Deep Dive: Can anyone solve PR's staff turnover troubles in Asia?

Is it healthy for agencies in Asia to still be losing 20-30 per cent of their employees each year? Most execs we spoke to said not, so what are they doing to stem the tide of departing talent? PRWeek Asia Editor Gary Scattergood investigates in the first of our monthly Deep Dives.

Amid fierce competition for digital and creative talent, staff retention is more important than ever
Amid fierce competition for digital and creative talent, staff retention is more important than ever

Senior industry execs are more concerned about finding the best talent than Simon Cowell on those awful reality shows that plague the Saturday night TV schedules.

But while Cowell and his chums will settle for a dancing dog or a bit of car-crash karaoke, the skills needed for the PR industry are somewhat higher.

Every agency leader cites talent acquisition as a key challenge and everyone knows there is a finite pool of top people, especially in the creative and digital fields.

But surely the talent crisis wouldn’t be so acute if the industry was better at holding on to people once they secured their services?

That’s why PRWeek Asia chose talent retention as the first topic for our in-depth, monthly Deep Dive feature…

The scale of the problem

The nature of the challenge face is best summed up by the number of major agencies in the region who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, disclose their staff turnover levels. Of the companies approached, MSL, Edelman, The Hoffman Agency, Burson-Marsteller, Cohn & Wolfe and Weber Shandwick declined to provide the stats. Those that did, revealed a turnover rate of around 20-30 per cent.

For Ketchum (in Singapore only) the rate was 20 per cent last year, with all but one at a junior level. Ruder Finn posted a figure of 19.5 per cent, again with most of the changes coming at middle and lower levels, especially in China. The staff turnover at Lewis PR was 28 per cent, at Text100 it was approximately 30 per cent, while at Golin it was around 25 per cent over the past six months.

Agencies in the region also have a number of unfilled positions. Weber Shandwick has 60, Edelman 46, Ruder Finn 35, Lewis PR 10, Golin 15, Cohn & Wolfe seven and Ketchum two (in Singapore), while Text100 usually has between 15-30 vacancies. Many agencies pointed out that a large proportion of the vacancies were in China and other rapidly developing markets.

The most likely destination for those leaving an agency remains in-house roles, even at fairly junior levels. However, there also appears to be a growing trend for people wishing to join start-ups or become entrepreneurs themselves. Financial reasons rarely seem to be stated as the motivation for leaving (even if this is thought to be the case), with most people citing career development as the primary factor.

As The Hoffman Agency vice president of global operations Lydia Lau (pictured above) says: "From our experience, and contrary to what some might think, junior staff might look for something beyond monetary reward, [such as] team support and solidarity, learning and training opportunities, and an interesting mix of clients."

One thing is for sure though, the majority of agencies we spoke to conceded it was a demanding career, and most mentioned staff hitting a plateau a few years into their PR careers.

Where are the gaps?

There doesn’t appear to be one single job title or experience level that agencies are struggling to fill.

According to Ketchum’s managing director in Singapore John Bailey, it is the mid-level senior account manager/account director roles – where people need five to eight years of experience – that are the hardest to fill.

This was echoed by Cohn & Wolfe’s Asia president Angelina Ong, Text100 Asia’s regional director Anne Costello and Burson-Marsteller’s managing director for HR in Asia-Pacific John Mullins.
The problem here, according to Ong is that the APAC landscape is relatively immature: "So agencies buy trained talent as the easy way out."

Mullins adds that every agency in Asia is looking for candidates with four to seven years’ experience. "It can also be difficult to fill senior roles," he says, "especially if we do not have successors groomed and ready to step up, because both our clients and team members have high expectations of what they think a senior Burson person should bring to the table."

Ruder Finn’s Asia-Pacific chairman Jean-Michel Dumont agrees it is the senior levels and above that pose the biggest problems, although "the retention issue is with account executives, consultants and below."

Golin president Jonathan Hughes points to the difficulty of securing great creative talent, in addition to staff at senior levels, while Lewis PR senior vice president in Asia Andy Oliver says all positions are tricky to fill if you only want the best candidates.

"We always ensure when we are looking into the market, we focus our priority on people with incredible energy, first-rate attitudes and an international perspective. After that, we look at their skills and experience," he adds.

Both Edelman and MSL, however, point out recruitment is not always as difficult as suspected. According to Edelman CEO for North Asia Bob Grove the firm needs more specialist planners, creatives, media buyers and filmmakers as it evolves into a "communications marketing firm".

"However, we are finding that this is not as difficult as one might expect, as many of them join us to help build the agency they always wanted to work for," he says.

MSL president in Asia Glenn Osaki (pictured above) has a similar view, adding: "While I do believe that the industry is both growing and changing faster than the talent pool, still it has become increasingly less difficult to recruit."

At Weber Shandwick, vice president for HR and talent in the region Cameron Murray reflects the view of several agencies by saying the changing face of PR is opening up a new pool of talent.

"With the development of the ‘engagement and content model’, new sources of talent, non-traditional for PR, are becoming increasingly important and welcome. Our talent mix has changed significantly over the last three years and reflects the changing communication landscape," he says.

Retention strategies

With most agencies conceding it is difficult to recruit – and with a regional desire to bring down high staff turnover levels – it is widely agreed that employers need to do more to keep their talent happy.

