Documenting the destruction of Milwaukee’s sister city of Irpin, Ukraine, a new billboard has gone up along I-94 near 84th Street with a simple plea to local residents: “Milwaukee, your sister city is waiting for your support.”

But the story of the billboard’s creation is one of Ukrainian ingenuity and strange coincidence, and is documented in a new episode of the Lead Balloon Podcast, which is produced in Milwaukee by Podcamp Media.

When the Russian military launched its unprovoked war more than three weeks ago, hundreds of Ukrainian ad agency executives, creative directors and freelance communicators banded together to launch an information counter-offensive.

Their goal is to pierce the veil of Russian propaganda and drive home to Russians the true costs and motives for the invasion, while building support around the world to mount a political and economic pressure campaign against Russian aggression. Prevent WW3

Speaking on the Lead Balloon Podcast, founder and creative director of Kyiv-based [isdgroup] Viktor Shkurba said, “Everybody should understand that it’s not just a war against Ukraine. It’s war against you, against the future… Anyone around the world could now help us actually fight.”

Shkurba and his colleague Oksana Gonchar were forced to flee their agency in Kyiv, and have set up their operation at a partner agency in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, further away from the focus of the brutal Russian invation.

Together with freelancer Andrii Mishchenko, they issued a creative brief to recruit professional communicators around the world to take up their cause.

One of many creatives who responded to the brief is the new owner of a billboard along Milwaukee’s I-94 corridor, Boston-based ad executive Courtney Calvert from the firm MullenLowe U.S.

Calvert said her agency actually purchased the billboard as part of a planned ad campaign that fell through, and that the agency was eager to support the Ukrainian cause. So, she responded to the brief.

“In the first day, we got really a lot of emails with ideas and offers and questions,” said Gonchar. “(Calvert) … wrote us that she saw the brief and wants to help, and she has just one billboard in Milwaukee and she wants to use this billboard for supporting Ukraine. But she didn’t know what she should write on this billboard.”

So Gonchar says her team did some quick research, and discovered Milwaukee’s existing sister city relationship with Irpin, Ukraine. A suburb just northwest of Kyiv, Irpin has been hit hard by Russian bombardment and has suffered extensive damage.

Working quickly, Gonchar and her team prepared a billboard for Calvert, and then adapted the tactic to call attention to other sister city relationships that tie to Ukrainian municipalities.

“This one (person with a Milwaukee connection) inspired us to do a big campaign around the world and find all the sister cities of our cities that were destroyed by Russian bombs,” Gonchar said. “And now, we are preparing these billboards and messages for each city around the world. And it is so cool to know that only one person in the world can make this wave.”

Of course, another coincidence was that Shkurba, Gonchar, and Mishchenko did not realize, up to that point in their interview on the Lead Balloon Podcast, that host Dusty Weis and the Podcamp Media operation are based in Milwaukee.

“Would you believe that I’m actually calling you from Milwaukee right now?” Weis said, to the disbelieving laughter of his podcast guests.

Afterward, Weis added, “It’s easy to watch the news coverage of what’s happening in Ukraine and think, ‘Those people and places are really far away from us here in Milwaukee.’ For me, this was a humbling reminder that we live in a world that gets smaller every day, and Russia’s unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation should concern every freedom-loving person, wherever they live.”

“Please, find a way to support the Ukrainian people in their fight against the Russian invasion.”

Dusty Weis

Podcamp Media, Аris Mеssіnіs, Tіmothy Fаdеk, and Оksаnа Gоnchаr

Milwaukee has a small but thriving Ukrainian American community, and Irpin is a sister city. Follow the special coverage by Milwaukee Independent for updates on the Russian invasion, and about how the fight by Ukraine’s people to preserve their democracy is having an impact on the families and businesses here in Milwaukee.