The global talent shift: how location-based hiring has become adland’s latest relic

Remember Madison Avenue? Today, the very idea of advertising agency talent being anchored to one block, one city or even one country is quickly becoming obsolete. The industry has achieved a flexibility like never before. As part of The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive, we look at what’s working and why.

Want to get a picture of today’s global talent landscape? Look no further than Johanna Lubin. Her journey to becoming creative producer at Media.Monks only could have happened in this moment.

Lubin’s foray into advertising began at DDB Paris in her homeland of France. She then moved to Canada on a temporary visa in 2019 and got a job at a bookstore. Lubin spent the next six months networking with agencies in New York and Los Angeles in the hope of landing a dream job in one of those cities. Everything was trending in the right direction until Covid hit, which created complications with her visa situation, and she lost the job that she was gunning for.

But, as fate would have it, Media.Monks called and arranged to hire Lubin to work in Toronto albeit directly with its San Francisco team. After three months, the window to obtain her US visa opened again and she finally settled in Los Angeles in December.

Lubin credits the company’s P&L model, its ability to work seamlessly across time zones and its willingness to “hire people based on skills, personality, experience and stories instead of geographical location.”

While this is a somewhat unique story, many aspects of it have become increasingly less unusual. For one, geographic location is no longer anchored to New York, Los Angeles and other key cities. “Location historically has been the backbone not only of open roles but also the way a person searched for their next job. That’s all changed,” says Amy Oliver, chief people officer, AKQA. “We want to hire the best resources without location being an unnecessary blocker for us or new talent. Most recruitment systems are still set up by location, but we’ve changed our application approach by allowing designers, developers, strategists and creatives to apply for general disciplines regardless of location.”

Amid a tight labor market and an increased demand for a variety of non-traditional talent, this “best talent from anywhere” mindset is a sea change for the advertising industry as a whole. This especially true when it comes to diverse hiring practices, says Simon Fenwick, executive vice-president of talent, equity and inclusion at The 4A’s. “Sourcing talent from virtually anywhere in the world offers the opportunity to diversify teams and the solutions they create like never before. With a heightened willingness to do things differently, like sourcing global talent and putting further emphasis on working virtually, the industry has the opportunity to create content that reaches people from all walks of life in a more profound way, giving those agencies a competitive edge that lasts.”

Unearthing gems in Brazil, China and beyond

For TBWA\Chiat\Day, the talent search involves slashers, pirates and more. Its ‘Slashers’ initiative was born in 2017, but is now more relevant than ever. This global program, established in Asia, helps talent find opportunities outside their home markets or to return to their native market. Case in point: Bryan Siy, previously executive creative director at TBWA\SMP Philippines, moved to TBWA\Indonesia to become chief creative officer. With the uncertainty created by the pandemic, Slashers has become even more important as increasing numbers of expatriate workers are considering moving home to Asia.

‘The Pirate Collective,’ meanwhile, was created in China to attract creative talent from outside adland for project work. It has grown 30% in the past 12 months across Asia Pacific and TBWA plans to scale it globally. The initiative attracts and builds a high-caliber creative community from a diverse range of backgrounds to partner with TBWA on project basis in producing top work for some of the world’s leading brands.

Overall, “the TBWA collective was poised to work well in this sort of hybrid and flexible environment. Our NYC office has even used the unofficial tagline of ‘New York hustle, global muscle.’ Meaning that we are set up to easily tap into resources in our offices around the world and staff up where we choose,” says Monica Torres, TBWA’s executive director of global recruiting. “It’s worked well for us and our clients on a few fronts: creating a culture where our best talent develops our up-and-coming talent, organic mobility and knowledge sharing.”

In Brazil, meanwhile, São Paulo had long served as an epicenter of Brazil’s advertising universe. Realizing that it now has the opportunity to look beyond one of the planet’s most populated cities for talent, AKQA debuted ‘AKQA in your home.’

Diego Machado, creative director at AKQA São Paulo, says the agency was “missing some of the sparkling creative manifestations across the country, so we went out on a quest for talents from peripheral markets.”

‘AKQA in your home’ gives talent from other parts of Brazil the chance to work on projects “that they would never have access to, and for us, the chance to unveil and learn from diverse richness of thoughts put into our work,” says Machado. “If we want to efficiently communicate to the broader country, it’s important to partner with the ones experiencing the local sub-cultures in person.”

Return to work: let’s get physical?

JLL is one of the world’s leading commercial real estate companies. Whether it was looking at its customers or its own employees, it has been at the forefront of return-to-work and what it does or does not look like.

Katie Duncan, head of human resources, Americas, JLL, says: “The genie is out of the bottle in terms of workplace flexibility. The pandemic accelerated this pre-existing trend into high gear, where for years companies have been adapting their policies to meet the needs of an increasingly liquid workforce. Looking ahead, how and where we work will continue to evolve, but that doesn’t diminish the need for physical office space.”

JLL research finds that employees miss the socialization, collaboration and work-life boundaries the office provides, and the majority of people will prefer to work from the office at least three days a week moving forward. However, “as companies continue to redefine their business priorities through the lens of employee wellbeing, we must remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to bringing people back to the office,” says Duncan. “Policy decisions will fluctuate, but what’s most important is that companies explore the solutions that fit and flex with their organization best.”

Overall, this employee-first mindset has become pervasive when it comes to attracting talent, says Pree Rao, consultant at the global management and executive search firm Egon Zehnder. “Everyone’s work and home life blurred so much that people got to see the humanity in each other up close, and the end result is more empathy that I think underpins much of the shift in the recruiting landscape.”

When it comes to recruiting top executives, “it’s a candidate’s market right now and companies are more willing to meet candidates on their terms, which includes flexible work arrangements where executives don’t have to uproot their family as long as there is alignment up front on travel arrangements and time to be spent on the ground,” says Rao.

“Maybe asking someone to uproot their family doesn’t sit well with a hiring manager who saw the candidate’s kids chasing the puppy around the room while the executive remained cool and composed. Fundamentally, seeing much more closely the many different challenges everyone navigated provided everyone with a deeper appreciation of what people are up against. So now, those driving the decision-making process are – whether consciously or not – more purposeful in thinking about how work and personal intersect for the human being.”

So, what will happen five years from now? How will people feel about remote work and travel in a more normalized market? Are candidates going to want to keep doing that? Are companies going to be willing to make it possible? “Those answers may continue to evolve but the empathy, the efficiency, the nimbleness, I do think those are here to stay,” says Rao.

In the meantime, the opportunities to stretch the boundaries of what is possible feel seemingly endless. Lubin says to look no further than her experience for proof. “If anyone else out there reading this is in a similar situation, my advice is to take a leap of faith and pursue your dream job.”

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For more on how technology and trends are bringing the world together, check out The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.