Are tech companies eyeing ad professionals as talent war rages on in SG?

Marketing Interactive on Tech Talent in conversation with Helen Duffy, APAC CEO at Grace Blue

In July 2021, Singapore clinched the top spot, for the second year running, in KPMG’s global ranking of leading technology innovation hubs outside of Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Attesting to its accomplishments, Minister Lawrence Wong said during Budget 2022 that Singapore will continue to be “a strategic launchpad for businesses around the world” looking to expand to new markets in the region. In addition to attracting more investments, Wong also outlined that Singapore is looking to secure more high-quality, cutting-edge and innovative projects, and that Singapore has grown to be a more vibrant startup and innovation ecosystem. Last year alone, 11 Singapore businesses achieved unicorn status.

Moreover, a slew of tech players from SAP to Razer and Amazon have also made their intentions in the region felt opening up offices in Singapore. According to SAP, it launched a digital innovation hub SAP Labs in Singapore to drive product leadership, foster local digital talent, and boost ecosystem and community engagement. The SG$250 million investment will see SAP Labs Singapore employ more than 500 highly skilled digital professionals locally by 2025 from Singapore’s local universities and institutions of higher learning, with a focus on software engineers and areas including AI, data analytics, cloud, and sustainability.

Meanwhile, Razer also launch its new Southeast Asia headquarters in Singapore last year to facilitate the brand’s hypergrowth strategy in the region, with an aim of expanding its workforce in Singapore from 600 to 1,000 employees at the time. US eCommerce giant Amazon also launched a new three-storey office named SIN16, which can house up to 700 employees from over 30 teams, including, Amazon Fresh, Amazon Advertising, Prime Video, seller enablement, and other regional corporate functions. The launch of its office in Singapore came alongside a hiring spree, as Amazon Singapore said at the time that it planned to add over 200 new jobs to its consumer and corporate functions by the end of 2022.

In fact, according to Tech Talent Compensation report 2021/2022, Singapore is one of the top choices for some of the fastest-growing companies in US and China. About 80% of the world’s top 100 technology firms have a sizable presence in Singapore, including the likes of Google, IBM, Microsoft, Zoom, Bytedance and many others. What this means, said the report, is that firms should be prepared to face shorter average tenures and higher turnover rates amongst employees.

Fuelled by the wave of venture capital into tech startups in the region, global tech companies setting up in Singapore, and an unfortunate limited tech talent supply in the country, industry players in the recruitment space that MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to say the competition for tech talent remains hot. And it isn’t about to ease up anytime soon.

So where are these companies finding the talent? 

While platforms such as LinkedIn are flooded with job ads from these tech companies, within the more established tech firms, adland has also been an avenue for tapping into new talent. Grab, for example, hired former IPG director Marrah Africa as its regional agency partner to help to build GrabAds’ brand presence with agencies across SEA.  Meanwhile, Rika Sharma, former ASEAN managing director of Publicis’ Digitas, took on the role of head of agency and industry relationships for Google APAC in June last year. In October of that year, Annette Male left her role as APAC CEP at Wunderman Thompson, after more than two years, to join Facebook to lead its APAC agency development team.

According to Helen Duffy, CEO, APAC at Grace Blue, such hires at a senior or specialist level are expected to increase as such positions provide fewer barriers to entry, especially amidst the pandemic. For instance, when the consultancy searches for a chief technology officer for an agency or a digital consultancy, Duffy and her teams looks across several verticals, including talent from corporates, martech, and even other consultancies.

“If it is to build out a commerce growth area, firms can turn to martech, digital unicorns, eCommerce platforms, and agencies. If it is to manage marketing and brands – agencies will continue to be an area to find great talent as these are very dynamic businesses full of candidates accustomed to ambiguity, pace, strategic problem solving and a diverse set of client challenges,” she explained. However, Duffy also reckons that the lack of tech talent in Singapore may be a temporary one, as viable talents from other parts of APAC, such as Australia and Hong Kong, will be able to come to Singapore when things ease up.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Yar, chief detective and founder at The Talent Detective said that, based on his observations, tech companies’ main sources of hiring are still predominately from other similar tech companies or talents from the agency space, as there are a lot of similarities between tech companies and agencies in terms of the ways of working, fluidity and agility that is required.

The dynamism that the talents in agencies possess is rather transferrable and sought after by tech companies.

“Hence, we are still continuing to see the migration of talents from agency space to tech companies,” he added. One reason could be because tech companies geared towards new innovation or platform adoption work with agencies or marketing clients to roll out industry-firsts. This leads to many agency talents from media, digital, creative or planning background making their way into tech companies, taking on roles such as agency or industry relations, creative strategist or partner marketing.

Retaining talent and bridging the gap in tech talent

In 2021, tech talent compensation in Singapore saw a 21% increase YoY. The report also found that companies with deep pockets would “buy time with money” by prioritising senior hires, as they are more operationally ready and take less time to onboard and contribute. On the supply side, while the border is opening up from the pandemic and companies are adopting a more remote approach for their engineering team, this transition is expected to take some time.

According to the report, talents cited salary package (65%) as a top reason for seeking new opportunities. This outranks other reasons such as the desire to work on new technologies, work-life balance and growth opportunities. Among the top 15 most searched companies, which includes homegrown tech firms such as Shopee and Grab, as well as foreign tech giants such as Bytedance, Amazon and Google, most of the companies pay at least 12% above the market median, with nine of them paying 25% above the market median, the report said. While companies can, and will, work on the non-compensation aspect to attract talents, the easier way out in the short term will be to increase their hiring budget, especially when they are on a hiring spree.

