The talent shortage in the space in the U.S., combined with the fact that diversity has become vital to having a viable digital business, means that more agencies are going through the long, arduous and often costly process of getting worker visas and even permanent resident status for their employees who come from Australia, Sweden, Korea, Japan and other countries with a concentration of digital talent.
"I don't want to take anything away from American-born-and-raised talent, but there does seem to be terrific drive coming from outside the U.S.," said Darren Paul, managing partner of Night Agency, a 30-person digital shop in New York. Mr. Paul estimates about 18 Night employees have received worker visas or temporary resident status.
"There are a lot of talented people in this country, but there is just a different work ethic that comes with working with people from another country," said Dan LaCivita, senior VP-executive director of Firstborn, a 40-person digital agency headquartered in New York. Referring to a one-to-ten scale system, he said that in the U.S. you can hire "100 'sevens' or 'eights', but you can't hire 100 '11s'. And I want there to be 40 '11s' here."
Mr. LaCitiva estimates his agency spent over $100,000 on immigration attorney fees last year, and in one case, about $30,000 to get a particularly promising employee permanent resident status.
"For us, one of the obvious things about the web is it's a global medium, and as we create experiences online for global clients, they want to make sure it is going to be relevant across different cultures," he said. "So it gives our clients confidence that different eyeballs are looking at that and saying 'Does that make sense?'"
Depending on the type of visa an employee gets, the immigration process can cost from $5,000 to $15,000, and that's not including relocation expenses, said Ana Gonzalez, an attorney at immigration law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, who works with media companies and agencies including Night Agency.
Many large companies that help employees gain permanent resident status will have them sign sponsorship agreements that say they'll stay with the company for a specific period of time after obtaining permanent residence status, according to Ms. Gonzalez. And if they leave before that date, they are required to pay the company back a specific percentage of the fees the company laid out.
Firstborn does not make its employees sign these types of agreements. "For us, it is all about people truly wanting to be here," Mr. LaCivita said. "Could it come back to bite us sometimes? Of course. But you also have to think ... is it worth having someone in your office [who] doesn't want to be there and is kept there by a piece of paper?"
Recruiting from different countries gives agencies the advantage of having a mash-up of digital skill sets. For instance, employees who come from Japan might be more sophisticated in mobile since the Japanese mobile market is more advanced than the one in this country, said Tom Bedecarre, CEO of AKQA. Mr. Bedecarre said more than a dozen of AKQA's U.S. employees have gone through immigration proceedings.
Most agency employees will seek H-1B visas, which require a minimum of a bachelor's degree, she said. H-1B visas are sometimes difficult to get, though. They can take anywhere from two to three weeks if expedited, or in some cases, up to 180 days. There is also a limited supply of them -- the federal government currently caps the number of H-1B visas that can be distributed in a fiscal year. So even if an agency helps an employee apply for a visa, there is no guarantee he or she will get one.
Getting permanent resident status is even more time-consuming, taking an average of about a year, Ms. Gonzalez said.
But despite the lawyer fees, the paperwork and the time spent waiting for that paperwork to go through, agency executives say the investment pays off many-fold when employees from abroad become part of their agencies.
"It's definitely an extra cost to the bottom line but we feel we get great benefit out of it, just from the creativity and the goodwill we have from people working next to people from other parts of the world," said Mr. Paul.
"I think it's part of the cost of doing business if you want to have a global, diverse workforce. You have to be able to support those employees and help them have the experience they are looking for," Mr. Bedecarre said.