Overseas talent is back in Australia just as roles shrink in adland

Ashley Regan
By Ashley Regan | 19 April 2024
Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

Overseas talent is returning to Australia by the plane-load after a three year pause due to COVID but, with widespread redundancies in adland, is there space for them?

The 2021-22 year saw the great resignation, where employees came out of a COVID slumber hungry for the next chapter in their careers.

Then came the talent war reshuffle of 2022-23, where employees jumped from job to job as agencies paid top dollar to fill an empty seat.

The lack of talent was so dire, the Independent Media Agencies of Australia (IMAA) launched a trade advertising campaign selling the appealing Australian lifestyle to British media agency talent.

IMAA CEO Sam Buchanan told AdNews the UK campaign has been a slow burn to attract British talent to come to Australia and work with the vibrant indie media agency sector. 

“We are in the process now of collecting data from the campaign and our members to see how it's resonated,” Buchanan said.

Now in 2024 employees are mostly staying with their current job because there is a sense of fear around cost of living and job security.

But with thousands of visa holders now allowed back into Australia and redundancies rising in adland, the talent pool is deep but opportunities fewer. 

Aquent Australia practice manager for design and technology Lee Shorter told AdNews the recruitment agency is placing fewer than a quarter of the UK/US visa holders that they used to because there is no need for them.

“There's so much talent on the market due to the reduction of open roles, redundancies etc, there's no real need for an agency to pay visa costs to bring talent from overseas,” Shorter said.

The Media Federation of Australia (MFA) is also seeing a decline in the number of open roles available, CEO Sophie Madden told AdNews.

"But that’s not unique to our industry - with the increased cost of living biting into consumer spending, and flowing on to decreased ad spend, agencies are not immune to the cyclical nature of the economy," Madden said.

"In saying that, there are a number of agencies advertising new roles at the moment, indicating that growth is still on the cards.

"It’s important to remember that over the past five years, we’ve seen a 25% growth in the population of Australian media agencies, currently employing 4,778 peopleThis is a remarkable result against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, offshoring and the rise of AI affecting all industries.

"So, while agencies may be growing at a slower rate right now, our industry continues to be dynamic, innovative and adaptive to evolving client needs. The longer-term outlook is certainly positive, with a commitment to diversity and inclusion and a focus on employee wellbeing."


According to the MFA census survey released in January, the industry in 2023 saw a 41% year-on-year increase in the number of employees on visas.

Half (54%) of visas are at the manager and executive levels, with three to eight years’ experience - this level of experience is also hard to fill, which explains the higher proportion of international candidates the MFA told AdNews.

As of September 2023, 17% of media agency employees are on visas – that’s 795 people in an industry population of 4,778 people. 

The majority of visa holders are in in-demand roles that are hard to fill, in the areas of implementation, client service, programmatic and performance, according to the MFA.

Publicis Groupe chief talent officer ANZ Pauly Grant told AdNews rescaling is happening everywhere.

“What is interesting is that [the increase in visas] is coming from a low base, because we didn't have visa employees in 2020 and 2021 [due to the pandemic]. So, that’s probably where the increases come from.”

The MFA statistic rings more true for other recruiters AdNews spoke with.

Recruitment specialist iknowho said recruiting for the exec and manager patch within creative ad agencies about 38% of agency candidates placed have held a visa, compared to only 25% the previous year. 

Creative Natives said about 20-25% of the people the creative, digital and marketing recruitment agency is placing at the moment have recently arrived in Australia on a working holiday visa looking for a long term option such as sponsorship.

UK and Ireland is the most prominent talent making the jump to adland but there’s also a small but consistent flow of candidates from Asia, Scandinavia and South & Central Americans, such as Colombia & Mexico.

While DMCG Global managing partner Simon Hadfield too has seen a rise in international candidates, it doesn’t feel greater than pre-COVID numbers.

“I think maybe we’re all suffering from short term memory loss? We’re simply reverting back to how things were, which is great,” Hadfield said.

“Considering everything that is going on around the globe, we seem to have it pretty good and I guess you can’t blame them. Ideally they’re here for a few years as nobody really wants the 12 month ‘holiday’ placement.”

iknowho senior talent partner Riza Karis said this trend reflects a diverse pool of talent emerging from overseas since borders have opened, many of whom had previous re-locations plans put on hold thanks to COVID.

“Just under 70% of those visa holders placed in the past year were at the junior to mid-level, not surprisingly given the visa age restrictions,” Karis said.

“However, since the start of 2024, there has been an increase in job briefs requesting full working rights as a requirement for permanent roles in creative agencies. 

“The lack of appetite to sponsor at these levels may be a reflection on an increase in available local talent and a tightening fiscal economy.”

Interestingly, Karis said visa holders make an immediate impact in the agency freelance space, sometimes even securing roles before they land. 

“From a talent perspective, this is refreshing as it brings diversity of thought to teams and a wider, more agile talent pool. With the increase in visa holders, we’re able to fill freelance requirements faster than previous years – sometimes within a few hours!” Karis said.

Creative Natives senior consultant Cameron McKay agrees that visa holder talent is yet to reach pre-COVID levels.

“The cost of living is a global issue that’s probably making it harder for people to save up the money needed to move to the other side of the world,” McKay said.

“Interestingly candidates from London often have high salary expectations for the market here and as a recruiter, we have to educate on those expectations.

“There are also occasions where senior creative talent can struggle to find work which comes as a surprise to them. They have often been operating in a space such as AI or VR that the Australian market hasn’t caught up with yet.

“Pre-COVID there was a lot of French, German and some Spanish talent but they don’t seem to have returned in the same numbers since.”

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