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The interest deficit

Kamal Dimachkie, Leo Burnett MENA

Kamal Dimachkie, executive regional managing director of Leo Burnett - UAE, Kuwait and Lower Gulf, investigates the significance of local talent in UAE's advertising industry.

July 15, 2012 9:46 by

Three years ago, I participated in a panel that dealt with the subject of who is best suited to brand the Emirati culture.The conversation quickly veered to why we do not find local Emiratis in the communications industry, specifically within advertising agencies.

The pertinence of the question thrilled me, as did the enthusiasm of the audience members who pursued this line of questioning and thinking. Local talent taking ownership of industry sector has always been a foregone conclusion to me, even more so when the sector in question straddles culture, language, heritage and future – all basic ingredients that go into the making of relevant communication.

No one can beat the introspective understanding that the sons and daughters of any particular culture possess. They create the culture; they are the culture. Egyptians provide us with many examples of this through their notorious humour. The Lebanese are adept at recreating their own unique brand of witticisms. Saudis prove to us, through broadcast and YouTube, what a phenomenally rich reservoir of gifted people the country has.

In all of the above examples, we see first-hand that nuance and self-deprecation go hand in hand, and that these are most relevant, empathetic, effective and sincere when they are home-grown.

Expectedly, and thankfully, the conversation quickly concluded that there is a strong need for such talent in this field – though some of the recommendations brought forward inspired further thought. A particularly enthusiastic participant suggested that the communications industry should incentivize local talent by giving them sufficiently high salaries to lure them into the industry.

To me, this argument is flawed. It raises a number of questions in my mind: Why would companies pay more for local talent? What sense would such a step make, commercially or otherwise? How does this matter address the creation of a sustainable talent reservoir that can satisfy the industry’s need for local talent? How would a financial incentive at entry level cure a conceptual issue? Can organisations single out people from a particular background for financial advantage, independent of merit, and expect there not to be other ramifications across the organization? How viable, and sustainable, is such a course of action? And, most of all, should organisations do it?

What was especially interesting to me is that the pipeline of local talent seems to be dry at the source. Traditionally, we would gauge interest and start identifying talent at university level. Throughout the region we have reached out to many universities, opening the internship avenue to all top performing and keen students – and yet applicants from local universities have been extremely rare. This suggests that the biggest barrier is not really a financial one, but more one of interest. The communications industry seems to be suffering from an acute deficit in terms of its appeal to local talent.

Clearly, this is a condition that needs to be addressed and addressed fast, as the industry sector needs to be ultimately led, driven and populated by the very people it caters for- primarily the local population. This is a strategic imperative; one that has to be organically satisfied through home-grown talent that sees the importance of such a sector, while possessing the drive and wherewithal to work in this business.

What attracts local journalists, artists, athletes or craftsmen to their careers? I am quite sure that it can’t be an early high income. These are examples of areas that people choose because of a calling, to satisfy their talent, conviction or to fulfil a dream, or just go where no-one has gone before. The appeal of these avenues does not come from an initial, disproportionately high compensation to make them open for consideration. There has to be a bigger driver, a deeper conviction and a stronger pull.

As convinced of the above as I am, I would not at all disagree with my audience about the importance of financial rewards for the inexperienced local youth. The person who raised the initial question was on to something; she had her finger on the pulse of the local youth. She understood local dynamics in a way that I, an expatriate, could not. Whether real or perceived, that obstacle seems to have amplified a chasm that still has to be bridged.

But obstacles aside, there continues to be a need that has to be met. There is a role for local youth to play, and a role that they must play. It is as inconceivable that a key industry sector betreated as if it is an option on a menu that the local population deselects, as it is to not to make a contribution to it from the ground up.

The key question is, how do you incentivize Emiratis to participate in their own communications industry? This writer’s view is that you can never incentivize ambition, conviction, hunger and drive. What is really needed is to raise the level of understanding so that there is a greater acknowledgement of the need for this strategic sector. There needs to be an appreciation of the current local talent interest deficit, and a drive to start contributing to the communications industry workforce by the local talent pool.

Left unattended, this sector will continue to be operated by people who, no matter how appreciative they are of their hosts, will never be able share the same perspective, or make the same valuable contributions as them.

For its own sake, the UAE needs to offset this deficit.

