Alex Koumi, Managing Director at recruitment firm Kingston Stanley, discusses salaries and revised expectations in the UAE’s post-COVID agency environment.
Do you see agencies and businesses adopting more flexible practices post COVID-19?
There’s definitely more flexibility in the UAE agency workplace. For example, candidates are now being allowed to work across Dubai and Abu Dhabi – two or three days from the Dubai office and maybe one or two days from the Abu Dhabi office. Pre-COVID, this wouldn’t have been possible.
And most agencies are back in the office now but may have flexible working hours, which they would potentially have had in place before anyway. COVID perhaps accelerated this a little bit, with everyone forced to work from home, but this isn’t a COVID flexibility; this is a diversity & inclusion flexible environment. Historically, all businesses, including ad agencies, have hired the same types of profiles; but many are now looking at mixing this up to be more diverse and inclusive. To get more women into work, for example, they are allowing flexibilities for school runs and working from home in the afternoon. Businesses want to attract the best of the best, rather than the best of people that can be in the office every day.
What are the things that candidates are really focused on today when looking for an employer agency?
Money is always top 3, but it’s not always the top [consideration]. Career progression is important, culture is important, and reputation is important. Candidates want to feel inspired, they want a journey, they want to be part of a fun, friendly team. They choose a manager, not a brand. In an agency, historically, some individuals might be working with ten clients; now, perhaps they can take a role where they can work with just four or five clients at a deeper level. There are many different variables, it’s not all about the money.
What are the key tips that you would give to an agency looking to employ a new talent?
Training & development is number one – support the individuals that are joining. The team dynamics – having a diverse team, being able to learn from different individuals within that team, having a clear career path within the agency, and not having a glass ceiling so they can only go up to a point and never get above that. Money is important as well but agencies are always tight and can’t always offer the salaries.
Actually, many agencies are saying that their talent is moving to tech companies, which are still implementing work from home, pay higher salaries, and are being super flexible. So, is there a disconnect here?
Most people that work in an agency will work in an agency up until a point, and then they will want to move to the client-side. That’s typically what happens with 80% of candidates. That’s the kind of move they want to make and tech companies are the ones growing and hiring with good budgets.
Have you observed a drop in salaries following the pandemic?
From what we’ve seen, salaries have remained flat, which is surprising. And I haven’t spoken to anyone who is still on a pay cut. The only drop is in candidates’ expectations. People who were earning a higher amount are now looking to take something lower based on their current circumstances. You may see an account director open to taking a senior account manager role based on their situation, for example, and candidates dropping from AED50,000 to AED35,000.
Why would people lower their expectations this way?
Maybe they haven’t had a job for a long time, and if you’re in Dubai without a job, it’s a problem because you need a visa, you have overstay fines, you don’t have medical. If your visa gets canceled and your wife or your husband or your kids are on your visa, their visas get canceled as well. There is an element of needing something just to keep them tied over, whether that be for six months or one year.
Or maybe they are unhappy in the role and are willing to take career progression and a better environment over a higher salary. Again, it’s not all about the money.
What about bonuses? Have they been impacted somehow?
Massively. Some industries, like tech, pharma, oil & gas, have done even better in 2020. But the advertising & marketing industry has suffered. 2019 was very tight for many agencies and then, COVID hit. B2B agencies did okay, working on government affairs, corporate affairs, corporate clients investor relations, mergers & acquisitions, crisis comms.
Are benefits offered as part of the package evolving?
We do see agencies offering a wellness and mental health allowance, with X amount of your salary that you can spend every month on yourself.
Equity is something that startups generally look at, particularly at the mid to senior level, in order to get candidates in; because, for someone to choose a startup over a bigger brand, there’s an element of risk; to have a small piece of the pie allows individuals to join. But agencies are not really in a position to do that unless they’re setting up a new division. I recently placed someone in an agency in Qatar as a country manager, and they have an element of profit sharing on the unit that they’re managing – not equity in the whole company.
What more and more agencies are offering is not equity per se but something like a commission structure: if you sign up a client, you will get a percentage of the first year’s profit on that client as well. Because of the market for the last couple of years, even account managers need to be involved in business development and try and pitch and win business, and then be rewarded for that.
Do you see the four-day workweek as a possibility in the region at some point?
Not really. Part of the reason why people come to this region is that you can really accelerate things. Your career can progress very quickly and you can be given a lot of responsibility very quickly. You can be fast-tracked and earn a lot of money. In other markets like London, they work just as hard but they don’t get the rewards that fast. Now, that comes at a price. You can’t come to a new country and earn a tremendous amount of money, work with fantastic clients, get great responsibility, and work less.
There was a time when people in the region changed jobs very quickly. Do they stay longer today?
Yes, they do. When I started in Dubai in 2006, 30% or 35% of people would leave their job every year. But now, people are staying longer; five years is not uncommon.
Do you see a difference in the type of skillsets that employers are looking for?
People are now learning that it’s time to hire on personality. It’s time to hire the right person because you can teach the skill, but you can’t teach the will – if someone has the right attitude, they want to learn, they’re a team player, they’re willing to work hard, they’re committed, they’re loyal. It’s not just about ticking a box now, which again comes down to diversity and inclusion.
To wrap this up, how would you describe the state of recruitment in our industry today?
The UAE is one of the best places in the world in terms of opportunity and things are progressing remarkably quickly. In 2020, a tremendous amount of people did leave, yes. But now, people are coming back. We get requests from India, the UK, KSA, Jordan... People are looking to come to the UAE because life’s quite hard in other parts of the world at times and, even though it’s still challenging here [as well], the signs are here.
Agencies are hiring again and are being strategic with their hires. And it’s all happening organically. They may want a bit more bang for their buck but I think the region is doing tremendously well. We’re in a very stable market and we’re only going one way.
This article was published in Communicate's latest issue.