Graphic career: European Tour Production’s Leila Salarkia talks education, ticking boxes and being brave
International Women's Day 2021 focus
Leila Salarkia, head of graphics for European Tour Productions at IMG, has had something of a whirlwind ride through further education, from biochemistry to animation, to get her current position.
She has spent a good deal of time in educational institutions as she gradually moved closer to the field she wanted to pursue a career in, which eventually led her to IMG and the European Tour.
Salarkia comments: “I suppose you could say I started my career late.”
She continues: “My main worry when starting my career was that I was too old, and it would work against me. I have never put my age on a CV but when I went for interviews it would be obvious that I wasn’t in my early 20s (despite my aggressive moisturising routine,) and I thought that maybe companies wouldn’t want that for an entry level position.
“Sports broadcasting needs more women and if you have an interest in sport, that’s great and it’s a good starting point for getting into the job. But don’t let a perceived lack of knowledge or love of a sport put you off”
“When I was looking for graphics positions I worried that my skills wouldn’t be sufficient and, like a lot of women, if I didn’t tick pretty much all the boxes on the job requirements, I didn’t feel confident in applying and thought I wouldn’t get an interview or even be considered. Also, no-one can pronounce my name first time (thanks, parents).”
On the lack of women in live sports broadcasting, she says it could be down to a sense of not ticking all the right boxes that prevents more women from applying for roles. She explains: “Live sport is still heavily male dominated, and it would be great to see a more even balance. Men, in general, feel more confident in applying for roles, even if they don’t have all the skills or qualifications, whereas women don’t and so naturally you see fewer of them applying and getting jobs in the field. I think there is a perception, still, that sports are more masculine and women feel less comfortable going for those positions. I applied for the job because it was a graphics role; the sport had very little to do with it.”
She says that needs to change and the key to making that happen is that women simply apply for roles they are interested in. She comments: “If you don’t think you tick every box, don’t let that stop you from applying. It’s incredibly clichéd but you miss 100% of the opportunities you don’t take a chance on. And when you get your interview, do some research on the company; that seems basic but I have conducted several interviews where the person in question knew nothing about European Tour Productions, and it’s not a great sign.
“Sports broadcasting needs more women and if you have an interest in sport, that’s great and it’s a good starting point for getting into the job. But don’t let a perceived lack of knowledge or love of a sport put you off. As with all jobs, you learn a lot as you go and if you want to get into broadcasting or production, don’t limit yourself to what you think you know; apply for everything. I didn’t have an interest in golf when I started, but I was surprised how much I picked up by working around it and how an interest grew from that, and I’m thankful.”
Biochemistry to animation
Salarkia did her first degree, in biochemistry, straight after secondary school , but at the end of those three years she knew it was not the career for her. She then worked for 18 months before deciding that she wanted to pursue animation, which had been a love of hers from an early age.
She goes on: “At the age of 25 I went and did an arts foundation course and then afterwards I completed a degree in 2D animation, graduating in 2012. I worked in retail to support myself as I applied for jobs as a runner to get my foot in the door and that’s how I ended up at IMG.”
“I was looking for anything remotely related to animation and graphics,” she explains. “I applied for lots of runner positions at different television, film and production houses and IMG was the first to offer me a runner job and that introduced me to sports TV broadcasting.
“As a runner you get to see and experience lots of different productions, which is a great introduction. Sports was never the major driving factor in my decision, but it’s where I am, and I’ve stayed as it captured my interest.”
Her running contract was for 12 months. She says of the job: “The role itself involved helping out with day-to-day small tasks for different productions; there was a lot of tea making, tidying up, collecting and delivering food, collecting and delivering tape stock, being available to set up meeting rooms and get laptops hooked up to meeting room screens (we were the keepers of all the meeting room cables). I also did, on occasion, some basic paperwork admin when the facilities team required help.
“I think running is a good way to get a feel for production and to show different aspects of a broadcast and how a company works. IMG gave us the opportunity to shadow different job positions a few times, so I got to sit in with the in-house graphics team, the ingest area and the satellite control room, all of which were valuable in their own ways.”
After her running job at IMG, she started as a junior graphics operator, and after two years was promoted to graphic designer, then five years later became head of the graphics team. “Timing and opportunities worked in my favour and my line manager has always encouraged me to progress,” Salarkia notes.