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  1. Noora on July 15, 2012 1:13 pm

    As an Emirati advertising graduate I can try to explain the situation to you:

    The UAE society focuses on getting their children the “best” jobs in the public sector because of the high salaries, benefits and shorter working hours. Some might argue that this is not true but I have experienced this first hand (currently trying to find a job in the advertising industry while my parents want me to work in the public sector because it would be “better” for me) and have heard it from others. This is also shown in the article “‘Missing’ Emirati men return to teaching profession in Abu Dhabi’ in The National with more direct quotes.

    The belief that Emiratis should be offered a higher salary comes from the idea that the private sector should compete with the public sector, which is not practical. Some people would rather stay unemployed if they can’t find a public sector job than to take a job in the private sector.

    Public university students in the UAE are encouraged to enter the public sector; some even get job offers before they graduate. These universities are approached because the majority (if not all) of their students are Emirati.

    The public sector offers the “opportunity to grow”, while the private sector “limits you to one job that you could lose at any minute”.

    Now about the actual problem:

    There is a lot of doubt about the private sector. I’ve heard that employers don’t want to hire Emiratis because of the stereotypes about them being lazy/getting everything handed to them on a silver platter. I’ve also heard that employers would love to hire Emiratis to meet the Emiratization policy or to have someone that understands the culture. I’ve heard that employers are required to give Emiratis double the salary a non-Emirati would earn. I’ve heard that there are specific legal requirements for Emiratis in the private sector. I don’t know if ANY of these things are true and it’s not an easy subject to bring up or find someone that would be honest about it.

    I interned at an advertising agency in Dubai and I absolutely loved it. I was not treated any differently because of my nationality (which is what people told me to expect) and I had the opportunity to teach my coworkers about the culture which they would use in their ads. My friends (also Emirati advertising students) interned at places like Masdar, Mubadala and governmental facilities so they could make connections that would help them get hired after graduation. They worked in the internal communications department and spent their time writing powerpoint presentations. The work was simple and did not require an advertising background. A part of me believes that they only chose to intern there so others would recognize the name. My internship was at one of the biggest global agencies in the world but most Emiratis did not recognize the name so they didn’t care.

    My first interview at a global advertising agency was terrible because all they asked about was Emirati stereotypes and questioned what I would do if I left their office and hated the industry. I did not get the internship because according to them I was too “uncomfortable” in their office (I don’t think I was uncomfortable, I just didn’t know what to say about Emirati stereotypes). I had another interview where the person in charge kept asking about my parents and siblings education and where they work and what cars they drive. A third interview consisted of the HR manager telling me she wasn’t going to give me a visa for my internship after I told her “I’m Emirati so I don’t need a visa”.

    I know that I will probably face more of these interviews when I start applying for jobs but I’ve had two interviews that were great because the agencies focused more on my degree/education/skills than on my nationality.

  2. Salvador on July 15, 2012 2:05 pm

    Thank you Noora for your sincere comment. Unfortunately there are not many HR professionals in UAE. I had the luck to work with 2 young Emiratis who were really interested by the job and performed well. After 2 years they left for a better paid job in a local Bank. In my opinion these 2 guys had much higher potential but needed another 3 years of experience before moving. They told me that family and friends pressure was high on them, confirming your point. Govt high salaries are not doing a favour to young people. UAE needs to create a good base of talented young people for the future and this comes with experience in the private sector. Everybody knows how the public sector works all over the world. Most semi publi companies need more professionals to deal with the challenges ahead. Today none of these companies could compete in the open market.

