Three years ago, I participated in a panel that dealt with the subject of who is best suited to brand 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 be treated 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.