x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 December 2017

Pet projects for Animal Agency founder

The idea for the Animal Agency came to Karalynn Thomson, a marketing and public relations professional, while watching a documentary on animal modelling a couple of years ago on a plane to the UK.

Karalynn Thomson started the Animal Agency, an SME that arranges animals for photoshoots and films, last year. Antonie Robertson / The National
Karalynn Thomson started the Animal Agency, an SME that arranges animals for photoshoots and films, last year. Antonie Robertson / The National

A childhood spent rescuing animals in Dubai would seem to naturally lead to a career in the animal world, but for Karalynn Thomson the idea came on a long-haul flight.

The marketing and public relations professional watched a documentary on animal modelling a couple of years ago on the plane to the UK. It immediately went home with her. After a search on the internet, she realised no one was doing it in Dubai, and the set-up costs were low. It needed a lot of networking, which she was confident she already had through her job.

The Animal Agency was born in April last year. The overheads are low as the company does not own the animals. It works with the animal owners and shelters, doing away with the need of housing animals.

“The money goes into maintaining the website, finding the professionals such as behaviour specialists, branding and marketing,” says Ms Thomson, 36, from Scotland.

In the UAE, animal modelling is just starting out, and Ms Thomson says there are no similar companies. Before her company started, the production houses approached individual pet owners for the gigs, according to her. Casting of animals in films, advertisements and commercials has its own market share in the entertainment industry, and some famous names in Hollywood include Clyde the pooch from Marley & Me (2008) and the thoroughbred Popcorn Deelites from Seabiscuit (2003).

Pet start-ups comprise a niche but popular segment in countries with a high proportion of households owning pets. In the US, for instance, start-ups targeting the animal world include GPS-guided dog-walking agencies, and companies supplying pet food and products, such as a patch of indoor fresh grass for when it is too wet to go outside. Wearable fitness tracking devices for pets are also entering the market. About 65 per cent of US households owned pets last year, according to the 2015-16 Appa National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Association.

In the UAE, despite a large number of expats owning pets, start-ups involving the animals are few and far between.

Growing up in a villa on Wasl Road in Dubai, Ms Thomson spent time with dogs, ducks, rabbits and frogs, many of which were rescued after expats abandoned them before leaving the country.

Costs of setting up the Animal Agency in the UAE was about Dh26,000, including Dh17,500 for a trade licence. The rest went into setting up a website and into marketing efforts.

Ms Thomson did the promotions on social media herself, with help from groups such as the Dubai Business Women Council.

“People are so digitally savvy here, and the share rate was great,” she said.

The company generated a large amount of content through photoshoots that she shared on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and Pinterest to a lesser extent. Given her background in public relations and marketing, Ms Thomson found it easier than others to get media support.

“It is a lot of networking,” she said.

The agency still counts Ms Thomson as the only full-time employee, and others work on a freelance basis such as animal trainers, photographers and a stuntman. A lot of the work involves the animal trainers. When an animal is on set, it requires the owner to be on set as well.

The agency works with three stables in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and two falcon suppliers in Dubai, as a majority of the jobs involve horses and falcons. It also works to a lesser extent with suppliers of exotic animals, such as snakes, and farms for work with livestock, including goats.

The Animal Agency has about 100 registered dog and cat owners, including friends and fam­ily. Before registering an ani­mal, Ms Thomson personally visits the household to assess the animals, understand their personality, whether they can follow basic commands and to rule out aggression issues. She also checks if they have the required vaccinations.

It tries to keep around four ani­mals from each breed of dog. For instance, it has three golden retrievers and several bulldogs, as they come in different sizes.

The pay for the owner depends on the role an animal has in the campaign, whether it requires any training and travel, and the time it needs to spend for the campaign.

For a campaign involving a dog that needs to just sit in the studio, the average pay is about Dh400 an hour. For those involving a horse that requires transportation in a horse box and needs to be accompanied by a stable hand, the pay goes up to Dh2,000 to Dh2,500 an hour.

One of the campaigns involved two months of training for a falcon to fly over the Dubai skyline with a camera backpack as part of a project for the UK broadcaster Channel 4. The agency paid the falcon supplier Dh2,000 an hour.

The agency does about three jobs on average a month.

“We don’t work with big cats because of safety issues,” Ms Thomson says. “We want to make sure the animals [we work with] are not aggressive and big cats are not used to human contact.”

It also works with snakes, bearded dragons, wolves and chameleons, but these have to go through The Animal Agency’s own animal trainers.

“These are sourced locally and are owned by the rescue groups and kennels,” she says.

The company broke even at the end of last year. Ms Thomson declined to give the revenue figures, but said they are expected to grow by about 22 per cent this year. About 23 per cent of the work comes from repeat business.

One of the ongoing challenges is to make people understand about the services it provides, and that the cost it quotes includes health checks and training of the animals, Ms Thomson says.

The majority of the agency’s clients are film and television production houses as well as magazines. It has so far worked with about six production houses in the UAE and abroad.

Some 35 per cent of the jobs come from outside the UAE such as from the Bollywood film industry, Pakistan’s production houses and TV commercials for the UK. A few offers have come from the US, Qatar, Turkey and Germany, but Ms Thomson says she had to turn them down.

Future plans include building up international contacts and expanding within the UAE.

“Abu Dhabi is a huge untapped market in terms of film production from client and animal [provision] side,” she says.

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