Whether you are a copywriter in the creative department or a number cruncher in a media-buying unit, working in advertising has never been a nine-to-five job. "There are very few days when we leave on time," says Seema Radhakrishnan, an account director at Initiative, a media buying unit based in Dubai under the global Interpublic Group holding company. "Most of the days we are off to home by 7:30 or 8 but on bad days we have been here overnight, and have showered and changed and gone to meetings from here."
Traditionally, advertising agencies have compensated employees for such demanding schedules with perks, from long lunches at top restaurants to extravagant client parties. But the recession has tightened clients' marketing budgets and meant lay-offs, pay freezes and travel and entertainment restrictions in the region's advertising industry earlier this year. "Everyone has been conservative this year," says Kevin Rapose, the regional managing director of Initiative. "Life is still going on but, for example, if you have media who have parties or if you are seen to be ostentatious by your clients, people think something is not right.
"It's the mood more than the reality. But I'd be lying if I said we were doing as well as we were doing last year. We are not." So to keep employees motivated, advertising agencies have begun to place more emphasis on internal competitions as a way of boosting morale without breaking the bank. Initiative's Dubai office entered several projects into the agency's worldwide competition between its branches in nearly 100 countries, and in May discovered one of them had won.
Because the entries were submitted online, costs were minimal, except for getting the judges together for the final selection. The contest was planned before the recession took hold, with the final party originally to be held in Los Angeles. Instead, the team celebrated with mezze in their office, along with speeches by the network's chairman who had flown in to congratulate the winners. The local team's entry won for its creative use of an original song across many types of media for Clean & Clear facial cleanser. It also made the team known to the advertising network, opening future career opportunities.
"Money is just one element of the mix," Mr Rapose says. "As soon as food and shelter have been taken care of, money becomes just one more element in the mix. "Once you've got a decent package of money, you can't just throw money at people and say, 'You are motivated.' Is the job interesting at all? Are you being recognised? Is a career path mapped out for you?" This year for the first time, Fortune Promoseven (FP7) in Dubai has also instituted an award similar to the annual industry-wide Dubai Lynx advertising awards.
"We've instituted an internal, Lynx-like award to honour outstanding contributions in creative, media planning and digital," says Tom Roychoudhury, the chief innovations officer at Middle East Communications Network, FP7's parent company. "So we are going to have an annual event which will honour good work; I'm thinking at the end of the year." FP7 has had to cut back on travel, entertainment and other expenses since the recession hit, choosing whenever possible to pitch via web conferencing.
Leo Burnett has started an internal contest for photography this year, but Kamal Dimachkie, the company's managing director for Dubai, Kuwait and the Lower Gulf, said it was less a response to the recession than an attempt to spark creativity. Mr Dimachkie sees the recession as a kind of motivator in itself. "If anything, everyone is working exceptionally harder than we did before," he says. "The nature of the job has changed. We are very consumed today in preparing for tomorrow and everybody understands that, although we have never had to articulate it, the best asset that anybody has these days is a job."