The ‘pool table effect’ is wearing thin for agencies

Data scientist drought in Singapore, musical chairs in Malaysia, trilingual talent war in Hong Kong, and complaints about poor work-life just about everywhere. What are the key creative talent trends across the region?

Mumbrella asked executives from recruitment firm Salt, which recently acquired Asia-based rival Font, to give the talent lowdown for agency recruiters and would-be hires.


Jacqui Barratt, director, Salt APAC

Working with both agencies and clients across the region, one of the biggest needs we have seen from the client-side is the need to build greater creative and digital expertise internally, and they’re looking for different ways to work with their agencies.

Because of this, companies are looking closely at how they present themselves to the market to become more attractive to top talent – but they are also beginning to understand the need for the reality to meet the promise. It’s one thing to have all the trimmings of a ‘cool’ office – what I call the ‘pool table effect’ – but quite another to integrate this belief into how you operate and work. And it’s not easy to do, as many agencies have discovered over the years.

As companies decide which roles they need to outsource or bring in-house, consultancy and agency positions have blurred and the competitor landscape has changed. However, across the region, the need for good talent hasn’t eased.

In Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, we are seeing the rise and rise of hybrid talent, where people are being required to wear multiple hats. Some argue this is a commercial decision and others say it is about streamlining to cause less confusion or dilution in the process, but either way, employers want generalist talent, but with key competencies across various skill sets, such as digital and e-commerce.

One of the biggest changes the industry needs to address is the need to focus on retention of staff and combating issues around poor work-life balance. Some of this rests on managing client expectations, but a lot of it stems from what is perceived as a ‘good’ culture – paying for taxis if you work beyond a certain time, meal allowances, food cooked at work.

These sorts of things reward staff for working late but also cause people to moan about working late. It’s not necessarily a bad idea to have these things in place, but agencies need to think about what it’s really doing for the business and the people.

Agency execs appreciate that turnover costs both in money and time, as well as lost clients who get frustrated with a change in account management yet again.


Edouard Cussinel, country director, Salt Singapore

Agencies and brands in Singapore are still in need of niche talent in the digital space. This hasn’t changed – in fact, it’s become even more prominent. But what has been changing in the last 12 months is a growing increase in the need for contract and contingent staff.

As companies shift to become more strategic digitally, things are moving faster and projects come quick. As these projects gain momentum, expert talent is needed to step in and out of projects flexibly and quickly. Having flexibility and engaging highly sought-after skill sets comes at a premium, as this talent picks and chooses where they want to work, how they work, and quite simply if they want to work. We predict that this will continue to grow in line with global trends.

Singapore has seen a drive for data analysts and data scientists, as businesses grapple with data and what it can do. Many companies still aren’t there yet, and they need the right people to get them over the line. Some are already ahead of the pack and working on the new capabilities afforded by Machine Learning and AI.

Content also continues to be a hot demand, as clients and agencies look to engage with consumers across multiple channels and in various forms. We have also seen agencies and consultancies heating up the focus on creative talent as a core, to ensure they can offer their clients something that they can’t replicate themselves. As an aside, FinTech is not niche anymore – it has grown into an entire powerful industry that will keep on disrupting traditional models.


Simon Lo, country director, Salt Hong Kong

Without a doubt, we have seen an increase in the need for bilingual or trilingual talent across all roles types, as companies in Hong Kong tackle their local clients and grow their focus and activity across China.

Numerous companies are managing a digital transformation in some shape or form, and as a result, they are re-evaluating the talent pools they have and reassessing what they need. We are seeing ever-increasing needs in the content management space, as well as strong digital optimisation and analytics talent. Hong Kong doesn’t have the wealth and depth of UX/UI CX talent with global and regional experience that’s needed, so this market is a hotbed for opportunity in this space.

Clients are looking for game-changing talent as they strive to gain that competitive advantage. No industry seems immune to the need to change, and agencies and clients alike are competing for the best talent. The work the agency or client is doing is key to attracting talent and getting people excited about the learning and career growth opportunities during their digital journey.


Bryan Corke, country director, Salt Malaysia

Across Malaysia, agencies remain focused on hiring digital, mobile and tech talent. The biggest demand is around candidates with digital performance skills, including data scientists and other business intelligence roles, and brands across the country are also looking for these crucial hires as they move towards stronger data-driven strategies.

This year has seen an incredible amount of change in agencies at a senior level, in Malaysia and across the region. There have been articles describing it as musical chairs. This will no doubt have a flow-on effect, as people we know often leave and join because of leadership. But we also know new leaders like to create their own teams, so this adds to the effect on retention and the talent pipeline. While this might be the current situation – and numerous agencies are adapting, and investing in their employer brand and value proposition – I believe there’s still a need to work harder to address turnover levels and the constant complaint of poor work-life balance.

In the agency scene, startups are becoming a more desirable place to work for Malaysian talent. Previously, candidates were skeptical and apprehensive, mainly due to concerns about sustainability and security. But self-funded start-ups, and entrepreneurial marketing and digital agencies are gaining traction among digital native talent, who see the roles being offered as challenging and innovative.

There’s a certain elimination of structures and processes that can stifle creativity – as well as less bureaucracy, more flexibility, and more disruptive digital strategies. In my observation, Malaysian start-ups have an interesting way of hiring – focusing on selling candidates on their dreams and ideology.

You can read the Mumbrella article here.

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