Whether an agency calls its work environment its “culture”, “dynamic”, or “DNA”, creative industries have tried to set the bar high when it comes to adding incentives beyond salary and generic benefits packages. As Sasan Saeidi, FP7 UAE’s managing director, says, “This industry is very demanding, especially in this part of the world where things happen overnight and that puts a lot of pressure on the industry and the people working in it.” Yet, he continues, “The only thing that the agency can do is to try to make the life of the workers as simple and as happy as possible, which goes back to the culture.” When considering employee attraction and retention, companies should arguably think inside the box before thinking outside the box. People typically seek employment with a few core needs in mind: salary, health benefits, development and support, and then the little extra perks that are open to the interpretation of each company. Companies should – and likely do – keep in mind that this final piece of the puzzle could make all the difference. There are certain aspects of an agency workplace that seem to be taken from the same manual, even down to their wording. MediaCom’s motto, for example – “people first; better results” – shares the same sentiment as Omnicom Media Group’s (OMG) three Ps – people, product, profit – in that order. Although, as Saeidi explains, “You can never get an employee to be 100 percent satisfied at any organization.” Yet, most agencies are leaning in and listening to their people to ensure happiness and, in turn, great results. Bre Hill, MediaCom’s talent manager, says, “If you invest in people as the first priority, then you’re on a good footing to go from there.” However, she continues by pointing out that, in the end, it comes down to what sets an agency apart: “It’s about making ourselves stand out in a sea of what seems like quite similar choices, especially to people just entering the market,” Hill explains. Because agencies have limited budgets, they can’t provide incentives for employee loyalty year on year in the form of raises and bonuses, and, therefore, the culture built around development, wellness and corporate personality must be their x-factor.
Knowledge is power
With the next generation of talent comes added regard for professional development. To meet these needs, multiple agencies in the region have established universities or academies, while others have training – customized to the needs of their individual corporate environment. Saad El Zein, CEO of The Network Communication Group, explains that, because his group includes a digital, media, PR and advertising sector, they have internal trainings where cross-learning is promoted. For example, the digital team will occasionally present different aspects of the industry to the PR arm of the group, which fosters exposure. El Zein says, “We have to build our people because talent is our asset; they must always be tuned.” Starcom Mediavest Group’s (SMG) director of talent and leadership and development, Khaled Abou Nader, explains that the agency’s development practices are tailored to each employee and are also cross-disciplinary. Recently, the agency implemented a requirement of 15 e-module training completions each year. To soften the blow of this added workload, SMG distributed noise-canceling headphones to the talent. He also highlights “liquid talent” – an agency-wide philosophy inspiring vertical movement across disciplines, based on personal interests and goals. Minsdshare MENA goes global, offering employees the opportunity to spend a week in another GroupM office across the region and beyond. Some agencies use cross-discipline or cultural exposure to invest in the future of their talent, while others take an in-house training approach. J. Walter Thompson offers its talent proprietary programs like Sam Meek, an industry specific, management simulation program, which has been evolving for 25 years. Meanwhile, MCN’s Transformers program completed its first session in June. Fifty staff members were hand-picked for a ten-month program in creative leadership. Participants received certification from the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, as well as credit toward the completion of an executive MBA.
An apple a day
Work environments are no longer just for work, as companies attempt to break the mold by breaking up the day. Fostering a community of healthy individuals is becoming an increasing priority for workplaces. OMG seems to be taking employee wellness to new heights with their NRG program, an acronym meaning “Nurture to reach your goals.” To achieve the tenets of this program, the agency has provided an in-office gym, equipped with lockers and showers, as well as a long-standing partnership with Ignite Wellness, a local fitness center dedicated to providing wellness programs to companies. At OMG, Ignite Wellness hosts a class each day after work hours, which includes circuit training, BodyPump and boxing. In other agencies, yoga seems to be a popular post-work pastime, as both Weber Shandwick and FP7, among others, have implemented the practice as a weekly offering in their office routine. Meanwhile, many companies, including FP7, The Network and MediaCom, take their teams outside the office to participate in the Corporate Games, as well as marathons like the annual Standard Chartered 10K. Agencies are also doing their part to provide wellness in the form of food, including the healthy snack options, to their staff members in the office daily. Workplace meals are not unique in themselves, but as The Network’s El Zein says, “We believe in family values and we have breakfast every Thursday. However, this breakfast is not just about feeding our staff, but to bring everyone around a table.” He explains that taking food away to eat at individual office spaces is not allowed. Sitting for 30 minutes and socializing is mandatory. After all, wellness is an effect of both the body and the mind.
The giving tree
Agencies have recently realized that employees are happier when working on campaigns or agency initiatives that benefit the greater good. As a result, regional agencies have taken on more CSR campaigns, as well as service initiatives in-house. Some agencies, like FP7 and OMG, treat community service like another day at the office. Fadi Chamat, regional executive director
– human capital, OMG, describes some of the agency’s latest ventures, which seem to combine wellness with service, like raising AED491,000 last year for charities in Tanzania and Syria, earning participants an opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with their CEO, Elie Khouri. This year, 27 members of the agency are raising money for children in Cambodia and Palestine during a 450km bicycle tour from Vietnam to Cambodia. FP7 works in partnership with an NGO called SmartLife to foster education initiatives for Dubai’s laborers. These individuals are brought to the agency’s office spaces to be trained in skills, such as finances or the English language.
Some agencies leave it to their staff members to implement community service within the culture. Weber Shandwick’s Sarah Bartlett, executive director, talent, organizational development and brand communications, MENA, explains, “Our Dubai operation supports a local center for children with special needs, whereas our Abu Dhabi office has promoted fund-raising efforts for cancer research – both of these were ideas generated by people working there. We don’t believe in mandating a central cause; we prefer that our people come together to decide what causes they wish to support.” Other agencies, like MediaCom, intend to implement community service initiatives, but also want to focus on the people-first attitude and let the passion of the staff determine the cause.
