On the night of February 23, Nickolas Rekeda was hosting a party with his colleagues at his home in Kyiv.
The mood was jovial. Attention turned to the following week, when Rekeda, a marketing executive at adtech company MGID, was due to fly to Barcelona to catch up with some industry contacts ahead of the huge annual Mobile World Congress expo.
The plane would never take off.
At 4 a.m., Rekeda awoke with a start to the sound of an air raid siren. In shock and with bleary eyes, he grabbed his phone. Up popped a notification that his flight was canceled and a message from his mom:
"The war has begun."
After a day spent zipping around the city helping to deliver medicine and a night spent sheltering underground in the metro station as the air raid siren continued wailing on an almost half-hour cycle, he decided it was time to relocate.
Rekeda, his parents, girlfriend, and their 15-year-old black-and-white cat Penguin bundled into a car. After a plodding 19-hour journey, they finally arrived at a safer location close to the Carpathian Mountains in west Ukraine. But despite nearly two days without sleep, Rekeda was restless.
"I signed into the military forces in Kyiv but they said, 'You're not a sniper, you're not an engineer, you're not somebody who can do something for yourself. Thank you, we have your contacts, we'll reach you if we need you,'" Rekeda told Insider over a Zoom call from his hotel room.
Then, he said, he had a brainwave: "I'm from ads. I think I can help by doing ads."
As Ukraine remains under siege from an increasingly aggressive Russian assault, a volunteer collective of digital ad experts like Rekeda has joined together across the country — some from makeshift underground shelters as missiles tear through the skies above them — on the most important campaign of their careers.
Some of their early efforts involved launching digital ad campaigns across the US and Europe to help raise money for Ukraine's armed forces. But the group soon turned its focus to websites and social platforms in Russia and its neighbor Belarus. The aim: To counter Kremlin propaganda with ads containing accurate updates about Russia's bombardment on Ukraine, straight from the ground.
Some of the ads — placed using self-service programmatic buying technology — contained information about the number of Russian soldiers, artillery, and tanks lost in the battle, per Ukrainian military statistics. Another push aimed to target Russian mothers, encouraging them to check on sons who might have been drafted to fight in a war — not a "special military operation," as the Kremlin has described the attack.
In total, more than 50 advertising companies have employees volunteering for the group. Anastasiya Baydachenko, chief executive of advertising trade group IAB Ukraine, who is helping organize the collective, estimated that participating businesses had donated at least 10 million Ukrainian hryvnia ($333,000) to the advertising campaign in the past seven days.
"I appreciate the business owners who invested this money in a dreadful situation because we understand war kills the economy," said Baydachenko, who was speaking to Insider from her apartment's shelter in the city of Kyiv, where she is hunkering down with her family. "The desire and readiness of our members to put money in this campaign — it was a sign of national pride."
It's unclear how much of an impact the push has had so far, though contacts in Russia have told the group they have seen the ads for themselves, Baydachenko said.
The effort has encountered obstacles. Some platforms including Snap and Twitter have suspended all ads in Russia. Other ads have been blocked by platform or site moderators. Earlier this week, Russia's communications regulator Roskomnadzor said it had sent a letter to Google ordering it to restrict ads it said contained inaccurate information about the casualties of Russian forces. Last week, Roskomnadzor moved to "partially restrict" access to Facebook in the country. Baydachenko said Roskomnadzor's moves are a signal the campaign might be hitting a nerve in Moscow.
Ukraine's creative agencies — including ISD Group, Banda Agency, Grape, and Bickerstaff.734 — have also joined in separate efforts to target citizens of Russia and Belarus with imagery and information about the invasion, Ad Age reported.
Ad experts outside of Ukraine are also hoping to use digital ads to spread word of the war to Russia. UK-based digital strategist Rob Blackie has raised just over 16,000 pounds ($21,400) in a Crowdfunder campaign to send "independent news about the war in Ukraine" to Russians via digital ads. Around 20 people across three countries are helping with the push, Blackie said.
Blackie told Insider the campaign had reached more than 1.7 million impressions and more than 39,000 clicks.
"The truth gap between reality and Putin propaganda is so big, anything you show people about the war is going to be shocking," Blackie said.
As Ukraine heads into its ninth day of war, Rekeda estimates hundreds of people across the Ukrainian ad industry are getting involved in the Russia advertising push.
"Some of them, in the daytime, they go around the streets in Kyiv on the posts, patrol what's going on, help deliver food and medicine; and in the evening, they sit and try to work with the landing pages, try to create some creatives, launch campaigns," he said. "Crisis management in the Ukrainian ad industry is unique."