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Can Malaysia keep its senior agency talent?

Like the ad industries in any other markets, Malaysia’s agency scene finds itself in a talent shortage. While ad activity and budgets for the Malaysian ad market remain high, ad agency leaders are lamenting similar concerns.

While the birthplace of several industry greats such as the late Yasmin Ahmad, its agency leaders are increasingly concerned as their top creatives and talent seem to be moving out of the market, with few returning.

Aaron Cowie, CEO, TBWA KL in a conversation with A+M said the talent shortage is real and not limited to the marketing and advertising industry alone. “If we look at the advertising industry and agencies specifically, we have not been as attractive as we used to be,” he said.

“We used to be able to attract graduates from a wide variety of disciplines, such as Law, Accountancy, Geology, Philosophy, Engineering etc. We see less of that today with mostly graduates from communication and marketing related disciplines,” said Cowie.

While the ad industry’s shrinking margins are well-reported, what is rising is the competition from the region’s markets.

“Quality talent are seeking job opportunities overseas as they see it as more lucrative. We have not been able to match the pay levels that they are able to secure in China, Hong Kong or even Singapore,” added Cowie.

AiRene Tan, manager, Robert Walters Malaysia, said that In addition to competitive salary packages, quality Malaysian talent often seek overseas opportunities for an expanded job scope and regional opportunities.

Malaysia’s home-grown talent

Dinesh Sandhu, regional touchpoints director, Southeast Asia at Hakuhodo Communications Asia’s, also Malaysia-born, said his first role was at  McCann Erickson Malaysia, having been “lured by the glitzy lights” of the ad world. However, he was soon lured to move overseas.

“Singapore’s lure was too strong to resist in the late 90’s. As a creative hub, the Singaporean agencies were making waves on the global stage. The opportunity to ply my trade at TBWA Singapore was a persuasive argument. The network was famous for great work on Apple, Absolut and Acura. TBWAChiat Day was the stuff of legend. How does one turn that down? So I didn’t,” said Sandhu.

Ted Lim, chief creative officer, Dentsu Asia, also Malaysia-born, said: “There is definitely good homegrown talent in the market, but the outflow is stronger than the inflow.”

Lim points out several names from the Malaysia creative industry that are doing well in other markets now: Ronald Ng, chief creative officer of DigitasLBi USA; Joel Lim,creative director of Holler UK; Kevin Lee, executive creative director and partner, Leagas Delaney China; Paul Swee,‎ executive creative director at McCann Worldgroup HK; Paul Lim, creative director, Cheil Hong Kong; Edmund Choe, ‎chief creative officer Singapore and Southeast Asia TBWA Group Asia Pacific and Brian Capel, group executive creative director, Leo Burnett Indonesia.

“There are some understandable pull factors on why talented creatives leave Malaysia. People like to venture, it’s a natural tendency of the ambitious,” said Lim, when asked on his decision to move to to other markets. When asked if he would consider moving back to Malaysia for work, Lim said that he had not considered it.

While it is a natural progression for the talented to move overseas, some have said that Malaysia needs to do more to pull in talent.

Lim conceded that it is difficult for Malaysia to bring in talent, for multiple factors – the Malaysian Ringgit is doing badly, and political challenges are a push factor.

The question is: Can Malaysia hold on to its agency talent?

Sandhu believes that it can. “ Those who have performed have been rewarded handsomely. It is a modern country with some of the nicest people one will ever meet, great food & culture, easy going way of life, some edginess that every country needs and the ability to laugh at itself once in a while. Some of the best marketing work to come out of Malaysia has been culturally rich, poignant, warm, real and enduring,” said Sandhu.

Agency leaders were mixed on this. Here’s what they had to say:

David Mitchell, CEO, NagaDDB

David Mitchell

If I was a young, bright eyed and inquisitive why would I want to work for an industry that over works its employees for not particularly good pay serving large corporations who only seem interested in selling more products or services?

But if I told you, you could make a difference, doing work that bettered people’s lives via brand platforms that provide utility and value in an environment that promoted fun and play, then we’d might have a chance.

Agencies have been slow to change. Change however is difficult because we’ve created a system that encumbers its people with mindless wastage and little room to play – an essential part of being truly creative. It’s a process – we need better systems that streamline thinking, more discipline to unearth real issues for our clients and a new way of thinking to help navigate an increasingly complex ecosystem.

Mazuin Zin, managing director, Lowe & Partners Malaysia

Mazuin Zin of Lowe Malaysia

Malaysia is as blessed with marketing talent as any other market is in the region. However, the real question lies in how we define this talent. Do we continue to search for most promising marketing brains in the most obvious places? Do we give extend enough invitations for professionals to cross over from other fields, leading to cross-pollination of ideas? Do as agencies and an industry we have a talent nurturing program? Are we training them for present or future business needs?

Strictly in our view, the advertising & marketing business as we all grew up into, has transformed phenomenally. However, the ‘talent scouting techniques’ haven’t. Whilst most progressive marketing client organisations have a structured, well thought out talent mentoring and progression plan, on the agency side we end up sparing youngsters only for a few highly industry intrinsic programs, which seldom help stretch their imagination to grow. Sure, “how to motivate millennials” is currently the biggest HR and Corporate challenge world over, but organisations seem to have identified a strategic way forward in creating a buy-in and a progression plan for these future leaders.

