Facing a national emergency

With long hours and low pay, it is no surprise the ad industry struggles to attract young Arab nationals. But there are signs things may be changing, writes Iain Akerman

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By  Iain Akerman Published  February 12, 2006

Facing a national emergency|~|eddie-moutran200.jpg|~|‘We are unable to attract young nationals in the very markets in which we live. I can’t get enough Egyptians trained, I can’t get enough Saudis to train and I can’t get enough Emiratis to train’ Edmond Moutran, CEO and chairman of Memac Ogilvy|~|Here’s a poser for you. You’re a Gulf national who has just finished school/university and are contemplating your career. Do you a) work for a company that pays well and gives you 50 days annual leave a year; b) work for the government; or c) join the advertising industry and work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with barely enough cash to pay for your apartment? As exaggerated and as simplistic as this scenario may seem, it raises a very real issue for the industry. While advertising may be booming in the Middle East, recruiting locals remains a huge problem. Advertising is a mass importer of talent. And this, in an industry that thrives on local knowledge and insight. Speaking to Campaign last year, Fadi Salameh, president and CEO of the Middle East Communication Networks, which includes the Promoseven network, said: “This is the toughest thing the whole industry is facing right now. You need local talent and that is a strategy we follow.” This is a sentiment echoed by Edmond Moutran, chairman and CEO of Memac Ogilvy. “We are unable to attract young nationals in the very markets in which we live,” he says. “I can’t get enough Egyptians trained, I can’t get enough Saudis to train and I can’t get enough Emiratis to train.” And given the options available to locals, he knows why there is such a dearth of local talent. “It’s a hard-work industry,” he says. “We compete against government jobs, we compete against financial institutions that have less hours and more pay. The advertising agency business is a lucrative business, you will lead a good life in it, but you’ve got to work extremely hard to reach the top. And to reach the top you’ve got to burn a lot of midnight oil, you’ve got to burn a lot of your soul to get there. “So the choice of shall I get a job with the government or a bank working from 8am to 2pm and have my afternoons free is easy when you compare it to what we offer.” Tarek Nizameddin, human resources manager at FP7 in Abu Dhabi, says wages are also an issue. “The packages we pay are very high compared to other agencies, but still very low compared to those of oil companies,” he says. “I cannot afford to pay a fresh graduate AED20,000 or AED25,000 (US$5500 to US$6800). ” While there are no concrete figures, Adel Jendli, associate professor and internship coordinator at Zayed University’s college of communication and media sciences in Dubai, estimates that as little as 5% of his students end up in the advertising business. The majority either opt for PR, go client side or leave to have families once the course has finished. It is also estimated that Emiratis (who make up less than 20% of the UAE population) account for about only 1% of the work force in any private sector industry. There are similar problems across the Gulf, although in Saudi Arabia, where companies must employ a set quota of nationals, they are having more success. Still, Fathi Hadaya, managing director of Impact BBDO in Jeddah, says it is a constant battle to attract locals: “Our business is not a nine to fiver. It’s a constant dynamic environment and you have to work around the clock. Sometimes you stay late and this is a situation that can be difficult for many locals, especially women.” Bob Gulovsen, associate professor and internship coordinator at the college of communication and media sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, agrees that cultural differences can be an issue. All of Gulovsen’s students on the four-year course in integrated communications are Emirati women. “The students are quite enthusiastic about advertising,” he says. “They like the idea, they like the creativity of it, but when it comes down to reality, these are young Emirati women whose fathers and brothers don’t like them to work the hours that are required in an advertising agency. “The ones who really like advertising are not concerned about the hours, they’re not concerned about the amount of work, but the family pressure is such that it’s hard for them.” And the problem of attracting locals isn’t restricted to advertising. Christine Von Hoerde, director of planning and head of training at OMD (which employs a number of GCC nationals), believes a lack of knowledge of what the advertising and media industries actually do is a stumbling block. “Media in the Middle East is still a very young industry and as a business is especially not too well known among the GCC population,” she says. “The fact that media specialist networks are still frequently referred to as buying agencies doesn’t help clarify the real scope of what we actually do.” So what can the advertising industry do to improve the situation? “One of the things agencies can do is create training programmes or create internships where they allow flexibility, they allow students to come in and perhaps work at a somewhat different time schedule to expose them to the stimulation and the enjoyment of working in an advertising agency,” says Gulovsen. “Right now I’ve got one student who is going on an internship with an advertising agency in its client contact area. She’s going to be a test case in as far as a real advertising job goes and her parents know what she’s going to be doing and they’re approving of it. Hopefully she’ll come back with some stories about how good it is and how much fun it is and will get some of the other students interested.” One company that is doing its best to attract young graduates and locals to the advertising industry is Memac Ogilvy, which has had a training programme in place since 1996 (see box). Its latest class graduated from the course in December last year. “The aim is to make the advertising agency attractive to young people,” says Moutran. “We have been extremely open and honest with people about the industry we live in. I talk more about the hard times and the hard work than I do the fun because I don’t like people to be disappointed. “We always paint a darker picture than reality. And I think for a group of them it has really paid off. Some of our graduates of the first class of ’96 are today deputy managing directors within the industry.” Yet even such a rare initiative has problems. The retention rate is only 30% and, although December’s course had Jordanian, Syrian and Saudi students, Moutran is not happy with the number of Gulf and Levant nationals on the