From our conversations with leading agencies, training and career development is highlighted as the major tool to keep staff on board, with more formal procedures being adopted and greater investment ploughed in. While these opportunities are available across the board, some agencies are drilling down on particular groups of employees to stem the tide of departures.

Grove at Edelman says his retention strategy is focusing on the higher percentage of women who are leaving the businesses because of concerns around balancing work and family life.

"We have been addressing this over the past year with the introduction of a region-wide flexi-time HR policy, an added custom HR policy benefit in each market, and a formal mentoring program that focuses specifically on the challenges that women may face in their career," he says.

More broadly, he adds that Edelman has held 193 training sessions across North Asia in the past year with 4,450 attendees.

There is a similar approach at Ketchum with the Ketchum University, which offers online courses, webinars and on-site training,

Singapore managing director Bailey also says flexi-time in is proving popular with working mothers, while an "Emerging Leaders Team’ is helping those at account manager or account director level take the next step on their careers. "This is proving very successful, and gives them a greater sense of responsibility and involvement in the running of the agency," he adds.

Giving employees a sense of ownership is high on the list of priorities at Ruder Finn where firm is increasingly sharing detailed financial information with staff to create a sense of inclusion, alongside providing a comprehensive training programme.

Oliver (pictured above) at Lewis PR, meanwhile, points to the popularity of its RISE training academy in San Diego as playing a major role in helping staff progress with the firm.

"The objective is to train the next generation of leaders at the company and in addition to the skills training you would expect, there is a strong visual and arts element as part of the course," he adds.

At Lewis, there also are flexible and remote working opportunities, and employees also undertake a career planning session every six months.

Oliver is also keen on encouraging travel and secondments between offices in the region and globally.

Cross market collaboration is also important for Lau at The Hoffman Agency, both in terms of business outcomes and career development.

"We have the Building Bridges Program where star performers can move from one market to another for a fresh change in environment," she says.

Burson-Marsteller also offers company-wide overseas assignments and training opportunities, with HR boss Mullins adding that individual markets have their own retention strategies, which include flexi-time, days off for birthdays and additional annual leave for years of service.

"We are also developing performance reviews which will be tied to the job descriptions so that all employees at every level has a clear understanding of what they need to achieve before they can be considered for promotion," he says.

At Cohn & Wolfe, there is big focus on personal coaching sessions, buddy programmes, online training and social events such as leader-hosted barbecues, according to Ong.

"More than 50 per cent of my country managing directors and practice leaders) are women, with many of them being working mothers. Our youngest leader is 32 and the oldest is 62. Our only rule is that teams excel at what they do and deliver what they’ve promised," she says, adding ‘personal brand plans’ are now being introduced in the region where employees identify their own goals based on feedback from supervisors and peers.

Formal training programmes are also proving effective at retaining staff at Text100, according to Costello, with the agency funding extra training courses and part-funding Masters Degrees, in addition to its online TextLife training portal.

"We also have a people development approach which sees our managers having a monthly check in and career chat with their reports. People need to see how what they’re doing today, will help their career in the future," she adds.

While training and development is also highlighted by Weber Shandwick, Golin and MSL, they also refer to three other aspects they believe are crucial for staff retention.

Murray at Weber Shandwick was the only person to point out that "being highly competitive on salary and benefit packages" is crucial, while Golin’s Hughes (pictured above) maintains staff retention "all comes down to the work".

"People want to do work they can be proud of within a culture that challenges them and with people they want to learn from. That’s why we have a very different way of working," he says.

MSL, meanwhile, is directing a lot of its focus to the millennial workforce. Osaki believes younger employees want their employers to set an example and have an active CSR strategy.

"Our CSR initiatives have received lots of support from our people, especially from millennials, the mainstays in the company, and will continue to attract more attention and enhance loyalty," he adds.

No quick fix

Let’s be frank; staff turnover levels in PR are too high and have been for some time. Employees will always want to move on to want they see as bigger and better things, but that is not unique to PR.

The industry, in Asia in particular, is experiencing rapid growth in some markets leading to a glut of new positions. But again, this is not unique to PR.

This is also a high-pressure and demanding industry, at any level, and some people are simply not cut out for it. Once more, this is not unique to PR.

The positive outcome of our conversations with agencies is that there is a real commitment to try and tackle this issue. There is no lack of will or investment as most agency heads focus on training and development and flexible working as the two key strategies to retain staff.

The real issue, though, is this what staff would cite as their prime motivating factors?

Is training top of their wishlist, or is it more likely to be salary?

Is flexible working the future, or is it at odds with the prevailing work culture in many Asia markets?

Do staff want to work remotely, or would they prefer to be able at leave the office at a reasonable hour?

Time will tell if the current retention strategies being adopted by the biggest agencies pay dividends.

However, it is clear there is no quick fix.

As Ong at Cohn &Wolfe concludes: "Ultimately, the high turnover in our industry has been a core issue for years. Staff retention is a marathon, not a sprint."

Have your say: The bosses have made their pitches about what they are doing to try and retain staff. But is it enough and is it working? If you are an agency employee, or have agency experience, let us know. Responses may be published, but will be kept anonymous. Email your views to

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