The expat talent influx: Advertising and marketing’s gain, but for how long?

Australia has long been known as a market that punches above its weight when it comes to the advertising and marketing industry. Overseas talent is keen to work here, and our talent often gets poached by brands and agencies in larger markets. But, during the past 14 months, many of the big names that departed Australia for global hubs have returned. Some have taken up key roles, others have seemingly returned and gone silent. Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan talks to some of those involved to try and find out what it all means, and whether it will last.

Since March year, Australia’s vast network of expats around the world have returned in numbers, as the ongoing pandemic has subsided, and Australian life has become less COVID-dominated.

There is an increased number of Australians returning to take up senior positions, which is contrasted with the well-documented talent shortage. But is this influx solely COVID related, and what might this mean for the local media and marketing industry moving forward?

During these 14 months we have seen a host of senior industry talent returning to our shores. Among those include, Anathea Ruys, new CEO of UM Australia, Nick Smith of Medium Rare Content Agency, Jackie-Lee Joe, former Netflix CMO, Jane Huxley, Are Media’s new CEO, recently returned from Spotify UK, Chris Brown, CMO at McDonalds, Matt Knapp, formerly Dollar Shave Club, Nicholas Ingate at HighSnobiety and Stephen de Wolf is returning after a stint as COO of Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London.

Officials welcome home repatriated Australians.

According to The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), as of 14 May, 538,000 Australians have returned home from overseas since March 2020, myself included. 36,000 remain registered with DFAT as having signalled their desire to come home, as arrival caps and increased commercial fares prohibit a smooth journey home.

Uprooting your life and moving abroad poses a challenge at any point in your life, but the stress and pressure that comes with moving back home in the midst of this pandemic is equally difficult.

Clemenger BBDO Melbourne’s Scott Balalas

Australia’s media, marketing and advertising expat community largely gravitates to the key international hubs of London and New York, both of which experienced a turbulent past 14 months. Looking from afar, the promise of a more comfortable, ‘normal’ and consequently happier life is an appealing prospect. For Australians with ambitions to eventually return here regardless, the decision was likely sped up.

“It was probably on our horizon to start actively thinking about a move coming back,” says Scott Balalas, Clemenger BBDO Melbourne’s new general manager. “But I think that opportunity, and the timing of that opportunity moved it up a little bit. We were probably a year away from actively trying to get back home.”

Seb Rennie is also making the move back after three years in Toronto, where he was GroupM Canada’s chief investment officer. It was recently announced that he would be taking up the same role back home, at GroupM Australia and New Zealand.

“We have had a great time in Canada, and met some incredible people, but a combination of factors meant it was time to come home,” said Rennie. “The impact of the pandemic was definitely one of them. It made us realise how much we missed Australia.”

At the time of speaking, both had yet to take up their roles, and life back in Australia. Rennie is set to return next month, while Balalas spoke to me from the confines of a hotel quarantine suite in Melbourne.

Group M’s Seb Rennie

“I think families get looked after pretty well. We’ve got a balcony, kitchen and two bedrooms,” said Balalas. “I think having lived in a tiny apartment in New York for six years, I’ve kind of had some pretty good training over the winters and getting used to hanging out inside a small space.”

Good training indeed, as Balalas minutes later stepped up from the call to deal with his crying daughter, before returning like this was clockwork to him.

Balalas moved to New York with his then girlfriend. Now six years later, they are married and are returning with two children. “I think the kids have been the main impetus for the move, […] we both grew up in and around Sydney and feel very lucky to have had the upbringing that we did.”

For those who didn’t return before the borders shut, prospects appeared fairly similar across the globe, there wasn’t any clear reason not to stick it out wherever you were. Nobody could have had the foresight to see what would follow. However, after multiple lockdowns both here and overseas, it was Australia which emerged first largely COVID-free.

Various inner city lockdowns weighed heavily on many overseas, far from family and familiarity, I know it did for me in London. For those who decided to stick it out, this may have been down to a number of factors, many moving out of the city to a more open and less draining setting.

“Some of them actually moved out of state. I felt the biggest trend was people moving out of New York and going to LA or Connecticut, places that were a bit safer and that allowed them to have more space,” said Balalas.

The initial shock and reaction to COVID was almost worldwide, but with ongoing lockdowns and little respite on the horizon (aside from vaccine rollouts, some more successful than others), the choice became more crystalised for some with time.

Personally, I made it to January before pulling the plug on three years in London, returning to my native Melbourne. What used to be a 24 hour flight was no more. The distance begins to wear on you, and while others, like myself, felt at home in London, it was not ‘home’. With plans to eventually move back, the decision to move those plans forward became the obvious choice.

I didn’t have a job lined up to come back to, but in saying that, I was without a job in London too, having completed a postgraduate degree just in time to enter the next set of lockdowns in the UK. While the process was an expensive one, it was the right decision.

“It always feels like, when there’s a group of Aussies in New York, there’s always a sense of, ‘when are you going home?’, not ‘are you?’” says Balalas.

“I’ve stayed connected to the team in Australia and an opportunity to return to GroupM Australia came up, and it felt like the right move personally and professionally,” echoes Rennie.

Rennie and Balalas are both returning at a point in their career where it is their own decision. Other expats may feel they are yet to achieve what they intended in a foreign country.

It’s not all one way traffic though. Lindsay Bennett recently took up the role of global head of marketing at DDB, and is set for a move to New York in August.