  3. Kamal Dimachkie on July 16, 2012 11:55 am

    To start with, thank you very much for taking the time to engage, provide a response, and contribute to this conversation. Importantly, thank you for a very comprehensive perspective. You covered quite a bit of ground, and I would like to provide some thoughts from my perspective in the hope they will help every UAE national who is considering advertising and communications as a possible career route.
    I understand the society’s focus on getting their children the “best” jobs. I also wish to add that this is a universal matter, and I am sure it is safe to say that it applies to all the peoples of the world; after all, who wouldn’t the very best for their children.
    I agree with you that “Emiratis should get offered a higher salary comes from the idea that the private sector should compete with the public sector …” is not only an impractical idea, it also misses the point that the only thing the private sector should do is produce by innovating, stay competitive and generate returns to its shareholders. These are its rules, and it- to the best of my knowledge- doesn’t see itself competing with the public sector at all.
    While I understand the reasoning you have provided, for me this isn’t an argument between the public sector and the private one. For the economy to develop and thrive both sectors need to function well. The UAE seems to understand this, and the private institutions it has built and continues to do are living proof of the understanding of this principle. Importantly, the private institutions it has built have been spearheaded by nationals.
    Beyond the above, I am not sure that the statement that “The public sector offers the “opportunity to grow,” while the private sector “limits you to one job that you could lose at any minute” is accurate. The reality is that the private sector provides the opportunity for growth, and the rewards are much higher provided an individual earns them. Look around you, not only here but the world over and see the names you read about in the papers and hear about in the news; the examples of success in the private sector are too many to count. The flipside is true, though. There is risk, but then again there is risk everywhere and the private sector doesn’t hold a monopoly on it.
    Irrespective of the above, I would like to focus the conversation about participation and growth in the advertising industry. To start with, and as I mentioned in my article, this is a strategic sector in which nationals play a role in every country. The reality is that the people that succeed the most are those that understand their respective cultures best, that speak the language, that know the customs, that understand their own people, consumers and shoppers. Who can play this role better than those who are indigenous to the culture itself?
    Separately, treating this sector as “optional” is unwise because sooner or later the population will grow and it will demand to see its image in the communication, and that can only be delivered by people who get it, who understand it and who know how to faithfully capture it i.e. the sons and daughters of the country. Today, there is a vacuum that has to be filled and the issue is that there are no takers. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait provide excellent examples of local nationals who have decided to play a role in this industry and have made a difference. In my view, the youth of the Emirates have an opportunity.

    Moving to your experience, I have a few thoughts to share:
    1. Ignore the stereotypes for the world is full of them. We all live with them in one way or the other. The important thing is to focus on what you like, invest in it and see it through, then you will see that the stereotypes will fall by the wayside;
    2. Accept that there are no shortcuts to achievement. There are no easy routes to growth and success; you have to take the journey, commit, accept that sometimes you will succeed, while other times you will fail. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. This is an industry that favours intellect, curiousity, talent and hard work. Those who are deterred by that will by definition not go very far;
    3. Compared to other industry sectors, and particularly the public one, the advertising industry is hard. Despite all the glamour, the glitz, and stereotypes that surround this industry, good creative work is the product of hard labour. Join only if you are prepared for that and if you are truly interested, and I hope that many Emiratis are and will be;
    4. Not all agency environments are the same. Your experience really confirms it judging by what you have written. There are people from all sorts of backgrounds, colours, shapes and sizes. Let this not distract you from your quest, assuming this field genuinely interests you;
    5. Interview back. My recommendation to all job applicants anywhere is that when they go to an interview, they must interview back. The hiring process should not only be about the company looking for someone who they think will do the job and fit, it must also be about the potential employee finding whether or not this is the right environment for them. Be careful into whose hands you entrust your career, within or outside the communications industry.
    I hope this helps. I sincerely hope that there will be more interest in this sector and that Emiratis will play a leading role in it. It needs to start with interest, which should be coupled with drive and determination, and with the courage to start from the ground up.

  4. Noora on July 16, 2012 1:46 pm

    I just wanted to reply to clarify that the quoted text is the general belief of the society which is not something I agree with. They believe that the public sector is where Emiratis will find opportunities and benefits and things that would help them progress their career while the private sector is risky and won’t get you anywhere. I know that men get judged for working in the private sector for low salaries/low positions and then get comments like “we can help you find a better job in the public sector”. I know that some parents don’t allow their daughters to work in offices with men or work in the private sector because they feel like people won’t respect them. I am not sure about other women but I went to a co-ed university and have parents understand that I will have to work with men in the future. However, they are still pushing me towards a job in the public sector (one that I will be getting simply because of family connections and has nothing to do with my degree. I don’t want to be known as the person who got the position because of my connections).

    I see the effect that advertising has on the society and how people react when an ad doesn’t match the culture or social beliefs. They know that these ads were created by people who don’t understand the culture and then criticize them for it. I feel like this should motivate them to encourage Emiratis or GCC nationals to join the industry but it’s causing a weird reaction. Some people believe that by joining the private sector an Emirati will lose his/her identity and culture. I really don’t understand this mentality or agree with it.

