Merlee Jayme Talks Creativity, Motherhood and Politics at Clio Judging in Bali


The Dentsu JaymeSyfu CCO reflects on her remarkable balancing act By Tim Nudd

Bali, Indonesia—In a week when gender issues were once again roiling the advertising world, Merlee Jayme, a longtime Saatchi & Saatchi Philippines exec who opened her own celebrated agency, JaymeSyfu, a decade ago, arrived here in Bali to chair the Direct jury for the Clio Awards.

One of the most respected creatives, male or female, across all of Asia, the Philippines-based Jayme—who runs what is now Dentsu JaymeSyfu as “chairmom” and chief creative officer—was bemused to hear of Saatchi worldwide chairman Kevin Roberts’ controversial comments, so at odds were they from her own experience as a writer who rose through the ranks while also taking time off repeatedly to raise four girls.

Jayme, who recently aligned her agency with Dentsu after years of being owned by DDB, chatted with Adweek, during a break in Clio judging, about creativity, politics, awards, her favorite work—and yes, how she felt about Roberts’ comments.
I read that you were once a nun.
I was! For three years, but it was a novice stage. I left home at 13 to join the Benedictine nuns. It was a run-away-from-home kind of thing.
That’s unusual training for an ad career.
I learned so many things. Discipline. Never giving up after all the work, and all the long hours. [In advertising] I was the first one who said I could stay on. You’d hear stories of me, eight or nine months pregnant, still doing overtime work. You know how creative work is. It’s tough. I wrote a book about it. I just published it last March. It’s now a handbook for a lot of young creatives. I just suddenly realized that most of the things I do today are based on those three years. We weren’t allowed to talk back in the convent. That silence cleared my mind. I didn’t go through high school. It was probably a way of getting out of school, now that I look at it! Thank God none of my kids did that. Also, I’m a writer now, and I was forced to read a lot of heavy pontifical writings. It opened my mind to understanding big stuff, heavy stuff, very early on.
What’s some of your favorite ad work that you’ve done?
My client who’s been with me since college is [women’s rights group] Gabriela. It’s an international group of women. Part of them is political—it’s very feminist, leftist. The other part of it is working against violence on women. When I was in college, I was part of the leftist group. Such a rebel! When I got into advertising, they became a very good client of mine, up until today—three networks later. I really love the work we’ve done for them on sex trafficking. We put naked women on a conveyor belt. We are a country where we work abroad—most of our domestic helpers are working abroad, because of the lack of jobs back home. And they usually send home packages. At Christmas you see all these conveyor belts full of boxes. It was very early on that we put women on there. Women are transferred elsewhere; you have no idea where they go. But they’re sold like anything.
We also did the pledge posters, where we had huge faces of women, and you put red lipstick on them—it looked like they were battered. You press your finger on it and use the ink to make a pledge. You erase every visual of violence from the woman’s face while using the ink to pledge against violence. Things like that are really close to my heart. I have four daughters, and every time I have an idea for Gabriela, it’s like I’m keeping them safe from this kind of world we live in.
You call yourself “chairmom” and chief creative officer, in your title. How do you juggle being a mom and running an agency?
It’s so much. That’s my next book. There is an issue in Cannes and in Spikes [Asia] that there are less creative women in advertising. It’s not easy. It’s doubly hard for us. And I’m singling out the creative side of it, because there are lots of women in account management and at our clients, but less in creative. Maybe because it’s a factory floor; it’s really tough hours. And if you are ambitious, you think there are a lot of barriers. ‘If I’m not going to make it up there, maybe I should get out now.’ There’s a lot of different attitudes I’ve been seeing in a lot of young creatives.
It’s a tough role, but I want to show that you don’t have to hurry. When I started my own agency, I was 40. That was the start of when I really enjoyed it. And now, 10 years later, I’ve moved on to another network and I’m starting a new era again. It’s never too late. I could bring up my children, go back to being a copywriter, get pregnant again, get out, be a mom, get back. Now I’m an ACD with new challenges, new responsibilities. Get pregnant again, get out. You know, it eats at me, I see the briefs every time I’m on maternity leave. ‘Can this brief wait until I give birth?’ ‘No, go!’ But you can, actually, span both worlds and get to your dream of going back to work.
How old are your girls?
I have a 24-year-old. She’s already a creative at Y&R. I have a 21-year-old. She’s been an intern with TBWA. Both are creatives. And I have a 15- and a 13-year-old. My husband works at DDB. I work at Dentsu. We have four agencies in the house, and we absolutely do not talk about work! (laughs)
Did you see what Kevin Roberts said about gender?
Yes. I was at Saatchi for 13 years. I know Kevin. He would go down to the Philippines once in a while. I do not believe I lack in vertical ambition at all. I started as a fresh grad at Saatchi and ended up as a vice president and ECD. I really worked my ass off at Saatchi, and I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. When I reached the ECD position, that’s the time I left. Is that what he was insinuating—that women are pretty happy where we are? Yes, maybe. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if we’re happy where we are. When I was stuck in the ACD position, because I was part time doing my mother job, I was happy balancing it. But I never stopped dreaming that I could move up.
What is the value of ad awards, and what’s special about Clio to you?
I was telling [Clio president] Nicole [Purcell], we’re a very American country back home. When I started in advertising, the first award that came to my mind was Clio, because it’s a very American award show. Cannes was something very far off. Maybe we were looking at Cannes as a very European, super global thing. I was very Americanized, and when I was growing up in advertising, I looked the Clio—the sleek shape of the trophy, it looked like the Oscar! And so, it was my first dream. I never stopped aiming for getting one. And I’ll never forget the night I stood with the Grand Clio—the first for my country, where we’re so American. I’m very happy we did that. I wish we’d do it again!
The winning campaign turned old cellphones into textbooks. See the work here:




