Essence of a great culture

Benjamin Roberts, VP – Talent Management APAC, shares about how he has facilitated Essence’s move into new markets through talent acquisition, mobility and gamification, in an interview with Priya Sunil and Jerene Ang.

Established in 2005 as part of media investment company GroupM, Essence has a global workforce of more than 1,700, manages over US$4billion in annualised media spend and deploys campaigns in 106 markets via offices in Singapore, Sydney, Chicago, London and more.

Helming the Talent Management function in APAC, out of the Singapore office is Benjamin Roberts, VP – Talent Management APAC, who joined Essence in April 2018. In this exclusive interview, Roberts delves into the strategies undertaken by the team in maintaining a consistent Essence culture throughout its six APAC markets, how gamification plays a key role in attracting talent, and more.

Q How would you describe the culture at Essence?

Essence has a people promise to make our employees feel invested in, engaged with, and cared for across all our offices. In collaboration with our talent and learning teams, we’re grateful that we also have voluntary groups of cultural ambassadors who we call “pirates”, who make a discretionary effort to keep our culture thriving. They represent a crosssection of teams and experience, and play a crucial role in helping to create a conducive workplace.

Q Growing from a start-up to an MNC, what are some key changes you have noticed in your people practices?

As the business grows, there’s obviously the need to continue to bring in talent at all levels. Second, we are looking at growing new practices such as the experience practice we’ve developed focusing on creative work – which for us, means identifying new skill sets for this practice. Third, it also means helping that practice integrate with the existing ones. So the key changes are about developing what we have, and harnessing the culture we’re all aligned to through growth, while remaining true to our core beliefs and behaviours.

Q When you’re recruiting in a new market, aside from skill sets, what are the other aspects that play a role?

We’re lucky to be part of GroupM. For example, when we opened in new markets like South Korea, India, and Indonesia, they were supportive in transferring some of their employees over to us to help lay the foundation for instrumental talent. Once we had the foundation in place, we continued to look for talent in the local market with the kind of skill sets and the ambition to join a growing company like Essence.

Q Different markets have different talent and needs. How do you tailor the talent acquisition process to meet the specific needs of that market?

We use the same format across all our APAC markets, as it’s important for us to maintain consistency. Obviously we cater to the local nuances, but having the same process from a talent acquisition lens helps give the candidate a consistent Essence experience no matter what market they’re in.

It’s not so much about actively tapping people on the shoulder and saying, “You’ve to go here,” but rather about “Are you interested?”

Q At Talent Management Asia, you mentioned that gamification is part of your talent acquisition process – tell us more about this.

As a data and measurement-driven agency, it’s important the candidates have a data-driven experience to begin with. Thus we are partnering with Pymetrics which uses neuroscience and artificial intelligence to predict the right person for the job, while removing bias from the process.

This reduces the funnel-through of applicants, we get the candidates most appropriate to us, and it also gives the candidates a memorable first point of experience with Essence.

Q Another aspect you strongly focus on is employee mobility. What is your current mobility strategy based on?

Given that we have more than doubled in size in this region over the past year, we are still growing the mobility strategy. The first objective is to leverage mobility to bring in experience that is required in our market to help drive Essence’s thinking behaviours. It’s also a tool for people to develop their skill sets by moving across functions, as well as to develop their careers by giving them the opportunity to move to another market.

Q Have you encountered any challenges in mobilising your staff?

No, because the way our system works is that people put their hand up and apply to have opportunities. We have an open job portal from which interested employees can speak to their resource management person about the process.

It’s not so much about actively tapping people on the shoulder and saying, “You’ve to go here,” but rather about “Are you interested?” This helps with the process because we’ve got people who are engaged and want to do this from the very beginning.

Q How about the challenges in managing the expectations of employees when mobilising them?

Early on in the process, we speak to the candidates to ensure they’re moving for the right long-term reasons, not just escaping something to go somewhere else. And there’s a lot more we do in terms of preparing them for what’s ahead.

As a global company, we make sure that candidates are ready to experience living in different regions, both on a professional and personal level, as opposed to just talking facts about the job and the role. We also make sure they are culturally sensitive, especially in cases where they’re moving from the US to Japan, for instance.

Q Do you provide training for such cultural sensitivity?

Not formal training, but as part of the interview process, they would have spoken to several people in that market and probably visited that market as well. Even after they have moved, we will constantly speak to them and have regular check-ups on how they’re getting on, or if they require any support from the on-ground people.

Our size is a big advantage. Since our offices aren’t huge, it is relatively easy to maintain contact with these people once they’ve moved into a market.