    I don’t think that the private sector is competing with the public sector, they both provide jobs for people who need them. It’s basically “why go work in the private sector if you could earn twice the salary, get twice as many days off and have shorter working hours in the public sector?”. It’s also a matter of connections. For the private sector I would have to apply to jobs and get interviewed but at the public sector all I need is to know someone that works there. I know people that are doing ads, media plans, press releases and running the social media accounts in the public sector. None of these people studied advertising or PR, they got the job because they were unemployed and knew someone there.

    I do understand that eventually Emiratis will need to work for the private sector, I’ve read articles that interview Emiratis working as cashiers or maids. These articles caused a negative response because people believed that they could have gotten a more “respectful” (again, quoting them) job in the public industry. I have more respect for these people because they’re not relying on their connections to make a living. Even the government wants more Emiratis in the private sector, it’s just a matter of how the society views the sector itself.

    I do understand that trying to establish my career isn’t going to be easy. One of the reasons for the negative view of the private sector is that so many try, fail and then tell everyone about how the private sector is not for Emiratis because “everyone in the industry doesn’t want to hire Emiratis” (which is something I’ve heard over and over again and I don’t agree with it based on my internship experience).

    Personally, I hate being treated differently because of my nationality. I don’t expect my first job to have an extremely high salary. It’s an entry level job and I don’t have the experience that justifies a high salary. I would prefer to get experience from a real agency over receiving benefits at a job in the public sector that I know nothing about.

    I chose to study advertising because I knew I wanted to work at an agency but after graduating I’m getting responses like “what do you mean you want to work in the advertising industry?!”. My father actually said to me that he “chose” my job because it has “nothing to do with advertising” and he decided he doesn’t want me to work in advertising. This isn’t what I expected to hear after studying advertising for four years. I know that some Emiratis I know are facing similar situations (specifically about the advertising industry) but I’m not sure if this is a widespread problem. I already have a job interview and plan on applying to other agencies. I’m choosing not to argue with my family until I have real job offers and can prove that I’m capable of working in the industry.

    I know that some of things I’ve written are ridiculous but I’m trying to show you what the experience has been like. I’m very determined to not end up in a job I hate just for the money and benefits. Some Emiratis choose to accept “their fate”, I’m very stubborn and believe that my life should be based on my own decisions and not everyone else’s.

  5. Richard on July 19, 2012 7:12 pm

    Hi Noora,

    Just read your excellent comment, good on you. I wish more people were as able to grasp a situation such as you and good on you for following what you would actually like to do for your career and not taking the easy way out which in my opinion (the world over) is the lazy proetected, and usually corrupt, public sector. I personally prefer the private sector as it is free.

    People are free to win and lose and that is called the free makret. the best wind and the worst lose. Fact. If you lose and then you get better….you win more. Fact.

    With regards to the following point which is without doubt the most important point and the essence of the issue, ‘There is a lot of doubt about the private sector. I’ve heard that employers don’t want to hire Emiratis because of the stereotypes about them being lazy/getting everything handed to them on a silver platter. I’ve also heard that employers would love to hire Emiratis to meet the Emiratization policy or to have someone that understands the culture. I’ve heard that employers are required to give Emiratis double the salary a non-Emirati would earn. I’ve heard that there are specific legal requirements for Emiratis in the private sector. I don’t know if ANY of these things are true and it’s not an easy subject to bring up or find someone that would be honest about it.’ Noora, I promise you it is true although in my experience it is much more than 2x the normal salary. Why would I ?! (and by the way it will lead to the death of the UAE once all the oil wealth has been squandered protecting mediocrity and locals havent learnt the necessary skills to go it alone once you kick out all us westerns (which we all know is coming and is happening gradually anyway by one way or another)).

    Life owes no-one anything. You have to earn it. Equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome but not crazy protectionism of the weak or a particular race or nepotism etc i.e. discrimination.

    Protectionsim stifles innovation and development.

    In summary…….I think you’d do great in the private sector and you would be valued by the sounds of it (ie from your attitude and grasp of the reality). Throw passion and hard work at it and like most hings in life you’ll do well. Good luck!!!


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