I’ve known Heather McDonald, one of the two protagonists of this article, for the better part of a decade. The impression she made on me, and doubtless, the whole media industry in the UAE was pure dynamite. As head of Filmmasters MEA, she had vision and an uncompromising attitude towards quality in both the films her company produced and the respect she always showed to the people around her. So, when I learned of her next adventure, I knew her story was inspiring enough to be told here. This is a story about women empowering creative regions.
It’s a story about empowered women, to be sure. But it goes a little deeper, too. For not only has she seized on the zeitgeist of everything that’s blossoming for women in the creative region, but she has engineered a significant role for herself in Saudi’s Vision 2030 by starting a company in Riyadh to help unlock the burgeoning creativity in the Kingdom. In partnership with Venetia Maunsell, founder of N2 Media and Alchemy Films, they are launching Wild Pepper Studios. Simply put, it’s a female-owned communication and content agency providing market insights, strategic thinking, brand, and retail campaigns, and whatever it takes, basically, to get an idea from script to screen.
When I chatted with Heather, the first subject that came to both our minds was the evolution of media consumption which has changed the production landscape to something unrecognizable from ten years ago, and paved the way the creative region to blossom.
Whilst so many stalwarts in the commercial film industry still tend to have a slightly haunted look when discussing the move away from big-budget TV productions, Heather’s eyes actually light up.
“You have no idea of the levels of immersion and engagement we can reach with the technology that is revealing itself right now,” she enthuses. “And isn’t that what it’s always been about anyway? Getting consumers and audiences more involved with brands has been the declared goal of marketing since David Ogilvy’s time. Now that we have the tools to make this happen, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and the metaverse, I refuse to participate in the discussion that an era has ended in film production. The dawn of a new era in communication is too brilliant and too opportunity laden.”
I asked Heather about why Saudi Arabia. I thought I knew what her answer would be. But I wasn’t expecting the strength of passion in which she answered.
“This is a country standing at the threshold of a future which will reverberate around the world. From the extraordinary giga projects such as NEOM, which is probably the most significant incubator for future sustainability practices in the world, to the other side of the spectrum where $13 billion is being invested in developing over twenty entertainment hubs. The diversification of their once oil-based economy is breathtaking.” And then a little bit of trademark, mischievous fun from her “and wasn’t Saudi Arabia the only country to beat Argentina in the World Cup?”
I asked if she and Venetia had a specific business plan, and her answer focused on talent.
“Our producers can direct, our directors can produce, our creative teams can edit and illustrate, and we work from all across the world, UK, Dubai, Costa Rica, Beirut, South Africa, and of course, Saudi Arabia. As you can tell from this, Wild Pepper Studios has a hybrid business model and we have a flexible business plan. With a multidisciplinary team like this, we can offer the type of end-to-end service that is demanded by clients who now rank speed and economy as having parity with quality.”
But there is another dimension to their business every bit as important as output and service.
Venetia and Heather truly believe in helping teams grow, and throughout their careers have mentored countless teams, many going on to start their own businesses and moving into very senior roles in the media industry, which is defining the establishment of the creative regions of the future.
They believe the ultimate goal in any company is to always stick to their values. They are both very down-to-earth, honest, and ethical. By standing true to your values, Heather asserts, you surround yourself with similar people. The end result is happy teams who enjoy their careers and can create wonderful work. Being in the commercial creativity business, awards are suitable for reputation and attracting top talent. Such awards come naturally when you love and add craft to your work. These seems to be the hallmark of the culture Heather and Venetia have cultivated within the N2 Media Brands. In a number of creative regions. Their awards tally includes Dubai Lynx Grand Prix, Cannes Golds, 7 International Documentary awards, Braves London Digital awards, and many more. They are very proud of what their teams have accomplished across the 40-plus years of work in the industry.
The role of producer in this sector is populated more by women than men and has been all over the world for some time. (To explain why would cause me to write something I may regret. That someone out there would pounce on and deem sexist, even though it’s highly complementary).
So, this article is not in tribute to Heather’s and Venetia’s time in that capacity. Nor is it that they have accomplished what they have as working mothers who refused to compromise either their families or their job. Rather, it is about their desire to showcase regional creativity and capability. And about living their expat lives upstream by embracing what they can continue to offer the region. Heather arrived in Dubai in 2008.
Venetia, in 1996. The average time a western expat resides in Dubai is six years, apparently. For Heather, that’s an overstay of nine years and 21 years for Venetia.
And they’re just starting something brand new, which will enrich the lives of many, many people here, and
Now that is inspiring.
About Heather McDonald
Heather McDonald has held leadership positions in production houses and advertising agencies and has overseen creative, production and post-production divisions. With each company Heather leads, her ultimate goals are to empower and work collaboratively and have fun during the process. In April 2022 she decided that she wanted to be part of the exciting change happening in Saudi Arabia. Heather set up Wild Pepper Studios with ex employer, long-term friend, and now business partner, Venetia Maunsell.
About Venetia Maunsell
Venetia Maunsell is the Managing Director and Founder of N2 Media. She is an active member of the production community, having been in the UAE since 1996. She co-founded Bareface in 2001, Alchemy Films in 2003 and The Studio in 2011. She has been involved in the growth and development of N2’s other brands. Magnet Connect, The Studio Dubai and Arabian Eye. Venetia is also a mother to 4 daughters. She manages all her business by having strong female leaders for each brand.
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