Record Collector FEBRUARY 3, 2011 - by Mike Exon


The Russian telecoms company is leading the way with digital innovation, using top British designers to make its name synonymous with creativity and staging interactive events such as Yota Space. Mike Exon finds out more...

Since its launch just over three and a half years ago, Yota has become one of the curiosities of the design world. The Russian telecoms brand has been quietly working with some of the big names in British design, putting design, architecture and creative content at the centre of its business. What is striking, if disappointing, is that almost everything it does is destined for its broadband customers back in Russia.

In St Petersburg, back in December, Yota staged a huge digital arts festival in an old, empty, Brutalist shopping centre. Yota Space featured the cream of British interactive art, from Brian Eno and Chris Levine to Onedotzero, United Visual Artists and Jason Bruges.

"For Yota Space, we wanted to work with the best talent in the world but also to touch the cultural life of St Petersburg," says Yota creative director Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper.

It says something that Tsentsiper is on board at all. As founder and editor-in-chief of the Afisha publishing house (Russia's equivalent of Time Out), and part of an important architectural family, he's not your typical company man.

"What we created was amazing, it didn't feel like art at all," he says over our shaky British Skype connection. "Yota Space was more like a circus or a church - it had community, generosity, openness."

It was so successful that Yota Space will now be a regular fixture, and Yota has decided to make interactive art an important part of its communications work for the next few years.

"From the start, Yota wanted to do something very different," says Nigel Davies, managing director of 300 Million, the group behind the Yota branding and the appointment that began the UK design connection. Yota quickly set up a London office in Hatton Garden as a hub for its growing design work and a future gateway to international markets.

Heads turned in the UK last summer when Yota announced it was working with the Simon Waterfall start-up Fray, and design group All of Us. Fray directs a diverse range of Yota's design activity, from its product design - working with Seymour Powell - to its retail design in collaboration with Hunt Haggarty. Naked has also just joined the throng, as Yota's media partner.

The next few weeks will see the launch of the first fruits of the collaboration - a number of mobile Web hardware products created with Seymour Powell that are destined for Yota's customers in Russia, Nicaragua and Peru.

"For Yota," says Fray founder Waterfall, "it is all about brand behaviour. What they do and how they do it means absolutely everything.

'"Yota is turning the tables on technology brands. We're going to have to learn how to do 4G mobile from Russia, not the other way round. Now there is an emerging Russian brand that is setting the standard for the rest of the world."

All of Us director Phil Gerrard is struck by the company's hunger and ambition to "leapfrog" what's happening in the West. The group has been working on content and retail projects for Yota, with help from branding consultancy Someone.

"Yota is inspiring to work with because it constantly challenges you to be more innovative and it has a very clear vision of where it wants to be," Gerrard says. "We are working with Yota on a couple of major projects right now, including Yota Play - a new kind of video-on-demand service focused on the social discovery of film content, plus an interactive retail project planned for a number of its flagship stores later this year."

The company's design interests go further and deeper too. Its creative "branches", as Tsentsiper calls them, touch places such as Strelka, the Institute for Media, Architecture and Design that he co-founded in Moscow.

Some are billing Yota as Russia's answer to Google, but the comparison is a little unfair. Using design and creativity, Yota has already transformed itself from a network operator into a thriving media brand. The big question is, where will it go next?