“A year ago now, our Australia and New Zealand CEO Marty O’Halloran became our global CEO, and he was across what we’ve been able to achieve in Australia and the way that I approach things. There was some movement in our global comms team, and he asked me to move to New York,” says Bennett.

“It’s the dream, right? You don’t say no to New York.”

Unsurprisingly, Bennett said ‘yes’, but with the caveat of only moving when it seemed safe to do so.

Lindsay Bennett, set for a move to New York

With the current global outlook, it appears most agree that Australia offers the best version of pandemic life. With this in mind, Bennett and her employers agreed a “safe date” for moving, rather than uprooting and moving across the pond while the pandemic continued to rage onwards.

The flipside of this wealth of senior talent returning to our shores, is the well-documented shortage of junior and mid-level talent available. Budgets have now begun to return to pre-pandemic levels, clients are returning, hiring freezes lifted and pay-cuts are disappearing. So where is the talent?

“There is definitely a lack of talent and not enough people to fill the growing number of roles that have opened up in the agency,” says Lynnette Edmonds, people and culture director at Edelman. “On one hand it’s great that growth is here, and people are hiring, but frustrating that due to a number of reasons we are struggling to find the talent for these roles”.

Closed borders mean that for those not in senior roles, a life-changing move back to Australia simply isn’t as feasible as it previously was. Many were unable to get back at the time they wanted to. I was lucky enough to get a government repatriation flight, but the short notice nature of them meant others were unable to uproot and leave within the fortnight.

“We actually had to pay massive overs to get on a flight,” says Balalas. “My wife stayed on the case and as the prices dropped, she called Delta and got the gap refunded, so we ended up paying a reasonably normal price to get home.”

Recent estimations from the Federal Government say the borders may stay shut well into 2022, so this is an issue that is not going away anytime soon.

“This is currently an industry-wide dilemma. Mainly due to closed borders and international talent not moving to Australia on working holidays which can eventually lead to permanent ongoing roles. We are very much missing the great international candidates that we have previously had applying for roles,” continues Edmonds.

Speaking to Bennett, she recalls when she started out in trade journalism, it was a completely different story.

“It became almost a cliche that any room that you walk into was half-full of Brits, right? It’s half Aussies, half Brits. And a lot of the management within agencies, when I was doing the job you’re doing, were British. And we’re not having that same talent come in.

The struggle to physically get here doesn’t mean there isn’t significant interest, however.

“There is definitely an influx of senior people from the overseas market proactively reaching out for possible roles,” says Pauly Grant, chief talent officer at Publicis ANZ. “These are a mix of returning Australians and non-Australians wanting to make the move here. Some people were waiting in the hope that the pandemic would improve in their country.”

Publicis’ Pauly Grant

And Edmonds agrees that there is a significant number of Australians looking to return, however there is an imbalance where they sit in their careers, with the industry in need of junior-mid level talent.

“There are certainly a number of people within our Edelman network that have either reached out through our global mobility program or we have connected pro-actively to see if they are looking to return back to Australia. These are mostly more senior people, but we welcome anyone from our Edelman offices or elsewhere looking to come home.”

Over the course of the pandemic, the desire to move back would not have been as strong were parts of Australia suffering as badly as other countries.

“Some people were waiting in the hope that the pandemic would improve in their country. But in places where there are still lockdowns, they are looking to make a move, including a lot of senior staff in global roles,” says Grant.

All of this senior talent returning should be a good thing for Australia. That is what those concerned think, anyway.

The issue remains that we have a shortage of talent in the in-between. Much like international talent hubs like the aforementioned New York and London, Australia has a reputation abroad that it continues to uphold. From all of those I spoke to for this article it was almost unanimous that Australia has an international reputation that it “punches above its weight”.

The bigger long-term question is whether that reputation takes a hit as the migration flows the industry is used to are blocked.

With a gap in the talent market right now, will our talent continue to grow in the same way it previously has, or will the change of culture, concentration of workplaces and lack of international talent coming to our shores change the global feel the market here has once offered?

While travel restrictions will likely stay how they are for the next year, if Prime Minister Scott Morrison follows through with not opening borders until mid-next year, the industry needs to prepare for the unknown beyond that, according to Grant.

Edelman’s Lynnette Edmonds

“We need to prepare for when the borders open. Expats will want to return home. And while this may not be long term, they will likely want to go home for an extended stay. Agencies will need to proactively plan for this. There is a depleted talent pool. We missed nearly a whole year of hiring entry level staff, and many agencies are now experiencing a hole in the number of junior-to-mid staff as a flow-on effect.”

With the return to offices still in progress, hybrid working-weeks and events ramping up, some believe this could provide the perfect opportunity to address some ongoing aspects of the industry.

In his regular Mumbrella column, Thinkerbell’s Ben Shepherd recently suggested that this might be the chance to place added trust in local talent, and assess the barriers in place stopping locals breaking into the market.

“And for those of us who are employers, in 2021 talent is holding the cards. Reward and inspire them and they’ll deliver in spades, do the opposite and you risk they leave you behind and find someone who does. Sure, it’s a challenge. But it will ultimately make us better and more adaptable to the needs of today’s talent. It will likely make us more attentive to our current talent. And it might even allow the space for cultural change and give us the opportunity to collectively look at the blockers to new talent entering our industry. As a manager this is something I find exciting, and I bet most others in my position do too.”

And Grant too agrees that now could be the ideal time to reconfigure some of the processes for juniors finding their way into local roles.

“There is no better time to use this as an opportunity to find new talent pools and address our industry’s diversity issue.”

Only time will tell how things play out from here.


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