RWS CEO, Ian El-Mokadem, Lays Out the Bull Case for the Language Industry

SlatorCon Zurich 2023 - Ian El-Mokadem, CEO, RWS Keynote

“Embrace the change and help your clients to embrace it too,” was the message from RWS CEO Ian El-Mokadem in the keynote address at SlatorCon Zurich on October 4, 2023, delivered to an audience of some 150 senior executive delegates.

Speaking against a visual backdrop of imposing figures of the bull and the bear, El-Mokadem laid out both cases for caution and optimism for the language services and technology industry. 

While economic pressures and AI-driven commoditization loom large in the bearish view, the bull case is informed by the complexity of what the industry does.

“The explosion in content is real and clients need help at every stage of the content lifecycle,” El-Mokadem said, adding “AI will enable us to do things at scale that we can’t do without AI.” The next step, then? “Work out how this technology can help you and then get out in front of clients and help them to figure it out,” the CEO advised.

El-Mokadem has led UK-listed Super Agency RWS since July 2021 making him, in his own words, a “relative newcomer to the industry,”. What’s not new for El-Mokadem, however, is leading businesses through periods of intense industry upheaval.

Describing the current period of AI advances and content growth as “a clear transition point for RWS and the whole industry”, El-Mokadem stressed the importance of effectively communicating — to unsettled investors as well as to clients — that “what we do is a little bit more than free online translation tools.” 

“From creating the content, to analyzing the content, to validating the content, to localizing the content, to transmitting the content, to managing the content. There’s a whole industry that sits around that,” he said.

Also key, said El-Mokadem, is listening to clients and offering relevant solutions. “We are listening very intently to our clients, more so perhaps than we ever have,” he said of RWS’s approach. “We are being very proactive in putting new solutions in front of those clients selling our clients what they really need now versus what they used to need five years ago,” he said.

Five Reasons for Growth

El-Mokadem listed five drivers that will continue to underpin demand for language services and technology. 

Content growth is central to the bull case. “Content’s the raw material for this industry and it’s going to grow a lot,” El-Mokadem told the SlatorCon audience. The CEO cited the statistic that “Ninety percent of the world’s data was generated in the last two years alone with the annual volume of data set to reach 2,140 zettabytes.”

Increasing regulations also create demand for providers such as RWS, which operate in regulated markets.

While acknowledging that AI is ushering in some challenges, El-Mokadem sees AI as a broadly positive driver for demand and an enabler of language services delivery. “AI is going to drive different types of content,” he said. “Overall, we think it’s a positive thing.”

Finally, while a “degree of protectionism” has crept into the global trend of globalization, global trade “continues to be a good thing for this business,” according to the RWS CEO. “There are certainly shifts in trade and we’re seeing that in the languages that our clients are coming to us to localize into,” he said.

El-Mokadem also sees demand for longer-tail languages set to increase as trends in global trade evolve. In line with this analysis, RWS announced on October 3, 2023 it had established a presence in Africa through the acquisition of ST Communications, a Cape Town-based language service provider.

Answering a SlatorCon audience question, El-Mokadem explained the rationale behind the deal, saying, “You can’t ignore a continent as large as Africa and as diverse and as rich in language. So it feels like a place we should all be interested in.”

Hello, Language Specialists

A key step in navigating the current era of change is to “figure out how that combination of human interaction and technology can help you create new value cases for your clients,” El-Mokadem told the SlatorCon audience. 

This new technology-human dynamic, along with consumer demand for a higher degree of personalization, will transform the linguist’s role, according to the CEO. 

“What’s our message to translators right now?” the RWS CEO said, “Well, it’s goodbye, translators. And hello, language specialists.”

According to El-Mokadem, the mainstreaming of AI-enabled language tools has created a need for creative linguists who are also “smart technologists, creative consultants, content optimizers and industry experts.”

The RWS CEO concluded “there is real scope for the bull case to dominate” the language services industry, based on an effective combination of human intellect and machine capability.