This year’s Best Agencies to Work For research in Asia-Pacific suggests that a healthy level of pride among PR consultants is offset with a sense of uncertainty and even some frustration. The findings are based on the employee survey conducted by the Holmes Report, which polled almost 1,000 agency executives across more than 20 firms in the region.

Nearly half (46%) of respondents agreed wholeheartedly that they were proud to work for their respective companies, and more than 50% said they would readily recommend them as places to work.

If they were forced to look for employment elsewhere, some did say they would look to move to an in-house role. But the majority listed other agencies, ranging from big networks such as Edelman, BCW, Ogilvy, Weber Shandwick and FleishmanHillard to smaller outfits such as APCO, Hoffman, Brunswick, Rice, Lewis, AKA Asia, Zeno and Sling & Stone. Dentsu also featured, which given its minimal presence in the PR sector outside Japan suggests a few at least would still like to try their hand at advertising, even as PR agencies are increasingly attracting those who see more of a future in earned than paid media. 

Words used to describe agency culture by people who are part of the system included “fun”, “dynamic”, “creative”, “supportive”, “energetic”, “inclusive” and “flexible”, which matches the image that the industry sells to prospective employees (usually new graduates). Among the things people most appreciate about their workplaces are being empowered; their colleagues; a sense of openness and collaboration; and work-life balance—something that many surely find all too difficult to achieve. 

At the same time, less than 38% seem to fully believe that their leaders’ actions match their promises. One possible example of this relates to the hype senior executives are keen to generate around digital services. Just the same amount again are able to say with total confidence that they deliver “innovative digital solutions” to clients. 

“I would be surprised if any agency claimed it was exactly where it wanted to be in terms of digital solutions today,” says Matt Stafford, Asia-Pacific president of BCW, which was named this year’s Best Large Agency to Work For. He says digital is the company’s biggest talent growth area.

There are more personal concerns too. Only around a third of agency employees feel they are fairly paid, receive adequate training, and receive comprehensive career guidance. A quarter of respondents earn less than $20,000 a year. All of this might explain why turnover is still seen to be quite high. Again, only a third really seem to believe that their companies do a good job of holding onto staff.

Emma Dale, co-founder and managing director of the PR recruitment specialist Prospect, attributes turnover at the junior level to a desire to gain varied experience and broaden skillsets. She sees more stability at the senior level.

The majority of respondents (nearly 60%) are convinced that their agencies value ethnic and racial diversity. Also encouraging was that more than 60% believe their agencies empower female leaders. That doesn’t mean that diversity issues don’t exist, though. Women account for three quarters of the agency workforce, a proportion that often decreases towards the top of the agency tree.

The same is true when it comes to age. Less than 30% fully agree that their companies provide opportunities to the over-50s. With a number of Asian economies ageing rapidly, it follows that the communications industry requires people who can relate directly to the senior demographic.

Seniors can of course take some action to strengthen their own position. In response to the observation that agencies are probably not where they want to be in terms of digital services, Dale notes that senior agency members who lack hands-on experience of social and digital media can expect to face problems at some point in their careers. 

“Individuals at all levels need to be upskilling in order to keep up to date with technology trends,” she says.

If age discrimination is a problem that has yet to be addressed, agencies do seem to be reasonably tough on harassment. But even here there is room for improvement. If they were to experience or witness sexual harassment, 73% would feel comfortable reporting it to their boss; the same percentage said their firms do not tolerate harassment. That leaves more than 25% who do not feel fully protected—a worryingly high figure in supposedly enlightened times.

Of course, no industry is perfect and the study does suggest that many who choose agency life do enjoy it. But companies do need to face up to the fact that while people might be proud to be there, they don’t necessarily see it as a long-term option.

This is especially true in Asia-Pacific, where staff retention tends to be much lower than in the US or Europe, Stafford says. “It is up to agency leaders to give our staff good reasons to stay with us for the long-term,” he thinks. This means road-mapping careers, developing skills, offering new experiences and generally creating a fun, inspiring environment through the makeup of the organisation. It sounds like common sense, but is clearly difficult to achieve.

As the research shows, money is important too. But it “should never be the sole factor when considering a job”, Stafford says. This year, BCW has worked to upgrade its employee benefits, which he says now include flexible working, freer movement between global offices, and increased leave entitlement.

In short, the average agency would do well to put more thought into what it can offer its employees, as well as what that reserve of “talent” can do for the business. “Staff training is where I see a lot of agencies falling short,” he adds. “I am obsessed with training, with developing a fascinating and relevant curriculum, and identifying the best people to facilitate this curriculum.”