Above and beyond
While it seems like many agencies are now giving an extra day off for people on their birthdays, there are a few initiatives that agencies are implementing that are unique. One such initiative is that of OMG, which grants customized perks for staff members during special occasions in their personal lives. Chamat explains that any staff member who is moving gets a day off to do so, while those who are getting married are given three extra days off plus one month’s salary as a wedding gift. Mindshare MENA even provides a spa day for office moms on Mother’s Day. Mazen Jawad, group managing director of Horizon FCB Dubai, explains one interesting perk offered by the agency. If a client is won through the referral of a member of the agency, that member will receive a percentage of the revenue from that client for the duration of one year.
Feeding time is a weekly occurrence in FP7, which has “sweet tooth hour” every Tuesday afternoon. While there are healthy options available, the mere name of the initiative doesn’t scream wellness – except, maybe, of the soul. “We did this because Tuesdays are the toughest days and usually blood sugar levels drop after 3pm,” explains Saeidi. The agency’s solution is to bring around a cart full of snacks.
SMG has partnered with the Drama Club of Dubai for improvisation work-shops that each staff member has to mandatorily complete this year. Abou Nader explains, “It taps into getting comfortable onstage, making eye contact, developing presentation skills and promotes on-the-spot thinking.” Similarly, FP7 Connect, which hosts several events throughout the year, is all about making connections with colleagues outside of the typical office environment. Saeidi highlights some of the out-of-office bonding sessions like cooking classes and sports activities, saying, “It’s important to make sure that we let the steam out from day to day.”
Much thought goes into developing an agency culture and it doesn’t stop at socializing, learning and eating well. Bringing together the right mix of personalities can also have a huge impact on the culture an agency is trying to achieve. Abou Nader explains that SMG looks for “people who are brave, disruptive and unique in their thinking, and not at all interested in becoming your day-to-day tactical planner.” Saeidi highlights some of the attributes that he looks for in future candidates: “I look for a pure sense of curiosity; I like to know what they read, where they get their inspiration. We want people who are always dreaming of big things,” he says. With the future in mind, some agencies are looking for people to bring the next generation of skill sets to the table. Greg Shuler,
J. Walter Thompson MEA’s chief talent officer, says that he looks for “well-rounded people with wider skill sets of marketing communications – who look at the world in unique ways, who can also adapt.”
Mend the gap
One aspect of agency life that significantly affects the culture on a day-to-day basis is the collaboration of employees and their ability to bring all types of professional personalities to the table, working toward one common goal. Some agencies in the region may struggle more with developing a culture, because they’re focused only on bringing in the right talent – and enough of it. Members of MENA agencies often talk about a talent gap that exists in the region, especially when it comes to creative industries.
The addition of corporate culture initiatives might be making a slight dent in appealing to new talent, but not enough to fully compensate for the void. As MediaCom’s Hill explains, “It’s always a challenge, no matter what market you’re in. Everyone is after the same talent in the media industry and everyone has the same pool from which they’re picking talent.” Saeidi points out another threat to the regional talent base: “ If you look globally at advertising, people aren’t joining; there’s an exodus to client jobs from advertising and, not just [from] creative, [it is] from account management to planning; people are [moving] because the pay isn’t great.”
Not all gaps are created equal though, because the industry is changing and new roles are evolving, some aspects of the lack of talent are more to do with a learning curve that is effecting the region. SMG’s Abou Nader says, “There are gaps in specific disciplines that media agencies would not have ventured [into] in the past, for example, data analytics, programmatic, content writing, SEO and SEM. These are not your usual media agency services and to find those people who would like to venture into that takes a bit of time and effort. Usually, those talents are coming from abroad.” Another challenge that the regional industry is currently facing, as Weber Shandwick’s Bartlett explains, is to attract candidates to markets that are traditionally seen as less exciting or creative.”
There are several different opinions when it comes to solving this conundrum. However, as J. Walter Thompson’s Shuler says, “The solution lies in people finding appreciation in the balance [of] ‘art’ and the ‘science’. The worlds of creative, data and technology have collided and, therefore, we are recruiting from industries that we wouldn’t have necessarily looked at a few years ago. Finding people who can bridge these gaps are the ones I want to speak to.” Other agencies are simply looking elsewhere, like Jawad of Horizon FCB Dubai, who says, “We’ve started looking at people outside of Dubai, from all over the world. We need new blood, new ideas, especially in creative. It’s the same people who have been going around and around; I see the same CVs [from] three years back coming around again.” Although the agencies are doing their best to recruit and retain their talent with added incentives, there is still a struggle to get the right talent, especially with new digital positions popping up as quickly as the latest platforms.
Corporate culture can be an elusive concept, but since Google introduced rooms hidden by bookshelves and slides leading from one office space to the next in an attempt to cultivate the ultimate creative experience, companies worldwide have been trying to pull ahead in the race for a unique vibe.
Kaveh Gharachorlou, Mindshare MENA’s regional talent development director, says, “While culture most likely won’t appear as a line item on our balance sheet, it’s the glue that holds a great firm together. In reality, it’s one of the most impactful hidden assets a business can hold.”
Meanwhile, Jawad says, “Whatever anyone tells you, money is important.” In this region, and, more specifically, in Dubai, where expats and expenses are plentiful, salaries remain a big bargaining chip when it comes to gaining and retaining talent. However, creative industries here are breathing new life into the concept of the “benefits package” and some certainly better than others.