How are agencies managing the expat talent exodus?

Amid record numbers of foreign talent leaving traditionally expat-heavy markets like Hong Kong and Singapore, we explore the repercussions for agencies.

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“It’s an unarguable fact that we have a brain drain,” admitted Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam in a press conference last month. According to immigration data, nearly 157,000 residents have fled the city since the beginning of 2022 alone, marking the biggest population decrease in decades.

Hit by a double whammy of political turmoil and some of the strictest Covid measures globally, Hong Kong's image as ‘Asia's World City’ has taken a battering in recent years, as record numbers of foreign talent and businesses have either left or are considering leaving.

In Singapore, the number of expatriate white-collar workers in the city-state has also fallen to its lowest number since 2010, according to figures published by the Ministry of Manpower. Stricter visa rules and a push to 'hire local' are the main factors cited, suggesting Singapore is yet to benefit from Hong Kong's exodus.

For markets like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have traditionally relied heavily on expat talent, what are the repercussions for agencies?

"Dentsu has seen skilled workers leaving Singapore and Hong Kong to move back to their home countries due to the pandemic," says Luke Speers, APAC chief people officer at Dentsu. "While this has created greater opportunities for local talent, we are now working to bridge the capability gaps where we have relied on expat talent."

According to Speers, talent is in short supply across all levels. But the recent exodus has driven a higher proportion of vacant roles for junior manager positions across the agency's CXM, creative and media businesses.

"Currently, recruitment within our competitor landscape is extremely tight across markets especially the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong due to decreases in available talent pools. We are therefore opening up new and innovative ways to open the talent funnel to a broader cross section of candidates,” he says.

For others, the impact has been minimal. "We’ve certainly seen some movement out, but also in," says Sue Olivier, chief talent officer at Ogilvy Asia. "Where we’ve experienced gaps, our network has helped. Teams collaborate across the region so we are not over-reliant in market."

Olivier says that Ogilvy's long-standing structure of having regional Centres of Excellence (COEs) has been really helpful in managing staffing: "There is always regional expertise and resource to draw on. We do not need to duplicate expertise in all markets. Putting our Centres of Excellence structure in place years ago has future-proofed us somewhat in Covid times."

Meanwhile, the Andrews Partnership, a specialist executive search firm in the region, say they have been incredibly busy over the last 12 months with replacement hires across corporate affairs, communications, government affairs and ESG. 

"While we have seen some movement in the market from expat candidates returning 'home' or relocating to Singapore from HK, there is a very strong pipeline of talent ready to step into any vacant roles and it is giving candidates who are either from the region or committed to staying a bigger opportunity," says Emma Donald, a director at Andrews Partnership. "In terms of the largest opportunity now, strategic ESG and sustainability hires are front and centre for many of our clients."   

Honing local talent

While foreign talent may be leaving in record numbers owing to the pandemic, more stringent visa requirements in markets like Singapore aren't making it easier for them to stay either. In February, Singapore raised the minimum expat salary threshold for the second time in two years to encourage firms to hire more locals. Companies are expected to develop a ‘Singaporean core’ of talent, and groom Singaporeans for leadership ranks.

But several agencies maintain that they've always had a focus on hiring and developing local talent first anyway.

"We would always try and make an effort to hire local anyway. So the visa changes are nothing that concerns us too much at this moment in time," says Tim Eastoe, HR business partner at MediaMonks Singapore. And rather than reacting and quickly trying to fill capability gaps when people do move on, Eastoe says that an agency like MediaMonks prefers to be proactive and prepared.

"We are always investing in internal and external training schemes and initiatives so that we’re not just reacting and having to quickly begin to upskill people,” says Eastoe. “We’re continually trying to make sure that everybody is upskilled anyway, regardless of whether we’re seeing talent leave or not."

Ensuring a strong pipeline of local talent is ready to step into any vacant roles has long been a priority for other agencies too.

"We’ve always had a strategic focus on growing talent in-market, with programmes designed specifically to develop local leadership," says Ogilvy’s Olivier. "In fact, today 85% of our country, office, business and expert leaders across Asia are local talent."

Competition for talent remains fierce throughout the region, especially filling specialised roles in fields like data, tech, UX/UI and customer experience. But will the recent exodus of international talent also have an impact on creativity and output of work?

"Our creative output is borderless and isn’t bound by nationality; creative talent can and should come from everywhere in a meritocracy," says Olivier. "Ultimately, we hire the best talent we can get, and as our client mix becomes more and more balanced with a roughly equal amount of global and local brands, the question of expat vs local talent is less of an issue."

And as we move increasingly towards a virtual workplace, Speers at Dentsu sees an international workforce becoming standard anyway. “In a virtual working world, we have focused on building online communities regionally and globally to offer our people a platform to come together as a diverse group, exchange ideas, innovate and promote cross-border collaboration.”


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