Networks, agencies and platforms across the marketing communications industry have focused sharply over the past few years on improving their people scorecards, trying to right a perception of being a sector rife with endless hours, demon bosses and even worse clients. While many companies have achieved some success on this front, the Covid pandemic has only further complicated their task. Workers are re-examining their priorities as they deal with the impact of thousands of lost jobs seemingly overnight, and balancing extended work from home demands (with few signs of a full-time return to office). Many of them have jumped on the 'Great Resignation' wave to reshape their careers.
While this year’s Agency Report Cards pointed to sharply lower turnover or attrition rates for many agencies, that improvement may have been an illusion—fuelled by people holding onto jobs they had in a tight economy, rather than prospect for new ones. Now, some of those gains may be coming unstuck as companies across the board deal with increasing numbers of their people leaving roles—especially with well-established employers—to take one of several steps.
The pandemic push
First, those who have had enough of working 9-5 jobs are starting up their own companies or even going freelance. Some people are taking breaks of various durations—from a month to a year—to try to cope with burnout. Third, people are using this time to reassess their careers and use their skills, say in digital marketing, to exit this industry and seek better pay, hours and roles outside of marcomms. In APAC, especially in foreign worker-heavy markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore, immigration regulations add another layer to this story, with people quitting not just their jobs, but going back home too.
"We are seeing a number of senior professionals step back from their careers after what is now close to two years of strained working conditions as a result of a multitude of factors spanning increased workloads, balancing work and life commitments together with working from home, and the decrease in job satisfaction that comes as a result of feeling isolated and disconnected from your colleagues," Majella Pinnuck, senior associate of Anna Whitlam People, tells Campaign.
Research shows that 41% of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year. This number is even higher for Gen Z—at 54%. At the same time, 46% are planning to make a major pivot or career transition. In another survey, 36% of respondents who had quit their jobs in the past six months did so without having a new job in hand.
Jane Lee is an example of the last trend above. She quit her job as a copywriter in Hong Kong and went back to live with her parents in Taiwan. Fed up of working from her studio apartment and with no signs of borders opening and quarantines easing, she packed in her job to reconnect with her family and hopefully look for a new role in early 2022. “Sixty-hour weeks and no break from Hong Kong was a bit too much after two years,” she says. “Maybe I will choose something less stressful or become a writer.”
Industry leaders are noticing this seeming mass exodus of talent. As vaccination rates rise and potential office openings loom, they admit that life won’t simply go back to normal. “Life will not be a simple reverse back to 2019,” says T. Gangadhar, CEO of Essence APAC. “The future of work will be more flexible, collaborative and focused on how we come together as people, cultures and colleagues. There will be a long-term cultural shift where flexibility, well-being and belonging are key.”
Gangadhar was, however, the only agency leader of 10 that Campaign Asia-Pacific reached out to that responded to questions about this important trend. Others seem reticent to admit the industry may have a problem on its hands.
For Richa Anirudh, the decision to go freelance didn’t come fast enough. A former employee with a branding consultancy in Mumbai, she held out for 18 months before throwing in the towel. The breaking point came when she had to work through the surge in Covid cases in April in India, hunt for oxygen cylinders for a close friend who was afflicted and see three team members quit, only worsening her workload. In June, she decided to move to the coastal state of Goa and is a now a freelance social media consultant. “The pandemic made me take a step back finally—I should have done this two years ago, if not earlier,” she says.
Multiple factors at play
Anu D’Souza, the CEO of Bricoleur Consulting, a leadership recruitment and employee insights consultancy, says there are multiple factors at play that coalesced due to Covid. “Many of course have a newfound confidence with having seen how well remote working can work for them,” she adds. “Multiple women professionals would also fall into the latter category where, with the acceptance of remote/hybrid working, they have the confidence to just step out and re-configure their careers.”
According to Gangadhar of Essence, the pandemic and the 'Great Resignation' wave has perhaps permanently changed how employees view their jobs. "Flexibility is an increasing expectation from future talent candidates," he explains. "With many in Gen Z starting their first jobs in a remote or hybrid work environment, their experiences will set expectations and attitudes toward work in the future."
This flexibility may be especially important among employees in martech and adtech companies, many of whom haven't stepped into their office in the past two years and don't plan to in any hurry. "Whilst organisations have come a long way in recent decades to increase flexible working arrangements—coinciding with the rise of technology that enables this—employees are now seeking embedded policies and initiatives from organisations that guarantee flexible working arrangements and show a proactive approach to a positive culture and working environment," says Pinnuck from Anna Whitlam People.
An industry divided
Industry leaders Campaign spoke to on- and off-the-record are divided about how they can viably deal with this trend. While some companies are making sweeping changes to deal with this newly mobile workforce, others think there is more nuance to this development. "We can't force people back into the office and we've worked on dozens of small and large remote pitches, won new business remotely and delivered projects too—so trying to force the issue will only push more people out of the door," says a creative leader with a mid-sized agency.
"A one-size-fits-all approach to flexibility does not work," contends Gangadhar of Essence. "Decisions around flexibility should be made by balancing role, team and client-based responsibilities with ongoing conversations with employees to understand and address unique life circumstances. We have also seen the value of bringing people together in person. While culture can carry over to remote settings, the opportunity to grow and thrive may be different."
As this debate rages on in adland, the 'Great Resignation' continues to sweep across the industry, raising more questions than answers for employees and leaders across the industry about the future of work and jobs. With flexible working here to stay, this trend could create a very different future not just for people within this sector, but future workers considering a job in this sector in upheaval.