“I had never worked on a team match-play event, and the Ryder Cup is the ultimate. It was a side of golf I had never experienced and the format, coupled with the atmosphere and the dedication and determination of the players involved, was thrilling. I have never been more invested in a tournament or more afraid to make a mistake on air”
She adds: “I was about seven months into my contract and considering applying for a role within the ingest department to stay in the company – IMG being such a large business, my thought process was I’d be better positioned to get a job I wanted if I was already on the payroll – when a junior graphics operator position became available within European Tour Productions (who were part of IMG), so I submitted my CV.
“I have stayed in European Tour Productions, going from a junior graphics operator to graphics designer within a few years. A situation occurred within our department and someone needed to unofficially lead team, so I stepped into it having had some experience with people management in my earlier retail jobs. When the opportunity presented itself, I knew I could do it and my line manager was on board and encouraged and helped me to do what I needed to do to get the official job title. After doing that for 18 months I was offered the title of head of graphics and it became official.”
As to how she got into working with European Tour Productions, which produces golf content for the European Tour, Salarkia says it was a nerve-racking beginning. She explains: “I had never watched golf and had only the most basic understanding of the sport, so I worried I wouldn’t be right for the job or that they may be looking for someone with more of an interest in golf. I had to do a ‘test’ before my interview to gauge my golf knowledge and I spent a panicked couple of days beforehand speaking with my brother-in-law (who loves golf) to try to bolster my understanding.
“The test turned out to be simple (put the golfers in order of best score to worst score), which I already understood (low numbers are good!) so I felt I may have shot myself in the foot by staying up very late the night before, revising. The interview itself was fine. I was nervous, but I was glad I had learned a little more about golf and I had also researched European Tour Productions, as well as getting the low-down from my then manager, who had worked with them before, which was invaluable.”
Once Salarkia was in, she then had to adapt to the technologies used behind the scenes to get European Tour’s graphics onto television screens around the world. “Learning the role had challenges as live broadcast uses a piece of software – Lyric – to get graphics onto the screen that I had never heard of before. It turns out this is quite common as it is specific to live broadcast, but it was daunting. I was given a crash course in Lyric over a couple of days. I didn’t do any live broadcasts for about a year but improved my operation skills on highlights programming. Lyric is a tricky piece of software; it can do so much, but as I use it for such specific purposes, sometimes the way it operates is confusing and seems counter-productive. I have a love-hate relationship with it (I’m an Adobe girl at heart,) but I’m lucky that our graphics provider is always willing to help me out when Lyric and I butt heads.”
Salarkia continues that learning on the job has been a crucial part of her progression: “I had good knowledge of After Effects and decent understanding of Photoshop before I started my job thanks to my degree, but aspects of the role and requests have increased my understanding and abilities further. After Effects can do so much and I’m always learning something new.”
Push to innovate
Her first time working on the Ryder Cup, in 2016, “was eye opening”. She says: “I had never worked on a team match-play event, and the Ryder Cup is the ultimate. It was a side of golf I had never experienced and the format, coupled with the atmosphere and the dedication and determination of the players involved, was thrilling. I have never been more invested in a tournament or more afraid to make a mistake on air.”
On what she loves about working with the European Tour, she comments: “I like the variety, the challenge and the push to innovate. We are always thinking about how to improve the programme, looking at what other sports productions do well and how we can improve, change and grow. Our stakeholders are always trying to increase what they offer so we can make the programme more interesting and grow the fanbase. I like that it isn’t stagnant and that everyone is pushing in the same direction to create a better, more interesting product.
“Travel is also a big part of the role and not something I’d had the opportunity to do before, which has been amazing. For the management side of the job, it’s something I had done before in other roles, but the challenges of managing my team, while also being almost the person in the middle between European Tour Productions, our clients and our stakeholders has been a real learning curve.”
Being that middle figure between all involved is not always a simple task. Salarkia comments: “The hardest part of the job is managing expectations and sometimes being caught in the middle. I tend to be a point of contact for all sides, live and non-live within European Tour Productions as well as being a graphics contact for the European Tour and our stakeholders. Not everyone has a full understanding of the graphics department, what we do and what we’re responsible for, and trying to explain that can be tricky.
“I am a straight talker – some would call me blunt – and they wouldn’t be wrong. I have to be careful that when I am explaining why my team can’t deliver a project, or perhaps why a proposed idea isn’t viable, that it is not coming across as being purposefully difficult, dismissive or unhelpful, which is not the case!”