For all of us at agencies, we will need to take cues from corporations like Accenture, Sapient, Oracle, IBM, and others who interestingly are looking at the business of marketing seriously and have managed to either grow talent from within or create a conducive creative environment within technology ecosystems for promising marketing brains of future to prosper.

Read also: Competitor alert: Agencies, are you ready?
Are agencies irreplaceable?

Sailesh Wadhwa, strategy planning director, Lowe & Partners Malaysia

AMMY_Futurist_2014_Lowe Malaysia_Sailesh

Malaysia, due to its growing geographical business advantage, presents a unique world class working environment that blends opportunities of originating multiple market projects from here without losing out on the pace and quality of life. As an increasing number of corporations starting to have a dual regional presence shared between Malaysia and Singapore, Malaysia’s advertising and marketing industry is blessed with the best in business exposure be it first to adopt new marketing technologies or float a new marketing discipline.

With every passing year Malaysia continues to present an even more promising picture. On the issue of Malaysians going out of country in lure of money and exposure – this is a universal phenomenon. In fact there have been instances of many star performers going out to gain international experience and returning better prepared to help up the local industry benchmarks.

New interesting sources for talent for the industry would be beyond conventional advertising and communication schools, instead reaching out to either fresh graduates who have got both the hunger and desire to learn fresh.

We have received requests from grads from design, multimedia, retail, shopper and media disciplines too. As for training and nurturing programs there are a lot of best practices from other industry disciplines and client organisations that are readily available as inspiration based cases. However the larger message here is that HR needs to play an even strategic role in agencies beyond recruitment.

Read also: Addressing the issue of foreign talent
3 talent trends that will shape the industry

Aaron Cowie, CEO, TBWA KL

aaron cowie1

Yes, we are facing a talent shortage and it is not just in the marketing and advertising industry. Many industries in Malaysia are facing a talent shortage. In many cases, it is a shortage of quality talent with the right skills and attitude.

If we look at the advertising industry and agencies specifically, we have not been as attractive as we used to be. We used to be able to attract graduates from a wide variety of disciplines, such as Law, Accountancy, Geology, Philosophy, Engineering etc. We see less of that today with mostly graduates from Communication and Marketing related disciplines. In recent years, with squeezed and lower margins, ad agencies is finding it difficult to pay as well as the other industries such as banking, finance and telecommunications. This situation poses a challenge for us to attract good talent or graduates from non communication disciplines.

The 4As and ad agencies have made efforts over the last few years to bring exposure to college and university students on the prospects of the advertising industry. Many students have no, if not, little knowledge of the ad industry. We hope that over time we will be able to attract the right talents.

The issue is also compounded by the brain drain, where quality talent are seeking job opportunities overseas as they see it as more lucrative. We have not been able to match the pay levels that they are able to secure in China, Hong Kong or even Singapore.

I have been in the industry for 24 years and I guess what has kept me in it for so long is the passion that I have for it and for the daily challenges it offers. If I did not have the passion I would not have stayed this long as there have been opportunities along the way for me to move out of the industry. When it came to the crunch I stayed on.

I don’t see myself doing anything different over the next few years and will likely continue doing it for some years to come.

Read also: To attract talent, you need star CMOs
Is our industry attracting the right talent

Alvin Teoh, executive creative director, Naga DDB

alvin teoh

While there are still very talented and promising talents in the industry and country, it’s being thinned-out by the lure of other countries, yes, but also to digital and also media agencies looking into setting up their own creative services. And the new talents joining the workforce with a Gen-Y type mindset (I am generalising and speaking from stereotyping) are more attracted digital set-ups. So yeah, we’re beginning to feel there is a shortage of talents here.

But where did we go wrong? When did the decline happen here? My answer is not absolute, but I have a suspicion. What drew me to the ad industry was that it was challenging and it was exciting. It gave me a chance to display my creativity and there was a sense of exploration. That’s an epic effect on a young man. There was a sense of purpose and we lived and breathe it.

These feelings were encapsulated and expressed via the creative awards, ironically, designed to rise the standard of work in the country. But although I didn’t know it then, and while we may be inspired by good work, we were more inspired to win and to win at any cost. So, most times, and with the client’s blessings, we created initiative (made-for-awards) work. This went on for many years and writing as an ECD who’s gone through all that, winning a creative award means the world to a creative person.

The downward spiral began when we placed winning above all things. We did not spend time reflecting on what we were doing. We became reactive, mindless, driven by ego, and left unchecked, we got our hands soiled in the world of scam ads. (I am guilty too.) Many years went by and this habit reached new heights. And we became blind to the fact that the work has lost it’s meaning. A creative award only meant the world to us creative peeps. It was a self-delusional world where we create (many, but not all) fake work and then self-award ourselves and pat ourselves in the back as if we cured cancer. The bubble has pop. And still, many refuse to accept it.

Many would agree that the icon of the industry is Yasmin Ahmad. While I totally agree, I feel it is a little unfair to say so because personally, there are still many amazing talents here with great vision that go unnoticed. But let’s take her as an example. Why is she an icon? I’ll answer that in one sentence:

She created work that mattered to people.

That’s all she did. It was authentic, straight from the heart. I sensed she cared a lot for things outside of herself. It was as real as it could get.

Many say we’re a dying industry. I don’t think we’re dying. I think we’re evolving. And that gives me hope. So I guess I’ll stick around a little while more.

[Image by Shutterstock]

What are your thoughts on Malaysia’s talent situation for the marketing and advertising industry? Reach me at

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