Charlie Thomas
Apr 8, 2015

Talent imports to Asia on the decline: A positive trend

The number of western expats coming to Asia for client and agency roles is declining, explains Charlie Thomas of The Talent Business Asia Pacific. The question is why.

Charlie Thomas
Charlie Thomas

When we opened in Singapore in 2007, the city was becoming a critical regional and global hub that was importing senior talent from around the globe. Asia-Pacific continues to represent a huge growth opportunity for most clients and their agencies, with continued investment flowing into the region. However, in the last couple of years we have seen a significant decline in demand for talent from outside the region.

Since our doors opened in Singapore, we have placed approximately 100 agency leaders and senior individuals per year in the region. However, there's no escaping the fact that in the last two years the percentage of senior hires from outside the region has dropped by as much as 25 to 35 per cent, despite the market being dynamic.

Why is this happening?

Account management has contributed most to the decline in imported talent. In many ways this is a positive, emerging trend. As Asia continues to thrive, and in particular Singapore is growing as a key global marketing centre, Asian talent has been honing its international experience and skills. With an inherent knowledge of the culture and language, people from Asia clearly make sense in senior account-management positions.

China is ‘de-coupling’ from the region, with bespoke teams originating thinking and work for the domestic market. This is often within the context of the overall global brand strategy. But given the size, importance and complexity of the market, more and more leniency is being given to China to flex the global guidelines and produce work at a local level that is effective. Increasingly and inevitably, the desire in China is to hire local Chinese or Chinese-speaking talent, be that in significant agency-leadership roles or indeed account-leadership roles.

For the big multinational clients, it would seem that the pendulum is swinging toward a ‘global/local’ model versus a ‘global, regional, local model’. In other words, it appears that more and more of the global campaign ideas are being originated out of the key global hubs such as New York, Chicago, London or indeed Singapore and then being activated at a local market level. This in turn is reducing the importance and scale of the regional business-leadership roles, which have historically been the natural route into the region for senior account-management talent from the US, Europe or Australasia.

Finally, agency leaders are facing substantial procurement pressure from the big global clients. Even with some large lucrative global accounts originating their work in Asia, a troubling trend suggests advertisers and their agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to agree on the value of marketing services. This, combined with the diminishing scale of the regional roles, directly affects the amount agencies are able to pay senior talent. And when one factors in the high cost of living in the key hubs in Asia, particularly for those with family (given the cost of international schools), the packages being offered are no longer comparable with North American and European salaries, even taking into account Asia’s lower tax regime.

So where are we seeing the need for top international talent?

Planning is still a young discipline in Asia

Outstanding planners continue to be in huge demand, both in the region and globally. Some of the world’s best planners come from Asia, but, outside of India, planning is still a relatively young discipline so there is a need to bring in talent from outside.

In my view, this is primarily down to lack of investment by the agencies. Planning is a craft, and it can take three to five years before a ‘planner’ can really plan. Given the ongoing pressures agencies face to reduce their fees and cut costs, they are hugely reluctant to invest the time and money in the first three to five years of a planner’s career, as the return on investment is relatively low. As a result, and this applies to all markets around the world, there is a constant demand for the ‘5-year-old’ mid weight planner—in other words, someone who another agency has invested in. This is clearly unsustainable for the industry and it is creating a genuine shortage at all levels.

Negative perception of the quality of creative work

Asia is rich with creative opportunities, and the quality of work coming out of Asia is good, sometimes great. It's no coincidence the Cannes Lions Titanium Grand Prix, considered the most prestigious category, went last year to Dentsu's 'Sound of Honda/Ayrton Senna 1989'. In general, however, Asia continues to be under-represented globally at awards when compared to its size and scope. Some negative perceptions persist about the opportunities in the region among some of the world’s best creative talent.

Asian returnees

In addition, there is a continued demand for Asian returnees across all disciplines and at all levels. So these may be American, Australian or European citizens of Asian ethnicity whose parents emigrated at a young age. Alternatively, it may be Asian people who have been working abroad and are now ready to return home or indeed to the region to further their career. In some markets, these returnees, particularly if they grew up elsewhere, can still be viewed as ‘outsiders’. But the demand for returnee talent is as strong as ever, and the eternal brief for an 'American-educated, trained in the UK, Chinese speaking, digital strategist with 10 years’ experience who wants to move back to Beijing’ continues to exist.

Asian talent goes West

Another really positive trend that is emerging is an appetite in the West for some of the top Asian talent. In some instances this is Western-raised people who have been living and working in Asia for a few years and who are now moving back to take on leadership roles as ‘global citizens’. However, equally, as more and more brands centralise into key global hubs, there is also an increasing appetite for people on these teams who have a genuine understanding of the world, and in particular Asia.

So while Asia is still an attractive proposition for European, North American and Australasian professionals, and creative businesses still look outside Asia for progressive, digitally literate planners and creatives, more and more leadership and account-management roles are going to people within the region. And we are seeing our business become more and more Asian in its focus—be that moving transferring talent from Asia to the West, bringing Asian returnees back to the region or indeed identifying and working with the top leadership in the local markets.

This is clearly a really positive trend for the region. And it means the days of the mass migration to Asia may well be over.

Charlie Thomas is managing director of The Talent Business Asia Pacific


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