Not many ad-tech entrepreneurs can say they have announced an acquisition and kept their company running whilst sheltering from rocket attacks in a basement as war rages.
But that is what faced Sergii Denysenko when Russia’s military invaded Ukraine.
He is CEO of MGID, a programmatic native ad platform based in Kyiv, where his staff have taken evasive action to keep the business online – and have turned the tech against Russian leaders’ mis-information.
Beet.TV this week caught up with Denysenko while he was working from Rome. In this video interview with Senior Editor Rob Williams, Denysenko talks about resilience amid conflict – and what happens next.
In the ad-tech bunker
MGID offers an AI-based native ad matching system for brands like HSBC and Domino’s, used by publishers from Newsweek to MSN. It claims to serve 185 billion monthly content recommendations, including video.
Headquartered in Santa Monica and with 16 global offices, most of the 14-year-old company’s approximately 750 employees are usually based in a 40,000-square-foot office in the company’s native Kyiv.
With that and other cities under attack, those 500 employees – focused on R&D, engineering and tech support – switched to working and driving the business from bomb shelters, cellars and their cars.
“It was a very devastating experience,” Denysenko says. “For about a week and a half, my family had to be hiding in the basement.
“Regular shelling and rockets were flying over our house and, from the windows of our house, we could see dozens of military helicopters flying towards Kiev in an effort to conquer the city.”
Continuity in conflict
“The war, for 99% of the people in Ukraine, came as a surprise,” Denysenko says. “No-one believed that was going to happen.
“We tried to move all of our staff to safer areas in the west of the country. We never stopped a single initiative that we were doing. We are still continuing to develop the product.
“We didn’t have any disruption in the service to our clients. Even when we had to hide in the basement, we were working, we were all online.”
Denysenko says work-from-home restrictions first enforced by COVID-19 helped MGID prepare for the switch: “It does not really matter where you are, as long, as you have an internet connection.”
Some employees even went to Poland and Germany. But, to outside observers, MGID’s public profile also gives the sense of continuity, of appreciation for global customers’ day-to-day needs.
Fighting the information war
MGID hasn’t only been keeping its own lights shining. From workers’ bunkers, the company has also played a key role in a mobilising an effort to distribute truthful information about the war widely, publishing an open letter calling for counter-propaganda distribution and donations to Ukrainian charities.
Denysenko says the company has been helping “distribute the truth, the real information, about what is happening in Ukraine to the world”, countering Russian leaders’ social media campaign.
“Even some direct competitors of ours actually joined some of our efforts and they were providing their inventory, they were providing their creative teams in order to help us to fight in this war,” he says.
“It’s a very encouraging and exciting experience to see how the advertising industry joined forces and self-organized itself in order to fight propaganda.”
The company has even attempted to distribute content inside Russia and Belarus. MGID was the number-one native content recommendation network in Russia before the war, but promptly shut down its operation there.
M&A in the time of war
Amid all that, MGID even found time to announce part of its global expansion.
It announced the acquisition of a majority stake in Metup Native S.r.l., a leading native advertising network in Italy previously owned by MetUp.
MGID entered Italy via a partnership with Metup in 2019, giving it premium publisher customers including liberoquotidiano.it, ilfattoquotidiano.it, ilfoglio.it, iltempo.it, and gds.it.
It is a deal that had been worked on since October, finalised a couple of weeks ago, Denysenko says. In other words, MGID closed a deal during a war.
Revealing the reality
The tenacity of Ukraine’s military and civilians in repelling the invasion so far has been lauded around the world. Now it is being distilled into a global ad campaign, Bravery, produced by creative agency Banda for the Ukrainian government, with billboards due to be placed around the world. Ukrainian resistance is now a brand.
Although the threat around Kyiv and the bulk of Ukraine may seem to have abated, as the Russian military’s focus turns to the east, the horrors of this war seem only to be growing.
Denysenko says: “Hundreds of women were raped by Russian soldiers, tens of thousands of civilians were killed.”
But he points the finger at himself for not having moved the company out of Ukraine prior to the war.
“I’m actually the one to blame that we were not able to move the company to a safer area outside of Ukraine,” he says. “I was the one that did not believe that something like a war would happen between Russia and Ukraine.”
The road ahead
From a country he labels “unpredictable” and a “tyranny”, he now doesn’t know what to expect next.
But MGID has proven itself resilient, focused on its business, even capable of growth, during Ukraine’s greatest turmoil.
And Denysenko is determined he can back his own country.
“You either win or surrender to them, which is definitely something that Ukraine is not going to commit to,” he says.
“So I think that the war is going to continue for period of time. Definitely Ukraine is going win.”