What also helps is maintaining that consistent Essence culture they’ve grown up with. They understand all our values and behaviours that are transferrable, no matter which office they go into. So while the surroundings may look physically different, the ways of working are the same.

Q Moving back to your growth story, what are some of the interesting trends you’ve noticed in managing talent in six different markets?

No market is the same, yet there are quite a few similar traits. One of the skill sets that really adds value to Essence is analytical skills, which are in high demand no matter what market, as they are transferrable across industries.

Another thing that’s common, from a candidate’s perspective, is they want to join a company that offers growth, good training, is technology-focused, and has a great culture. We do offer a lot of these things, and it’s interesting how this is common to most markets.

In terms of some of the differences, it’s really about where the Essence name is stronger, and how that plays a role in attracting talent. In India, for example, GroupM has a huge brand name, so it’s easier to attract people to join Essence.

Closer to home, can you give us an example of an initiative that has perhaps given you excellent results?

One of the things that we have done well over the last few months in Singapore is we worked with organisations like the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Southeast Asia & India and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), and also universities through their job fairs.

At a recent open house, we had about 300 students apply, all of whom we put through a game of Pymetrics. From this, we selected 90 of them to come visit our office for three hours, where our regional practice leads spoke to them about what they do at Essence.

This gave them a really good insight into what we do, the kind of people experiences we build. Moreover, we got great feedback from the students, so we will start doing initiatives like this in other markets as well. It’s important for us to be able to support local talent in acquiring in-demand skill sets for the future.

Singapore is tough because a lot of these skills that are sought after didn’t exist 10 years ago, so by working with universities, we can start building our own talent.

Q In terms of gamification tools such as Pymetrics, apart from talent acquisition, what other aspect of talent management have they added value to?

It’s a long-term play. From a talent management lens, we’re hoping it’s going to help with retention, knowing that people who have come in after playing Pymetrics are a better fit than perhaps people who haven’t. Further, our interviews are much more vigorous, enabling us to tidy up what to look for and what not to (look for).

Q Going back to the challenges, with different candidates having different preferences, did you face any issues in developing a certain market?

Well, Japan for instance is a very tough market to hire and find the right talent. We need bilingual, digital talent, of which there is a small talent pool. Also, it’s not in the Japanese culture to job hunt. They constantly use recruitment agencies from the time they graduate, so they don’t really respond to external recruiters. All of this makes it tough to find the talent we need with the right skill sets.

Q Apart from Japan, any other particularly tough markets?

Singapore, but we’ve got the solution for that, in terms of working with university students and bringing them in. Singapore is tough because a lot of these skills that are sought after didn’t exist 10 years ago, so by working with universities, we can start building our own talent, while supporting the people of Singapore by developing their skill sets.

Q From the talent perspective, what are the key factors you look out for to know you’re going in the right direction?

Well, people are passing their probation period! That means we’ve put the right people in place. Also, just the intangibles, like the energy in the agency is an indicator because we’re very conscious of making sure we have a diverse group of people who work well together.

Being able to see that mix of people, along with our learning culture, is another key factor.

Q Having been in HR for more than 15 years, we believe you switched from the teaching line. What drove this?

I’ve always liked working with people. I get great pleasure off nurturing and developing people in a company like Essence, where our key asset is our people. To be able to work for companies where you can make an impact on not only the company’s growth, but people’s personal growth is very appealing to me.

Whilst teaching is a very admirable and honourable profession, it can get quite repetitive year on year. Whereas at Essence, every day is different, and it gives me great pleasure in guiding people through that variability.

Q Meanwhile, what changes have you observed in the HR function over all these years?

For all functions, the arrival of technology has made a huge difference. From the past where we contacted candidates using recruitment companies and headhunters, we can now find everyone’s CV online, be it through job boards or LinkedIn. Not only does this give candidates more choices, but it also lets employers see people’s backgrounds and profiles when engaging them.

Further, HR is becoming increasingly more specialised, having evolved from the days when it was personnel management. Nowadays, HR is being split into talent management, talent acquisition, learning, talent development, and all of its different buckets.

So, the more technology comes into play, the more valuable such talent is going to be because they are going to be able to outsource or use technology to speed up a lot of the more time-consuming yet critical things and be able to become more strategic in terms of helping the company grow.

Going forward, it won’t matter so much whether you’ve worked in a bank, a fintech company or a start-up, everyone can fit into a lot of companies these days on the basis of their skill sets. This wasn’t the case a generation ago, where many people would work their way up the straight ladder in one big company. Nowadays, people are much more open to moving around, so HR has got a big role to play in attracting, developing and retaining talent.

This interview has been published in Human Resources magazine. Read the May edition of Human Resources, Singapore: