking in the smoke, is me: a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson USA.
Mischa owns a small ad agency that started out printing posters and outdoor boards. Now it also does ads and commercials. I am there to help him.
The organization that arranged this strange union is funded primarily by the U.S. government.
About 1,000 similar couplings take place each year, in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa. The aim is to encourage the growth of free-market economies by providing technical or marketing assistance.
Mischa never heard of Madison Avenue; I can't pronounce Tsinamdzgvrishvili, the street his agency is on. Can this work?
CRISIS OF THE MOMENT
There is no room to give me an office; I will sit alongside Mischa. The crisis of the moment is a shaky account, a new national lottery. Sales are disappointing, the lottery may fold. People prefer a long-established bingo game; some find the lottery entry forms difficult to fill out. Didn't the client do research up front? Yes, but the assignment was given to somebody's girlfriend. It didn't reveal much.
Mischa shows me the launch commercial. It uses computer animation, which he's proud of, but the message is soft. I suggest a promotion built around a free day of play. Get people to see the entry forms are easy to fill out. Mischa agrees; we'll check the client.
Actually, two clients: a local manager and overseas investors. The local manager invested nothing, but will share in any profits. How come? Because he is wired into the government. Presumably this was an advantage in getting started.
I meet the representative of the overseas investors, a Russian-born American. He says the free-play promotion is worth considering. Then he takes off on the local manager. The manager doesn't understand business. The lottery sponsors a TV show to announce each week's winning numbers. The manager insisted on building a studio for this instead of renting. Why? Because renting would send the wrong message. Renting is transitory; owning shows strength.
The manager has given himself a fancy office and company car. When I meet him, he takes off on the investors. They don't understand the ways of the country. He has no ideas for improving sales. Marketing is not his responsibility. He is like a middle linebacker, ready to tackle anything that moves.
The free play idea is put on hold. Hopes are pinned on a big jackpot, the biggest ever -- $100,000. Hopefully, there will be no quick winner; suspense will build, sales will climb.
In the midst of this, Mischa exchanges his shabby, 10-year-old Russian Lada for a shiny 10-year-old Mercedes -- to impress prospective clients. The first people impressed are some toughs. Seeing the Mercedes, they assume Mischa has come into money and try to extort some. He rounds up his own toughs to straighten things out. Two days are lost with this.
A LUCKY WINNER
Meanwhile, sooner than expected, a winning number comes up. But no happy winner comes forward. There is no name or address on the ticket. Mischa says the winner must be afraid. Criminals will target him. They might kidnap his children. Hustlers will try to con him. Every friend he's ever had will ask for a handout. And since we're not paying any money out, the public will assume the lottery is crooked.
Make the best of this, I say. Go after free publicity. Have a press conference -- where's the big winner?
Mischa asks the investors for money to pay the press to cover the story. Is this necessary? He assures me it is.
Four newspapers and one TV station show up. The local manager presides. He pours everything out: good, bad, relevant, irrelevant. He says, proudly, that the lottery owns its own TV studio. He explains that the computers used to process entries were imported from Germany. He says the reason sales are weak is people aren't used to the entry forms. He says the business is a joint venture. There is no focus on the missing winner; it is more like a confessional.
Then Mischa invites everyone to dinner, the reporters, the manager, me. The important thing, he says, is building relationships. The dinner goes on for hours: vodka, wine and many toasts. It grows late. I wonder when the reporters file their stories.
The TV station never runs the interview. The stories dribble out over the next few days. There is a modest stir in sales, but the account is still shaky.
A week later, the jackpot winner appears, shows his winning entry, then disappears. He leaves no address. He can be reached only through a relative, who is with the police. He wants his money and zero publicity. Absolutely none.
WHO IS THAT MASKED MAN?
We want to show we're paying the money out. We could ask for a TV interview, face obscured. Or a radio interview, voice disguised. We could tip off reporters when he comes to get his check. Where might that lead? Or we could run a campaign playing up his wish for anonymity, using a masked actor: "If you want to find out what it feels like to win $100,000, you'll have to play the lottery game yourself."
The local manager doesn't get the point. Advertising, publicity, what does it mean? The investors seem ready to pull out. Mischa throws up his hands.
The country can certainly live without a new lottery game. But other accounts face similar problems. I wonder, is this culture ready for marketing? Advertising is built on hope. It is designed to whet appetites, spur desires. There must be some suspension of reality.
But these people are over their heads in reality. Electricity fails, water in the pipes is rusty, sidewalks are broken up, most traffic lights don't work.
One evening I am invited to a birthday party for one of the agency's workers. He lives in a dilapidated high-rise. We walk up seven floors; the elevator hasn't worked for a long time. In the transition from communism, the government let tenants buy their flats for $100. But nobody owns the buildings; there is no maintenance.
Yet, despite everything, a transition is under way. Elections have been held, businesses are being started, electricity is being privatized, there's a big new hotel going up downtown. And entrepreneurs persevere.
Mischa is gaining clients, printing posters (by computer), making ads, turning a profit. He is determined to build a full-service agency. His staff is mostly in their 20s. They work late and hard. I urge them to do consumer research, to make store checks before working on a product.
Much of this is new to them. The free market is new. You can't just jump-start consumerism. You can lend a hand, point in the right direction.
One day I asked Mischa why he carries a gun. He shows me the bullet hole in the wall of his office. Bad things used to happen, he says. Bad people were around. But that was a few years ago. Things are much better now.
Mr. Metter, former chairman of J. Walter Thompson USA, is an advertising consultant based in Greenwich, Conn. He was a business adviser in Eastern Europe