Duffy said that the statistics from the report speak for themselves hence, understandably, a lot of agency candidates jump at the opportunity to join a tech company. “But often going into tech platform, be that Salesforce or Facebook, means you have only the products and tools of that company to play with to solve clients’ challenges, so it’s a more specialist area – and there is nothing wrong with that, it is a terrific experience to round out your skillset,” she added.

However, to retain key talent, agencies and brands can look at focusing on their employee value proposition and culture, as well as employees’ individual career developments, to aid retention, Duffy said. Opportunities for international mobility and for learning and skills enhancement should also be provided across their network. “Without question, they should pay as well as they can to retain business-critical members of their team – whatever the seniority,” she added.

Yar also added that agencies can’t compete with tech companies on the salary front, as tech companies would put up a package that is in line with their internal benchmarking and less so of where the talent’s current salary standing is at. Nonetheless, many agencies have strengthened their staff benefits and engagement efforts, as well as a stronger focus on diversity and inclusivity.

“I have been seeing first-hand how a few agencies are significantly ramping up their efforts on their well-being of their staff, offering longer maternity leave than the mandated requirements and complete remote working arrangement, among others. The churn is high with so many factors coming into play post-pandemic, be it professional or personal considerations,” he said.

Heidrick & Struggles’ Singapore office predicts that, due to the war for tech talent, companies will continue to pay a premium for their expertise and experience, including equity.

“In Asia, cash used to be the traditional mode of compensation but the next generation of leaders have shown higher interest in equity (pre-IPO) – especially for start-ups working towards getting listed,” Tonny Loh, executive search firm partner at the firm explained. Loh also added that companies should look into creating a culture centered in diversity and inclusivity to win the loyalty and retain its workforce, especially Millennials, who will form most of the global workforce by 2025. Companies must create a culture that welcomes individuals from varied backgrounds, fosters a sense of belonging, and encourages everyone to contribute, he said.

Additionally, research by Heidrick & Struggles found that 73% of employees who say they work at a purpose-driven company feel engaged, compared with just 23% of those who do not. To that end, companies should focus on building a purpose that can connect themselves to “something more than making a profit”, as well as ensure that employees feel a personal connection to the company and feel their role is supported. Loh said, “Companies who are able to do these well have a higher percentage of retaining talent – and that’s why in the last five to 10 years, the narrative of companies have changed as they have started to prioritise ESG.”

Meanwhile, Sachet Sethi, manager of tech and transformation, Robert Walters Singapore said that are two ways to bridge the gap in tech talent on a senior level – hiring and training. “Companies themselves should first identify what those skill gaps are, then use the internal employee data to analyse those who already have the skill sets required and just need more polishing”, he said. Incentives in terms of periodic appraisals and work-life balance, which is the most recent trend, can also be used as tools of motivation for employees to reach the level of seniority needed within the company, Sethi explained.

As for hiring, Sethi said companies can tap on the Tech.Pass initiative launched in Singapore to fill the gaps within the tech market. According to the Economic Development Board, Tech.Pass is a visa that allows established tech entrepreneurs, leaders or technical experts from around the world to come to Singapore to “perform frontier and disruptive innovations”. This will help companies to fill senior and leadership roles, in turn curbing the growing demand in the market and “narrow the gap wherein the companies will have to invest in hiring, new skills and knowledge, and constantly inspiring commitment”, Sethi explained.

However, beyond the support given by the Singapore government in the tech sector, companies may have to evaluate internal policies and not follow the typical hierarchical chart in terms of designations, Sethi said. Companies should be open to new skills in tech which can be beneficial for their business while will also bridging the gap on a senior level. “The role on a senior level is not only limited to tech talent and work – that definition is constantly evolving after COVID-19. Therefore, companies will have to approach this with a broader outlook in terms of working from home, hybrid options, more work-life balance options.

What makes ad talent so attractive?

The agency landscape serves as an accelerated training ground for employees. In the agency world professionals are exposed to dynamic, multi-faceted aspects of businesses. “It’s a well-known fact out there that we are a not only a hardworking bunch of professionals but we are also extremely passionate and prideful. Coupled with the fact that our people are exposed to multifaceted aspects of the business. All these elements makes them attractive all-rounders and targets for the tech industry,” Jolene Huang, chief talent officer, Publicis Groupe Singapore and Southeast Asia, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE.

Huang also pointed out that, to retain employees, one main area the ad industry also needs to address its “very punishing work schedules which is well known to even people beyond (the) industry”.

She added that the industry needs to offer “bespoke experiences” for its employees. “This means we need to expand our repertoire in the space of organisation shape, team structure, the role and the benefits,” she said.

Ian Loon, CEO for media and digital, Publicis Groupe Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, added that agencies must deeply prioritise value creation and value preservation, especially since the industry has seen further disruption and disintermediation across its ecosystem over the past two years. “Practically, this means to first value the people we hire and nurture, to strive for constant ideation and innovation, in turn for our clients to recognise value and be willing to compensate fairly and adequately. We have to make the industry meaningful and exciting again by celebrating great work, being more deliberate about establishing people connections beyond business transactions, and to create vastly fun and diverse experiences we can offer with the vast influence and connections we have,” he said.

Additionally, common challenges to the  professional services sector need to be addressed, such as hybrid working, which has “spun lives into chaos and made it less than fun for many”. Loon said, “We must be disciplined in establishing boundaries and redesign engagement processes with our clients and partners to make work more sustainable for current and future talents.”

By Deepa Chevi