As war for talent heats up, adland reviews employee engagement

According to agency leaders in the region, employers are battling growing wage inflation, a shift of power in the recruitment process, and a stronger demand for flexibility.

After spending two years toiling through the pandemic, APAC’s marcomms industry returned to growth in 2021. While business bounced back, an enhanced focus on remote working coupled with the ‘great resignation’ have irrevocably changed how this industry manages its talent. While volume of hiring is up as indicated in our Agency Report Cards this year, the way agencies manage their talent needs is changing. According to multiple people leaders Campaign Asia-Pacific spoke to, agencies are hiring aggressively for data, tech, analytics, and performance marketing roles. Simultaneously, shops are also looking to expand their sources of recruitment, with hiring from adjacent industries such as technology and consulting picking up. All this is coming at a cost—industry leaders say wage inflation is a growing concern and they are finding new ways to mitigate this spike. “Wage inflation is a concern in almost every industry, so we are very aware of its impact,” Jiamei Tay, talent director, Asia, at WPP says.

“It is increasingly difficult to attract talent in China, with some local companies paying salaries at 50% or more above average with significant stock and benefits on top.” —Jiamei Tay, WPP

WPP needs to be creative in its approach and be mindful that wages are not always a lead factor for talent, she adds. Instead, she touts the network’s agency brand heft and client roster as key attractions for talent. Beyond remuneration, this industry is facing demands for a sharper focus on mental health and well-being from its employees. WPP and GroupM, for example, has a growing number of ‘mental health allies’ who can be reached in times of need. WPP and other networks also offer employee assistance programmes with trained experts on call. Staff can also take a day off in October to coincide with Mental Health Day at WPP. TBWA Singapore offers flexible working arrangements, open one-on-one communications, and a tie-up with SafeSpace to offer access to mental-wellbeing support. Mandy Goh, talent development director for TBWA, says there is a stronger focus on relational factors (such as feeling valued, making a difference, sense of belonging) vs transactional factors (such as compensation, work-life balance) for staying. “We can attract talent based on transactional factors, but why they stay depends more on relational ones,” she says.

HR consultants add that while there has been a spike in recruitment, it is employees who seem to hold the upper hand this time around. “Today, with the strong resurgence in business and headcounts opening all around, the employee has options which puts them in a position of strength,” notes Helen Duffy, APAC CEO at Grace Blue, a HR consultancy focused on leadership hiring. “The best agencies are making sure they take steps to focus on wellbeing, career growth and competitive salaries to hold onto or attract the best people.”

Goh of TBWA admits that the marcomms industry faces stiff people challenges because it is a fertile hunting ground for tech and ecommerce companies.”Talent is also attracted by what [tech companies] are offering, which results in a greater need to remain innovative in our approach to attract, retain and promote our talent.” —Mandy Goh, TBWA

Despite the challenges of the past two years, advertising and the creative aspect of this industry is still a draw, she contends. “Advertising allows our people to adjust, flex and work at speed, creating, innovating and always questioning,” she adds. This doesn’t mean that the industry is finding it easy to hire the best talent. Dylan Choong, chief people officer at GroupM APAC acknowledges that the industry faces a talent crunch. However, rather than take a defensive posture, he believes agencies need to be more proactive with their talent management. “A better strategy is to ask ourselves, where do we want to go to find talent, and how are we going to train and develop them to be equipped to join our workforce,” he counters. For instance, in Australia, GroupM is providing employment opportunities for those who are physically challenged—and discovering not just an untapped segment, but also one that is highly competent with digital skills. Elsewhere, it has hired women returning from parental leave and mid-career switchers interested in careers in this sector. “Many people lament the talent crunch,” he adds. “But when you flip the situation on its head, maybe there’s an opportunity for us to really rethink where talents reside, ask ourselves what we have not done, and what do we need to do going forward from here.”

Other people leaders contend that this many be an opportune time for the industry to relook its people plans overall. “We’re a creative industry, but for a long time, we haven’t thought creatively about how and whether people are ‘qualified’ for advertising roles,” argues Sarah Crabbe, director of HR at DDB Group Australia. Rather than look purely at academic credentials such as university degrees and awards as well as industry connections, DDB is looking “further and broader” with its talent-mapping strategies. The agency is looking for transferable skills in different markets and is focused on capabilities such as creativity, critical thinking and analysis, leadership, and social influence, and recently emphasising more on a person’s emotional quotient.

Other networks point to pandemic-driven initiatives that have helped them in this brewing war for talent. Chief talent officer at Publicis Groupe ANZ, Pauly Grant, points to the network’s initiative called ‘The Bench’ in Australia and New Zealand, which has since been rolled out globally as one such example.  This initiative allowed staff who had the capacity to help on a temporary basis be redeployed to work for other agency businesses within the group. According to the agency, The Bench helped retain 109 jobs during the pandemic and eventually became a permanent programme, saving 2000 jobs globally. In addition, Publicis launched its global ‘Work your World’ initiative that enables staff to work remotely around the world for six weeks every year. “Everyone is well and truly into the habit of hybrid working, having found the working rhythm that best suits them,” explains Grant. “People are evaluating their purpose and priorities, and questioning if their job fits into that.” She believes that companies in this industry need to “look closely at how we address this and create an environment that supports and enables great work as part of an individual’s broader life experience.”

Anu Nagash, chief people officer, APAC, for Mindshare, says: “We will continue to consider different and new talent pools and look for complementary skills that we can grow and develop.” As the agency focuses more sharply on media services, this diversity in hiring will only increase. However, it won’t be easy for these firms to make a frictionless switch. For one, what employees—and potential hires—want of their employers has changed. “Talent today are very clear and a lot more articulate about what they expect out of organisations. It will be short-sighted of us to think that we set the rules, but it has to be one where we co-create.” —Dylan Choong, GroupM For example, a network or agency may ask employees to return to office three days a week, but what do employees themselves want? What is meaningful for them? What makes sense, and more importantly, can the agency facilitate that? Nagash of Mindshare agrees with this view. In the past, a job description might illustrate what a person needs to deliver but says that “this is no longer enough for top talent”. She adds: “Senior leaders need to also articulate purpose and when that aligns with making the world a more sustainable and positive place, we connect with employees in a more authentic way.”

As organisations piece together their future-of-work strategies, they need to rethink the place of work too, people leaders admit.  Should everyone come back to an office, or should an office be more decentralised and distributed? “It’s not about meeting them halfway,” Choong adds. In a post-pandemic era, employees will demand for terms in a more upfront way and Choong says that “achieving this delicate balance is crucial in shaping the future of work”.

By Rahul Sachitanand