The COO of Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 talks about his ambitions for the media zone, and what makes it different from other entertainment organisations.

Wayne Borg is COO of twofour54, Abu Dhabi’s media zone and creative centre, which aims to transform the Emirate into an Arabic-language content hub serving the entire region.

Launched in October 2008 and named after Abu Dhabi’s geographic coordinates, twofour54 has a regulatory role – helping foreign media companies to obtain licenses to operate in Abu Dhabi – and also oversees studio facilities, training initiatives (foreign companies operating in Abu Dhabi commit to taking a certain number of interns and trainees annually) and an incubator for start-up film and media companies.

The government organisation works alongside the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), ADMC’s subsidiary Imagenation and the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC) in building an Arab content creation infrastructure from the ground up. It is also building a 600,000m² media precinct in the Mena Zayed port area of Abu Dhabi, which will eventually house all of the Emirate’s content-related entities.

Borg has responsibility for twofour54’s studio facilities (Intaj), training academy (Tadreeb) and business incubator (Ibtikar). He was formerly executive vice president, Commercial, for Universal Pictures International in the UK.

What is the mandate of twofour54 and how does it differ from Abu Dhabi’s other media and entertainment-related organisations?

twofour54 came about as a consequence of Abu Dhabi’s positioning to become a cultural capital in the region which nobody else was really fulfilling. If you look at all successful cultural capitals around the world, what they’ve all got in common is a strong, dynamic and rich creative industries base. So if that cultural positioning was going to have any credibility, the under-pinning of its creative industries was going to be critical to its sustainability and success.

So it’s all about how you provide great content for effectively a population that has been underserved. On a pan-Arab basis, the region represents 340m people from North Africa to the Middle East, of which 60% are under the age of 25, so we’re in the sweet spot when it comes to leisure and entertainment consumption. Our role as a fully government-backed initiative is about how we establish the eco-system for the content industry. But I should stress that our role is about facilitating the content process, rather than being content producers directly ourselves.

Are your training programmes reserved for young people from the Emirates?

A: No and that is where we differ from some other entities in that our focus is to reach regionally – it’s about targeting the Middle East and North Africa marketplace. We’re based in Abu Dhabi, but want to service the region, because in essence it’s one marketplace in terms of its media footprint, and it’s about how we develop that talent pool across the region. We don’t just work with ADMC – we work with all major broadcasters, publishers, disseminators of content from Egypt to Jordan, Syria to the Gulf countries.

Entrepreneurship is not as strong in the Middle East as say the US or East Asia. How do you overcome this?

Our incubator Ibtika, which is Arabic for support and innovation, works on three levels. We have a creative lab which is about helping people get a first foot in the door – for example, if they have a short film idea, we’ll give them funding to pull together a treatment and develop the script. We then have a more formal investment vehicle called Ventures which will take an equity stake in start-ups and over a period of time look to exit those businesses. Getting funding has never really been an issue in this part of the world, so it’s really more about mentoring and industry expertise. A lot of these young entrepreneurs haven’t had arms put around them – often they’ve secured the funding and subsequently been left to flounder because of a lack of guidance.

The third area we focus on is more of an interim role where we see critical pieces of infrastructure which are required in the region, but there is no know-how to do it on a local basis, or commercial appetite from an international company to come in on a stand-alone basis, we’ll step up and partner with an international company. They’ll bring the skills, knowledge and expertise and we’ll help take out a bit of the early start-up risk and over a two-year period look to exit from that partner company.

How are the film and media industries viewed in the Arab world?

Because the industry doesn’t exist it’s misunderstood, so a lot of what we’re doing is about educating undergrads and young school kids that this is a sophisticated career opportunity. At the same time there’s a job to be done getting endorsement at a parental level – at a social and cultural level, parents play a large role in guiding their children and influencing what type of career they have, and historically this has not been seen as a career with respect.

How many international media companies have set up operations in Abu Dhabi to date?

Today we’ve got 70 companies operating in Abu Dhabi, including the likes of the BBC, CNN and Rotana Media Group, and by year-end we’ll probably have in the vicinity of about 1,000 people. When we move to the port we’ll have a city of 12,000 people working on site. The training academy now has seven partner companies and we’ve put through 1500 delegates from right across the region. The studios have been operational since last September and have been running at about 45% capacity to date which is forecast to ramp up to 85% by year end. It’s predominantly TV work, but we’re getting some enquiries about film projects as well.

Are you doing anything in terms of international distribution of Arabic-language content?

We’ve actually set up a sales and distribution entity within twofour54 and that’s a critical component of the value chain. Once we start getting some great content, we need to get it in front of audiences. So we’ve got a group within Ibtikar called Ibtikar Commercial, headed by Jane Smith, which can handle content produced by these entities where they don’t have distribution in place. We can come to the markets and represent that product, and when projects are being assessed, we can give them a sense of the market and market needs. At the moment it’s for TV content but we could adapt it to film sales.