In The Hot Seat – Jonathan Shillington

Jonathan Shillington, Managing Director at Grayling Middle East, offers his advice to leaders in the communications industry and discusses how agencies must adapt to their environment in the Middle East…

Name: Jonathan Shillington

Age: 45

From: United Kingdom

Current Job Title: Managing Director, Middle East, Grayling

When did you first arrive in Dubai?

I have worked in Dubai since 2012, but only fully moved here in June. I am currently getting to know Dubai from a different perspective as a new resident, with my family – which is very different from flying in and out for work!

Where did you work prior?

I was Managing Director of Grayling’s business in Qatar, and for several years led an embedded team of advisers at Qatar Foundation’s communication directorate. Before that I was the head of Grayling UK’s Corporate and Financial practice in London. I started my career in London, working in marketing for a fund management company.

What were your first impressions of the media industry in the Middle East?

Coming from London, which has such a diverse, investigative and questioning media tradition, it did take a while to understand and appreciate some of the differences in the two media landscapes. What works in London does not necessarily work in Dubai, Doha or Muscat. Too many expats come here expecting to impose their home country’s ways of doing things, without taking the time to develop an understanding of the cultural differences and attributes of each country in the GCC and wider Middle East.

How has your opinion changed?

As economic conditions have become tougher in the last year due mainly to falling oil prices, communications and marketing budgets have tightened across the board in the GCC. Organisations are demanding more and more from PR – and are having to really demonstrate the tangible benefits of communications to their boards – usually in terms of proving how it is ultimately benefiting the bottom line. Helping clients to gain an increased share of voice by comparison to their competitors for the right reasons is key to what we do. This isn’t about lots of press releases every week or social media posts every day, but it is about ensuring the delivery of really great content and developing real understanding and relationships with people. This is about listening to and talking with your audiences as well as being as transparent as possible about how you conduct your business.

Tell us about your current role…

I am the Managing Director for Grayling’s business in the Middle East – responsible for all aspects of our PR business in this region. Absolutely key to what I do is making sure we provide the best possible service to our clients. We have long established offices in Dubai and Doha, and last year we opened an office in Muscat. Last week, we signed an exclusive affiliation agreement with PGt Advertising in Tehran, which is an exciting development for us as Iran becomes increasingly open for international business.

What challenges do you face?

You have got to be able to multi-task and keep calm under pressure. When I started out in the mid-90s you would tend to finish work at 6pm and that would be it until the next day. Now it is pretty much non-stop – you are on call 24/7. If you are not able to check your emails in the evening and on the weekend, PR probably is not the right career for you.

At the same time you have to be disciplined about organising your time so you can manage a decent work/life balance. You have certainly got to be flexible, as you never quite know what each day will bring, no matter how much you plan ahead!

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Doing great work for clients, which is acknowledged by them is always fulfilling. At the same time, seeing our advice or work actually make a difference in terms of the desired outcome for the client is also very rewarding. Working with a team of people that are positive, keen to learn and willing to go the extra mile for the company and our clients is also key. We are lucky to have an incredibly bright, talented and diverse team here at Grayling, and a really positive and respectful culture – which is actually not as common as it should be, agency-side.

What do you think is the secret to successful leadership?

Leaders should not only be prepared to take responsibility and make difficult decisions, but they should also empower their teams, rather than micro-manage them. Being approachable and doing, not just talking, is also so important. Providing clear guidance on what is expected of your team and what the company is trying to achieve is also vital. People need to understand what they are working towards, and how the business is performing. I try to encourage colleagues to come forward with ideas and, if necessary, question things that they don’t feel are quite right. Everyone should have a voice and feel they are valued and respected.

What advice would you offer to someone looking to start a career in media in the UAE?

Read a lot. make sure you understand the media landscape across the country and develop your writing skills either in Arabic or English (or both, if possible!). Get creative with your job applications, and be tenacious. Do not just email over your CV. Do your research on the firm before contacting them and find out what they are working on – and think through how you can actually help them in a way that will get you noticed. It is all about getting your foot in the door. Once your foot is in the door and you do a good job, you will be up and away.