Texan Knows What's Hot and What's Not

Maximilian Friedman aims to be Western firms' Russian youth connection, offering them advice on what's cool and soon to be cool and thus worth investing in.

Friedman's specialty is trend strategy, a branch of marketing as yet underdeveloped in Russia. His company, Conceptual Entertainment, relies on "trend scouts" - an eclectic group of people who all know a good trend when they see one - to supplement Friedman's own sensitive nose to track down new fashions before they bloom.

"Seemingly unrelated events converge and the points where they meet are the points of opportunities," he says. "If you're able to see what's about to happen ... you can give people what they wish they wanted. You're creating a new reality for them."

Friedman, 25, is in a good position to be a "cool-hunter." A native of El Paso, Texas, he wears long curly hair, baggy clothes and a wandering half-smile that he likes to make in the middle of an enigmatic countenance. He feels as comfortable with respectable businessmen as teenage clubgoers coming up to him on the street to ask for a flier. Both are part of his huge network of sources of potentially valuable information.

"The trend is like a wave. If you get the wave before it starts, you get the longest drive. If you take it when it's near the sand, then you're in the sand," he laughs.

He aims to help companies get maximum rewards for minimum investment by pulling back from one trend as it peaks and switching to a new one before everyone else piles onto the wagon.

But these days he is also aiming to fill a need brought to the fore by the August crisis. The collapse of Russia's economy has brought forth a new wave of nationalism, social decay and unrest and Friedman has responded with a new project that, while it locks on to this new "trend," at first sight looks to have no real commercial application.

Friedman has worked with the teen magazine Yes! - a monthly glossy published by the same group that publishes The Moscow Times - to set up Street Smart, a teen hot line to provide support and advice for troubled young people, from underage mothers to drug addicts and conscientious objectors to military service.

"The idea is to create a brand that will be immediately convincing for the young people, to get them to want to find out about organizations they wouldn't otherwise find out about," says Friedman, who believes the project can also be profitable. "[The hot line] will justify the presence of a lot of foreigners here."

Friedman came to Russia in 1993, a recent graduate of Vassar College in upstate New York, where he studied film criticism and Russian literature. He turned himself into the manager of Hermitage, one of the first "mafia-free" nightclubs in Moscow, as he puts it.

Rubbing shoulders with the in-crowd at Hermitage, which included anyone from "motorcyclists to Western businessmen to young hipsters to old bohemians," Friedman picked up on the craving for the new that was burning inside so many young Russians.

The match between their hunger and the numerous new companies desperate to make a name and find a market for themselves was an obvious one for Friedman and he threw himself into creating Conceptual Entertainment.

The business took off after Friedman organized the first hugely successful Halloween party at Hermitage in 1994. The previously almost-unheard-of American tradition has since become the biggest club event in Moscow after New Year's Eve.

Friedman, meanwhile, moved on to organize a cross-Russia rave with gigs and dance events in 12 cities during 1995. His success made him a natural to work as a consultant for Rock the Vote, a campaign organized by the International Foundation of Electoral Systems to convince young Russians to vote in the 1996 presidential elections.

The Texan's own heady triumphs with bringing an American festival like Halloween to Russia didn't blind him to the anti-Yankee turn in sentiment that had already begun by that time. When Friedman's team was working at Russifying the Rock the Vote campaign, one of his chief recommendations was that Western involvement be kept to an absolute minimum.