Why does agency talent move in-house?

Shifts to in-house roles have caused a dearth of mid-level talent in PR agencies. We ask three in-house staffers about the lures of the ‘other side’.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

The grass is always greener for agency folk, especially those who are in junior or mid-level roles. The move towards in-house roles is often viewed as an ‘end goal’, leading to an agency talent crisis in mid-level roles.

PRWeek UK recently covered a study by recruitment firm The Works Search that showed that agencies are undergoing a hiring battle because only 11 per cent of corporate comms professionals are interested in working in agencies compared to 69 per cent wanting in-house roles (the other 19 per cent want to leave the industry or freelance).

Sarah Leembruggen, managing director of The Works Search, said: "In-house is incredibly attractive and agencies have stiff competition—they are not competing with other agencies for talent, they are competing against big corporates who are offering better pay increases, bigger bonuses and higher value company benefits.”

For Ivan Tan, communications manager at Neuron Mobility, moving to an in-house role from his previous account manager position at Mutant Communications allowed him to gain a more complete view of what the job function entails from an in-house perspective. 

“When the opportunity to go in-house came along, it was less of a debate between ‘agency or in-house’, and more about how my skills could add value to my prospective employer,” Tan told PRWeek Asia. “It was also about looking at the role and seeing if it could help me further my career aspirations and help round out my experience as a communications professional. Ultimately, it was a sense of the new role being a right fit and a really strong desire to try something new that spurred me on to make the move.”

Nevertheless, Tan added that aspiring practitioners should kick-off their career in an agency as they would be exposed to a wide range of skills and industry verticals as well as having a larger team of experienced practitioners to learn from.

“It was also through this route that I figured out what my likes and dislikes were, which played a huge part in informing the decision on my next move,” he said.

For Gregory Cheong, APAC communications & sustainability for Givaudan, the challenge of directly elevating a brand from within was exciting to him. Cheong had spent years at agencies including a four-year stint at Weber Shandwick before he moved on to drive corporate comms at Philip Morris International (PMI) prior to his current role at Givaudan. 

“From a career perspective, [moving to PMI] was [a good] challenge and allowed me as a communications professional to really impact the business,” Cheong told PRWeek Asia. “Whereas when working in an agency, you’re often dealing with getting publicity for your client or increasing your clients’ reach. That was one of the biggest reasons I took the job, because I was never really able to be deeply entrenched in [a company’s] business strategy.”

Cheong added that in present day, there’s an “increasing trend” of communications becoming a more vital part of a business and an element that can impact the bottom line of a business.  

“That’s something that you may not get as an agency person, this same level of [influence] or integration compared to someone who's on the client side,” he said. “When you’re in agency side, very often you’ll receive a brief that has already gone through a number of iterations through a number of stakeholders. And so, even if you try to go back with suggestions or questions, there might be more of a limitation as to what you can get push back on being an external party to the whole process.” 

Tan agreed that working in-house offers greater autonomy in decision-making, including more control over variables such as timelines and budgets.   

“Transparency within the organisation and access to various stakeholders enable us to move a lot quicker in responding to media inquiries and issues. This is in contrast with being in an agency, where you might not be able to see the ‘big picture’ for your clients given your scope of work,” he said. 

“Another ‘perk’ I enjoy is being able to work directly with key stakeholders, along with cross-functional team members and other regional agencies. This breadth of scope is part of what I see as developing a specialisation in working in-house, carving out an industry expertise which some like myself find rewarding.”

Jacqueline Lui, recently appointed communications lead at Love Bonito, spent many years at agencies including Edelman and Weber Shandwick. She told PRWeek Asia that her move to a consumer brand needed to align with her personal goals and values.

“[It’s important that] I'm willing to spend time learning more about the in-and-outs and that I envision myself as part of the company's growth,” she said. “I also weighed the opportunities in career and personal development that came with it. Someone once told me that ‘we're never really prepared’ so if the role challenges you and allows you to grow in that aspect, I'd say take it.”

This was also important to Tan, who said that his previous experience and skillsets were taken into consideration prior to moving to Neuron.

“Coming from a technology, start-up and corporate PR background, my current role felt very much like a natural fit because the business lies in the intersection of these practices,” he said. “But there were also other considerations including the opportunity to broaden my skill sets beyond PR, take on a global remit, and knowing that I could count on my manager and colleagues for professional guidance.”

These skills that Tan referred to were luckily transferrable for him. But getting used to the mindset shift on the corporate side took a bit of getting used to. For example, new challenges that arose for him include figuring out what matters to various internal stakeholders and how he could best communicate the value of his work, applying existing skills in client management and reporting for a different audience, and keeping in mind the nuanced nature of communications and how different stakeholders may not always fully understand the role of comms.

Cheong echoes the sentiment: “Very often, the main difference is that stakeholders [may not be comms people, or may not understand how comms works. For them, it's an education process. We try and get them to buy into what we do.” 

At agencies, comms as a function is a revenue-generator. But in a corporate setting, comms professionals may find themselves merely as part of a headcount.

“[In an in-house role], it’s important that you are able to demonstrate the importance of communications so that others have a better appreciation for it,” said Cheong. “And from a skillset perspective, it’s being able to mould comms and the business function together. That's quite key.”

So what can agencies do to ensure that junior and mid-level staff are retained? For starters, the promise of growth is important for upcoming talent. Tan said that keeping staff fulfilled professionally along with a healthy dose of work-life balance can go a long way in retaining employees. 

“This is more than just a monthly Pizza Friday or a lunchtime mindfulness session—but really looking at resourcing and operations and having meaningful conversations to ensure team members are treated as fairly and empathetically as possible,” he said.

Tan’s pleas are perhaps still far-fetched especially given that overwork and mental health issues remain a concern for agency staff. Whether due to over-servicing, unbalanced power dynamics, internal work cultures, or the result of WFH pressures, overwork and the subsequent drop-off of talent are dire issues that are unlikely to diminish without systematic, industry-wide solutions.


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