Why agencies lose out on international talent

Overseas creative candidates are often overlooked for all the wrong reasons, writes executive recruiter and president of Sasha the Mensch

International advertising industry professionals are great candidates for O-1B visas. Unfortunately, the artificial urgency that dominates agency hiring practices in the U.S., and the pervasive, mistaken belief that getting a visa for a new employee is necessarily a drawn-out legal process, have led many firms to forego qualified candidates. In a sense, they’re losing out on top talent through lack of initiative.

Ten years ago, ad professionals who chose to abandon agency life to work for a client had to deal with their peers’, and the industry’s, negative reactions; it was considered a move for those who wanted the easy life. That’s no longer the case, and many major brands today — most notably, big-name technology companies — are actively recruiting top tier talent away from ad agencies.

With such tough competition to attract and retain the best creatives, agencies’ lack of investment in chasing international talent is disappointing. As members of an industry that makes widespread use of awards, foreign ad creatives are uniquely well-suited applicants for the O-1B visa, which is available to "individuals of extraordinary ability." Those without awards who have solid work experience can still qualify for an O-1B visa if they have previously worked on distinguished campaigns or have worked for reputable agencies or companies.

So why aren’t more ad agencies aggressively pursuing these international candidates?

One major reason is that American agencies have fallen into the trap of obsessing over how quickly they can get a candidate in the office. "We need the person here in three weeks," is a line I’ve heard countless times, only to see those three weeks go by without any progress in recruiting a candidate who meets the agency’s needs.

The argument that "it takes too long" to bring a qualified foreign candidate on board is a red herring: the reality is, if the ultimate goal is to recruit the best talent, whether a person can start now, in three weeks or two months should make no difference. In fact, outside the U.S. hiring frequently does take a couple of months, as people have explicit notice periods stipulated in their employment contracts. This has not led, however, to the downfall of major French or British ad agencies.

Another reason American agencies have been reluctant to make use of O-1B visas is that they’re discouraged from doing so by in-house lawyers who make the process appear more complex and expensive than it really is; independent immigration attorneys often charge far less for the same services.

All of this is not to suggest that hiring international talent is easy. Agencies are right to consider a foreign candidate’s likely performance and cultural fit in a new setting, and getting a visa for someone does take time. But whether they’re local or foreign, outstanding candidates are worth a little extra effort at the recruiting stage; I’d like to see more U.S. agencies recognizing this and acting on it.

Whether an agency is in New York, Detroit or Dallas, if it’s struggling to attract high-caliber talent or not finding it locally, then pursuing qualified international candidates is a valid option in today’s competitive market. The visa process shouldn’t scare firms away from hiring good people.

Sasha Martens is a recruiter and president of Sasha the Mensch.

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