In The Hot Seat – Sara Naja

Team TMN catch up with Sara Naja, Associate Director at Mediaquest, who talks about her new role and what she thinks of the media and events industry in the Middle East…

Name: Sara Naja

Age: My soul is ancient, my spirit lingers in teenage, but on paper, I am 33 years old.

From: Lebanon, land of the Cedars and home of natural-born leaders.

Current job title: Associate Director

When did you first arrive in Dubai?

I physically landed in Dubai on February 27, 2006, but my mind didn’t make it until 3 years after that!

Where did you work prior?

This may sound odd − my previous employers were Ernst & Young and KPMG.

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

Before I set foot through the gates of the media and the ‘real’ world of events, I used to think the first was a bunch of TV channels and the latter was about buying tickets for a rendezvous with the likes of Coldplay and Madonna in an oversized venue.

Has your opinion changed much?

The more I was mentored and exposed to the industry, the more I could see it from corporate eyes and understand the business. In brief, media is the sum of the channels through which brands communicate with end users and events are a more focused conversation between the two.

Seven years into my career, media is still trying to accomplish the same thing it always was, but the ways to accomplish this are evolving rapidly.

Events are a more laser-targeted approach to reaching a consumer pool and I have seen many brands increase their events’ budgets year on year – and some even open ‘experiential marketing’ departments, that mainly handle event partnerships. I can say it is a growing business. People want to hear what a speaker has to say, be there to witness which work won what award and see their favourite band perform on stage. Most of all, they want to mingle with their peers and grow their network of connections.

Tell us about your current role…

My role begins with making sure that the team and myself are motivated and happy. We are passionate about the work we do and this is why we create wonders. Tasks are divided between different team members, based on their areas of strength and expertise, and I oversee and guide them to make sure the work is being done in the most efficient and effective way for all aspects of an event (logistics, sales, content, awards and sponsorships). I look after partner relationships, set marketing strategies, as well as budgets and projections. I am also involved with recommending speakers and judges to the production and awards teams. I engage with the latest technologies and bring whatever is relevant to the events for a unique user experience.

What challenges do you face?

Today, the biggest challenge is to make sure the event is relevant to its target audience, as we need to constantly stimulate the need for the attendees to be there. Many factors come into play for that, whether it is the agenda, the speakers, the venue, the activations and, most importantly, the learning and networking opportunities. Budgets are also a challenge, especially this year. Partners are cautious about their spending, so we need to make sure to give them a good return on their investment through innovative ways to participate.

What is the most rewarding part about your job?

There is nothing like the feeling of triumph when an event is successful and completed. The most rewarding part of my job is when the team realises that their hard work has paid off and everyone, including me, can’t help but smile and sometimes cry because we have been holding in and hanging on till the last minute, and then we finally let go and the rush is so grand we can just climb Burj Khalifa and scream “We did it!” at the top of our lungs before going in for a group hug! What I love the most about my job is teamwork. We take decisions as a team and always move forward as one unit.

What made you pursue this career path?

This career path was not something I planned. I landed here by chance and, until I worked on my first event, I still had no idea what I ‘wanted to do when I grew up’. I felt that I was talented at a many things (arts, finance, music, literature, even carpentry) but never thought I would find a career where I would get my hands dirty and use all of my skills. Then I met the events industry and I think I am here to stay. It is a place where you use your mind, your hands and all of your skills, and I feel like I may have just found my place in the world.

Is event planning for a media house any different as compared to other industries?

I have never planned events anywhere other than at Mediaquest – except those desert-camping trips with some 30 of my friends every now and then. I can say the basics are the same. Every event needs a venue, funding, attendees, organisation and preparation, no matter what kind of event it is or within which industry.

As an Associate Director at Mediaquest Corp., do you work on events on an international scale – if so, could you please elaborate on a few?

Our events at Mediaquest are regional at the moment. One of them, Top CEO, has been strategically moved to KSA. We do however aspire to make our events an international meeting point and there is a plan to make this happen in the near future − all I can say is… Stay tuned!

In your opinion, why does the Middle East media need industry-specific events? How will industry professionals benefit from such events?

Events are here to accomplish two main objectives: educate or celebrate (or both). Media anywhere, including in the Middle East, has now been diversified into more channels than ever before. While this underlines the need for an integrated approach, it also means that each channel has its strengths, weaknesses and technicalities, requiring more specialised understanding. All aspects of media cannot be covered in one event. The industry has grown so much that we need specific events that tackle different aspects of media − we also need to make sure each specific topic is given the time it demands to maximise the learning experience of delegates.

Moreover, the rapid evolution of technology means the industry has to keep up to remain relevant to its consumers. Also, it’s undeniable that in a few aspects, we lag behind more advanced western markets. Both of these factors mean that there is a need for education and the industry here is hungry for knowledge in the form of case studies, best practices, etc., regionally and globally. This is why conferences are absolutely necessary.

On the other hand, it’s also important to celebrate and recognise the work coming out of the region − not just from the UAE, but also Egypt, KSA, Lebanon, etc. This is why I believe both conferences and awards are necessary to the industry.

If there’s one thing you could change about the industry, what would that be and why?

Hmm, let’s see. Do I want to shrink some egos…commercially driven mindsets…procurement-based decisions… Nope! If there is one thing only that I could change about the industry, it would be making trainings and employee betterment part of every employer’s duties towards their people. There are some characteristics of the industry that I have learned to accept and work around. However, pushing individuals forward and enhancing their talent is something I fear this industry misses within many of its corporations. It is a must if we want to see the Middle East some day overtake the west.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

Easy! I would be backpacking through the world on endless journeys, tasting every kind of food, jumping on every adventure that comes my way and making the world my playground.

*sigh* If only that paid well!

What are the five things you cant live without?

Everything I can’t live without is attached to me:

  • My brain to think and learn
  • My hands to touch and feel
  • My eyes to see the beauty in the world, specifically my mother’s smile
  • My nose to smell the earth after the first raindrops and the delicious foods of the world
  • My legs to take me everywhere I want to go

How would you describe yourself at work?

My style or management is to lead by example. I am very organised and methodological. I pay attention to detail. I am very resourceful and solution-oriented. Super enthusiastic at everything I do, I make sure fun is always part of the equation. I am always motivated, passionate and spreading hugs and good vibes! I hope my team sees this and corroborates! Team, your views on the matter?

What is your favourite social media platform?

It has to be Instagram, because I follow these DIY accounts – which I love!

If you could have one work wish granted, what would it be?

I wish to always feel love towards what I do because, as Confucius said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”