How can firms in HK counter the talent drain amidst departures in the city?

Hong Kong’s marketing industry is losing many of its skilled workers as more than 10% of practitioners have left the city, according to a recent survey conducted by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce (HKGCC). While the marketing industry was well behind engineering and finance, dealing with the sudden exodus of talent hasn’t been easy for agencies and brands as client relationships and project delivery take a hit.

Expectedly, the survey highlighted that it is the larger companies that suffered from greater impact than SMBs, with 45% of these organisations saying that had been adversely affected. Comparatively, only 29% of SMBs said they had been impacted.

Although more than half (58%) of respondents expected the emigration-induced turnover to stabilise in 2022, 35% of respondents were less optimistic and anticipated more skills shortages. According to IAB Hong Kong, it is fair to say that there are more foreign executives leaving the country than those relocating in Hong Kong. The recent outbreak and management of it has been a catalyst for this talent pool (especially for those with children) wanting to depart. The prolonged home-schooling, handling of the crisis and healthcare systems, have created a lot of frustration in the expat community, a spokesperson explained.

“However there are also a number of people relocating temporarily, with the plan to come back to Hong Kong in a few months when the outbreak has passed,” she added.

Helen Duffy, APAC CEO of executive search firm Grace Blue added that company data has indicated that companies within Hong Kong are still looking for overseas talent – which could include talent from beyond the APAC region, from within Asia, or those originally from Hong Kong who are currently in roles outside their home market who might be open to coming home.

“Our experience at Grace Blue is that a move to actively bring a candidate into the market now is more likely to be at the senior or leadership level, given the effort required,” said Duffy. Largely, looking for leadership candidates beyond Hong Kong is driven by a particular strategic need and business imperative, explained Duffy. However the increased difficulty of movement into the market right now, the challenges candidates face when in the market, and the attendant costs required to settle family members into a new home, does unfortunately mean that the number of foreign talent relocating into Hong Kong has now become much lower than in pre-pandemic times.

“Hong Kong’s Zero COVID approach, which substantially limits travelling, means talent currently overseas is cautious on accepting any offer to relocate to Hong Kong. Some candidates accepting offers are making temporary accommodation arrangements outside of Hong Kong and working remotely until the easing of border restrictions,” said Duffy. “It is not unusual to see those from overseas actively look for opportunities back home or in other countries in APAC. There have been several regional MDs temporarily moving their families abroad, so they reclaim their travel freedom and can visit their offices spread across the region,” said Duffy

Talents in demand in Hong Kong

According to Duffy, the reasons for looking beyond Hong Kong for leadership talent are a plenty. Many companies are bringing in foreign talent for a fresh perspective, proven leadership track record, wider geographical perspectives and multi-market experience, specialist capability amogst others. However, the search for good talent proves to be a challenge.

Those at the leadership level with a progressive and transformative approach with a track record in regional/international roles to bring in different perspectives and a breadth of experience, are the ones in most demand said Duffy. Having a bilingual or trilingual asset to meet client needs in China, are also favoured.

To counter the shortage, Duffy says it might be worth the while of brands and agencies to make internal transfers if there are individuals interested in a move into Hong Kong for a number of years. That said, in marketing, given the requirement to assimilate into a country and have consumer understanding, it is difficult for a candidate to come “cold” without experience in other Asia markets, or a cultural curiosity to assimilate and understand.

“It is always a piece of luck if, during a search, we can unlock candidates who may be open to returning home to Hong Kong, perhaps for personal reasons,” said Duffy.

IAB Hong Kong’s board added that given brands and marketers are now big on digital transformation, senior talent with digital skills is a big focus.  Senior level jobs such as chief marketing officer, marketing director, digital heads, data analytic experts are in high demand.

“Senior talents needed in our market are expected to have the bold vision with strong execution plan. Also, they must be in growth mindset with agility (move fast and response quickly and strategically), be hands-on, and lead by example with more bottoms up for feedback versus top-down authorities approach,” said the spokesperson.

As a band-aid to the problem, IAB Hong Kong also noted that companies are looking internally to fill up positions left by foreign talent – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For starters, this makes local staff retention easier and creates more opportunities for career development and aspiration for locals. Moreover, the hiring of local talent also reduces overall operational cost of companies choosing to operating in the market.

“We also found that more companies (such as start-up, tech firms or FinTech) are now more willing to hire the people from other industries. This enables wider synergies and wider perspectives for the business,” the spokesperson added.

Meanwhile a study from Hays also highlighted that the rise of crypto start-ups pushing up average market salary in Hong Kong. As crypto exchange and trading comes to the fore of public awareness, crypto start-ups are simultaneously expanding operations in Hong Kong SAR, particularly their marketing and digital functions.

Over the last year, this aggressive expansion has reflected in remuneration, with candidates commanding a higher than average monthly salary despite being relatively new to the industry.

That said, as the sector matures in 2022, marketing and digital teams will see more specialisation. This is already reflected in the rising demand for performance marketing, social media content, and digital copywriting roles.

Digital marketing teams will focus on lead generation and conversion instead of purely raising brand awareness. Companies are also coming to recognise the importance of SEO and digital copywriting, and increasing their investment in performance marketing. With consumer and loyalty engagement in the spotlight In the last year, the focus on big data infrastructure, advanced customer relationship management (CRM) approaches such as analytics and strategy planning, and consumer engagement has increasingly blurred the line between technical, business, and marketing functions.

In 2022, the spotlight will be on loyalty engagement marketing and customising customer experience through digital platforms such as mobile apps and WeChat. As more businesses expand into this area, employers in Hong Kong will be on the lookout for candidates with strong business acumen as well as technical skills in data analytics and experience with mass loyalty programmes. The rarity of such candidates will drive up the salaries for these role.

By Rezwana Manjur