course. “Next time we will work extremely hard in Dubai universities, Bahrain universities, Saudi universities, Egyptian universities, Jordanian universities. I do not want more than 40% of the next class to be Lebanese,” he says. Impact BBDO’s Hadaya also faces problems. The company has a training programme that is implemented when a graduate joins the agency and a lot of money is put into making sure the graduate is retained. “In the first six months you don’t expect a young grad to contribute to anything,” he says. “They are there to learn, ||**||Facing a national emergency|~|Gulovsen,-Bob200.jpg|~|Looking to the future... Bob Gulovsen associate professor and internship coordinator at the college of communication and media sciences at Zayed University, UAE|~|to listen, to acquire knowledge. So if they change their mind after six months, it’s quite discouraging because you’re back to square one again, having invested people and resources.” Gulovsen believes many agencies need to concentrate more on interns interested in the advertising industry. He says: “You’ve got to think through the purpose of what an intern is, especially here in the UAE where companies are under pressure to hire nationals. They’ve got to do essentially a missionary job to make them feel as though this is a great place to work and they should tell their friends about it. “And I don’t think they are doing as much of this in Abu Dhabi as they could be, because the pressure is going to keep building for nationals.” But the problem and the solution don’t lie entirely in the hands of agencies themselves. Many believe governments of Gulf countries should stop mollycoddling their citizens with cosy public sector jobs. “The government should stop supporting them,” says Nizameddin. “Not all the locals can work in oil companies and banks.” Moutran agrees that the situation will change when governments tighten their grip on employers and financial institutions become more realistic with their pay. Yet there are some glimmers of hope. Salameh says 70% of his staff in Bahrain are local and that there is now a well-established women’s division in Saudi Arabia. What’s more, their presence points to why local knowledge is essential. “We have nine creative Saudi ladies doing brilliant work because they understand their culture better than any foreigner we could bring in,” Salameh told Campaign. “I spent 23 years in Saudi but I will never know as much as a local.” But will this trend spread across the Gulf? Gulovsen is optimistic. He says: “What’s happening now is that we’re educating the next generation, in the sense that we’re making these young ladies aware of what’s out there and that while they may not be able to get their parents to change, when they become parents they will be in a better position to allow their children to do it.” Nizameddin is also optimistic, although he believes it is going to be a long and slow process. He also believes that, with one eye on Saudi Arabia, it is only a matter of time before the industry is forced to hire a certain quota of nationals. “The main thing I’m trying to do is to attract locals to work for our company,” he says. “So when they come here for an internship I make sure they see a nice environment, they understand the advertising business and hopefully, when they graduate, they will come and join us.” For Moutran, one option is for agencies to work together. “Maybe we should all get together and instead of one class we should do four classes and graduate 200 students for the industry each year,” he says. “But training takes time, it takes dedication and not all agencies are willing to do this.” Von Hoerde believes the situation can only improve as there are many people advocating change. “It is particularly important that we rely on local talent to increase the amount of local insight and knowledge into our communication plans,” she says. “Their presence in advertising and media agencies across the region can only grow since many companies in our industry have made it a key goal.”||**||Facing a national emergency|~||~||~|Training with Memac Ogilvy Memac Ogilvy’s post-graduate training programme was founded in 1996 and has been a constant source of new employees for the company ever since. Originally held once every three years, it now takes place every two years and is an intensive three-week induction into the advertising industry. Graduating students usually disperse throughout the Memac Ogilvy empire across the Middle East. It covers everything from the structure of an ad agency to intuitive thinking, case studies, market research, branding, finance, PR, creative briefs, marketing briefs and obtaining new business. The culmination of the course is a pitch in which different groups of students battle it out to win new business. Tanya Dernaika, the course’s training leader, says: “It’s a transition from the world of university to the world of the advertising agency. “It’s an incredibly tough transition. I’ve been through it myself and you go from an environment where you’re the star, where professors are providing a service to you, to an environment in which you are providing a service, where you are at the bottom of the ladder. “What we try to do with the course is bring in a lot of real life examples — business we’ve worked on, pitches we’ve been involved in — and tell them the good and the bad. “We brought in a lot of good people to talk to them and a lot of people from the agency shared a day in their own life to give them insights into what’s to come and what their goals are and how they are going to have to work. “It’s about managing their expectations, about making sure that their whole experience is not just a baptism by fire because baptism by fire can work for some and not for others.” Edmond Moutran, the company’s CEO and chairman, says: “It’s really an induction into agency life.We teach them how to take a brief, teach them how to write a creative brief, teach them how to brainstorm for good strategy, teach them how to be creative, teach them how to criticise creative, teach them how to talk to the creative director, show them how a film is made. We talk to them a little bit about PR, how journalists behave, what they like and dislike, how to pay respect to clients, how to handle clients. I gave a lecture on 50 ways to keep a client happy. I think the next time I give this lecture it will be 75.” On the issue of retention, he says: “This year we’ve really worked extremely hard to make sure our starting pay is attractive because I intend to retain over 50%, not just30% — I’m not happy with 30%. So we’ve increased the entry salary by about 20% and a system is in place to monitor those guys much more regularly. So if the assessments are usually done twice a year, now they will be done four times a year so that the stars can be identified and rewarded accordingly.”||**||

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