For much of the past two years, people across adland in Asia Pacific have wondered if they would be next to be cut as the Covid pandemic hammered spending and caused thousands of job losses across the industry. As vaccines were rolled out and the pandemic came under some control, frozen marketing budgets began to thaw and agencies suddenly resumed hiring rapidly to keep pace with a rapid improvement in business environment.
In parallel, however, the industry too has been bracing for a reckoning of its own as people have firmly pushed back against a tough working culture. Catalysed by the 'great resignation' taking place across industries, a stream of people have exited their jobs or sought to recast how they perform their roles. Finally, in key hubs such as Singapore, Hong Kong and China, the pandemic and tightening immigration norms have made labour mobility a challenge, adding another layer to this talent crunch squeezing adland.
Even as talent within the industry recovers from a scarring 2020, with salary cuts and job losses aplenty, 2021 has been noticeably different for those in the red-hot markets of ecommerce, digital, transformation, strategy and ESG, say headhunters, talent-on-the-move and industry leaders alike.
“ESG is still a developing skill and if factoring in highly technical skills like ESG reporting, then the talent pool is exceptionally small across APAC,” says Katrina Andrews, CEO and founder of Andrews Partnership, a leadership consultancy. “Although developing fast, many are still in the ‘establishment stage’ and therefore need talent who have both the competency and also structural understanding, to establish a function."
“This is perhaps the most pressing concern for the industry,” says Jerone Larson, B2B lead for VCCP in Singapore. “Especially difficult to locate, hire and retain are talent with seven or eight years of experience who can become account managers.” While her agency is hunting harder than ever for this young managerial talent, she says more opportunities have opened up client-side and especially in Singapore, people with dual passports are actively reconsidering their base, as people's flexibility becomes commoner.
HR consultants in the industry are acutely aware of the bottleneck faced by agencies across the board. “The leverage top talent has in the market right now has never been seen before,” says Wladamir Silva, chief development officer and head of consumer, APAC, for Grace Blue Partnership, a HR consultancy in Singapore. “Many top candidates can negotiate salaries up far past what was initially budgeted by employers. It is a war for talent in the market but understanding the current talent mentality is the first step.”
Pay rises are making a comeback. Companies in APAC plan to give employees larger rises in 2022 as they recover from the pandemic and face mounting challenges attracting and retaining employees, the latest Salary Budget Planning Report by Willis Towers Watson, an advisory, broking and solutions company revealed.
Markets in APAC will see the highest 2022 salary increases, while countries in North America and Western Europe are expected to stay flat, and the rest of the regions taking longer to recover and stabilise, this study has shown. Companies in APAC are projecting average salary increases of 5.3% for executives, management and professional employees, and support staff next year, up from the average 4.9% increases employees were granted in 2021. Emerging markets such as India at 8.8% and Indonesia at 6.5% are forecasting significant salary budget increases for 2022 compared with this year, according to this Willis Towers Watson report.
Industry leaders acknowledge that their best talent could be susceptible to poaching from a range of industries ranging from tech platforms to flushly funded startups and networks and agencies will need to work doubly hard to keep this talent. However, they may not have too much financial leverage to compete. “The present day triggers… are the lure to the new economy brands and the vibrant start up scene in Singapore and across the region,” admits Paul Soon, CEO, Singapore and China for Mullenlowe.
For in-demand talent, this can mean a flurry of job opportunities, with at least a 50% salary jump expected (some claim to have been offered a double or triple increase in pay), flexibility with work hours and location and written offers to grow from APAC to Europe or global roles. “I have worked in the high-stress ecommerce practice across India and Thailand over the past three years and now felt my skills were best served on a platform, rather than just restricting myself to a mid-sized performance agency,” says a recent hire for an ecommerce platform in Bengaluru, India. “The ability to not just pay me more but also throw in employee share options and other performance-based incentives, which traditional agencies don’t offer was an added bonus.”
Other employees in the industry Campaign reached out to offer more context for the people crisis facing adland in APAC. Mid-level and junior talent argued that despite making improvements to their people programs, agencies of all sizes hadn’t yet fixed structural issues with the industry—long hours, relatively poor pay and inflated designations—that continues to adversely affect motivation and drive higher turnover. The growth of freelance gig economy businesses such as Neon Leaders and Mash, which offer some flexibility to people and help specialists and senior managers find more meaningful work (and hours), holds real appeal and is only compounding these people challenges for agency managers.
Naturally, it is hard to cover all of APAC with one broad brush stroke. While some centres such as Singapore have been tightening rules around importing foreign workers, the industry in Hong Kong has struggled to bring in talent recently thanks to protests and covid buckling a once thriving market. In Southeast Asia, most markets have been hammered by the pandemic, making employee mobility difficult. And in China, agencies have also been added to sweeping protests against ‘996’ work culture.
HR consultants such as Silva of Grace Blue say the market is now favouring employees and potential hires, a sharp contrast from as little as six months ago, when employers held sway. “In this highly competitive landscape – where talent is now seen as a premium for companies who want fast, agile, and adaptable executives – organisations must present themselves as a highly desirable place to be,” he contends. “People now are more demanding than ever, to be seen and heard, not just numbers or titles or names on an org chart.”
Soon of Mullenlowe believes the industry needs to recast itself urgently to prevent this talent crisis from worsening. “As an industry collectively, we do have to lean in more into issues that can make us matter, have the bravery to say ‘no’ to any situation that leaves us burning out our talents, and resist the temptation to be more than we are not and remain true and authentic,” he says.
This attempt at altruism aside, agencies are trying to keep pace with changing times. For example, Larson of VCCP in Singapore, says the shop is investing in employee training (more of its people, for example, are being put through mini-MBA programmes to rapidly scale them to management positions) and the agency is also looking to expand its programs with interns, even as it muscles up on training around digital transformation and ecommerce.
Mullenlowe’s Soon also says his agency is shifting the way it develops its talent. “(This) is a combination of opportunity at work and the freedom to build their passion points outside of work,” he says. “I find that increasingly more important than sending folks to industry events.” At the end of the day, he adds, adland is a business where networks and agencies tend to be 80% more optimistic than most consumers. Granting time to grow other interests allows employees to be better grounded.