Do Malaysian advertising professionals want to return home?

According to a new study by Robert Walters, 60% of overseas Malaysian professionals are interested in returning home.

The main reasons include “caring for ageing parents” and “affinity with the culture back at home”. These professionals also recognise the demand for local talent who have worked overseas and feel they will be able to command higher pay and greater career progression.

The study also pointed out the three things employers could do to ensure a smoother transition back to Malaysia – offering an attractive salary increment (32%), a holistic employment packages and benefits (30%) and mapping out a clear career progression path (12%).

In Malaysia, we often see ad agency folks complain the industry is facing a lack of talent with many potential gems leaving for better opportunities overseas. We sit down with several who have come back to Malaysia to see what factors drew them home.

According to Sean Sim, CEO of McCann, who came back to Malaysia only last year, there were two things that influenced his decision. One was to spend more time with his family and friends back home, after being away for nearly a decade. The second – he was attracted to the resurgence of McCann in the region.

The reason for leaving for China was simple. He said: “It was the second biggest economy in the world, with the fastest growing consumer market. There were a lot of opportunities for me to see, learn and do over there. It was the world stage. Shanghai had quickly become a global marketing and creation centre for multinational clients. From there, I had the opportunity to handle global accounts and regional roles in APAC.”

Paul Low, business director at Carat Malaysia, who worked in China for eight years, of which four were with Posterscope China as account director, said: “When I was still young and energetic, I wanted to see the world, expand my horizon, explore new opportunities and gain valuable experience to upskill myself.”

But Low explained in the later years, he realised that home was where his heart was and his heart had always been with his family in Malaysia. That is why he decided to return home in 2012 despite having good prospects in China.

“Thankfully, Dentsu Aegis Network, which Posterscope is a part of, has a great inclusive talent programme in place making my transition back fairly seamless as I was offered a group account director role at Posterscope Malaysia. Subsequently, I advanced to be business director at Carat Malaysia, which is also part of the network,” he said.

Paul Lim, deputy executive creative director of Naga DDB, echoed the same sentiments of Malaysia being home. Lim, who just joined the agency on 1 August was based in Hong Kong where he worked for Cheil Hong Kong as creative director for two years. Lim was also a creative director with Saatchi & Saatchi Hong Kong and Ogilvy Hong Kong for two and four years respectively.

Personal reasons aside, I still respect and enjoy Malaysia’s creative culture. The attitude of play and experimentation is alive and well here and bodes well for any creative person looking to create and explore.

But as always there are two sides of a coin. Transitioning back home isn’t always easy.
For one, just because people are interested in returning doesn’t mean that local employers will have an easy time attracting them back.
In fact, according to the study, 88% of hiring managers polled in Southeast Asia, including ones in Malaysia, said they faced challenges in attracting and recruiting talent.

A no to coming back

Another point to take note of is: not all want to actually come back home.

Ted Lim, chief creative officer of Dentsu Asia Pacific (excluding Japan), said there were three aspects as to why he is working overseas – personal development (in terms of global exposure and experience), financial and political considerations.
On the financial aspect, he explained the depreciating ringgit was a concern and:

No one moves for less money.

He noted many Malaysians (not just the advertising industry) are working in the US, UK, Australia, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. In addition, in China for example, he said some Malaysians were paid three times more than what they get in their homeland.

“Malaysians are typically hard-working and creative. If you’re good and flexible to travel and relocate, people want you,” he said, adding it helps that many Malaysians can speak different dialects and languages apart from English such as Malay (for Indonesia) and Cantonese (Hong Kong and China).

Lim, who moved to Singapore five years ago, looks after 30 offices in 15 countries from China to New Zealand. For now, he’s not thinking of moving back and even if he does one day, it will be for his family, friends and the “delicious local food the country can offer”.

Former deputy creative director at iris Singapore, Tim Chan, who’s now creative director at GOVT Singapore, said he had been working in Singapore for six years now and at this point of his career, it was highly unlikely he would go back in the near future.

“I miss home and all of its madness sometimes, but there’s unfinished business here, so I’ll just keep going here and see where that takes us,” he said.

How hard is it to attract talent back to Malaysia?

Sim was of the view that it was actually pretty hard to hire people to come back to Malaysia given the economy isn’t exactly healthy and the currency has been spiralling downwards. Remuneration packages overseas are often much better than what is being offered locally.

One way to overcome this might be to offer them a bigger job role to commensurate with their wider experience and accumulated expertise. That said, Malaysia also has the Returning Experts Programme (REP) which offers incentives for experienced talent to come back home. However, not many people seem to know of it.

Opportunity is also lacking in Malaysia in terms of what young ad folk can learn and experience.

“For example, if you really want to explore how fast digital innovations and mobile marketing are expanding in consumer markets, try China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan.
“Clients there are much more digitally savvy and pushing their agencies harder in this area. In Malaysia, even though digital is growing, it comprises of just 9% of total media spend. Traditional channels like print and TV still dominate.”

However, Kristian Lee, CEO of Naga DDB, who recently hired several overseas Malaysians, was more optimistic in the matter saying the “lure of returning to their homeland remains strong, given the right opportunity”.
The key is obviously to provide them with a compelling reason to return to a market that is struggling from an economic standpoint as well as one that is perhaps creatively lagging behind other growing markets.

“In the future, we hope to take that a step further by creating an environment whereby one might still be able to find a work-life balance not typically associated with our industry.

“To make that happen, it would go beyond evolving the product, but also the culture, systems and processes that would allow for returning talent to enjoy a lucrative enough package and also the challenge of creating a new organisation that allows for our ambitions to fully come to fruition,” he said

He added that bringing back local talent from overseas markets now was a must considering how fast other markets in the region were evolving and the nature of marketing and advertising itself.

Clients and agencies recognise that we cannot adopt an insular mentality and simply focus on what is happening in the local scene.

“To this effect, the influx of talent returning from overseas with broad perspectives and added learnings might very well be a shot in the arm for local agencies,” he said

This latest Robert Walters report asked some 650 job seekers and hiring managers in Southeast Asia across Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand from June to December 2015.

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