In general about awards, I would say that creatives are very, very insecure. I would not be ashamed of saying that. We love being patted on the back when we do something good. Maybe because we like creating something from nothing, and we’re not sure if it’s nice, or if it’s good enough for everyone else. But we love the fact that we created something. And when someone says, ‘Fantastic! It’s really great. Your idea is helping out,’ that’s the only kind of reward we’re looking for. We feed on that. Award shows are very important in that way. It’s the only way that tells us we’re good in what we’re doing. Creatives are also really bad with money. We’re not exactly like, ‘We need a promotion! We need a raise!’ We’re not like that. We like looking at what we’ve done and people saying we did a good job. And we’re happy. We’re pretty much a happy bunch. Every year, the challenge is to get that feeling again. Maybe that’s why we love award shows.
So, now you’re with Dentsu.
Yes. A lot of networks and friends wanted to see if I wanted to partner for a while now. I was looking for something else. It’s exactly 10 years since I opened DM9. And I have a group of people who grew up with me for 10 years, some of them ever since I was at Saatchi. And we said, What can we do to help us move on, and learn more, and become better? When I saw Dentsu, and the Dentsu office, and the way they are in Tokyo with innovation and technology—we were known for being very low-tech in our ideas—I realized there’s something here. I really want to be known for any kind of innovation that really helps out. We are a poor country. If we can help out in little ways, and improve things through innovation of any kind—we tried low-tech, yes, and a lot of ideas followed. But maybe it’s time to move on to something bigger. And I’m part Japanese—so that sealed the deal.
The world is in crisis at the moment. What is the responsibility of creative people to do something about that?
There’s a lot. I’ve been involved so much in politics, too, and it’s one of the most exciting things for a creative—because the product talks back.
We just had a presidential election back home. And what I discovered is, consumers can only take so much. It got so bad in social media. All the money from most of candidates was spent on social media, just to negate one popular personality. And it backfired. He won, by spending nothing. And he was saying all the wrong things—just like the U.S.! He said something about rape, about really bad things. And he was the most reluctant candidate. He was actually testing waters. ‘If I say this, will you still vote for me?’ kind of challenge. I’ve seen all the media budget go to social media, hiring bloggers and supposedly anonymous people, talking generally against this candidate. I guess people could smell that social media was just being run by some candidates. They started unfollowing. They started closing their minds on social media, and just voted with their hearts. And he won.
At some point, we—as communicators in this business—should understand that a media budget can only get you so far. All these innovative strategies, the biggest media buyers, digital companies making all these graphics or whatever—that can only get you so far, too. At some point, if you really want something to happen, especially politically—something about refugees; big, big issues—you have to go back to the heart. You have to touch the hearts of the people you want to talk to, in a most genuine manner, and not just use all these things that make them numb.
How do you see advertising evolving?
It’s evolved in all shapes and forms. Message wise, maybe it’s almost the same. You can get blown away by all the new products and all the technology. But I always look for the idea again. Go back to basic. What the hell are you trying to tell me? All these lights and sparkles, and OK—then I rewind it. What was the thing you wanted us to understand? Just because you’re using VR and giving me a new and spectacular game, what is it again? The product promise is so far away. Maybe they couldn’t find the right product for the technology, I don’t know. But at the end of the day, the messaging is the same. The way we want to communicate with our consumers is the same. It just takes so many forms.
I heard [J. Walter Thompson worldwide chief creative officer] Matt Eastwood say this—we are in the most exciting time of our lives. There was a time when we got so bored with all the traditional media, and forcing the message down the throats of the consumers. We didn’t want to do that anymore, and they didn’t want to listen anymore. Now, with all this freedom, we are in the most exciting part of our lives. We can probably end the era of long, long videos, though! (laughs) Seven-minute videos? Please. I don’t have time for that.

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As the combined spending power of millennials is projected to soar, the advertising world is coming up with ways to reach the younger consumers




MANILA, Philippines – Flip on the TV or browse Facebook and chances are you’ll find good-looking, stylish people between the ages of 18 and 35 staring right back at you, urging you to buy a new phone or eat at a new restaurant.

This would come as no surprise as the market always follows the money, and research by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth estimates that millennials’ collective spending power last year hit $2.45 trillion globally.

That’s just the beginning.

Marketing intelligence firm Advertising Age expects millennials to start spending more than $200 billion annually starting in 2017 and $10 trillion over the course of their lifetimes.

In the Philippines, where the median age is 23 and the economy is fueled by consumption, reaching this vast consumer base isn’t just essential for the future. It’s key for the here and now as the youth are already shaping the direction of the economy.

“In my world, you feel the importance of a target market when every single client is trying to run after them,” said Merlee Jayme, the co-founder, chief creative officer, and – in her words – “chairmom” of Dentsu Jayme Syfu.

Jayme’s world is advertising, having founded the Jayme Syfu advertising firm 10 years ago. Earlier this year, her firm merged with the Dentsu Aegis Network, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Japan’s largest advertising firm, Dentsu.

Her firm is also notable for being the only Philippine-based agency to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions, advertising’s most prestigious event, back in 2013.

“Today, almost every single client I have wants to understand millennials more so they understand the power of millennials. They want a share of wallet of all of these young people. So we started researching and interviewing them to get a piece of how they think, how they spend, where they go, and what kind of psyche they have,” Jayme explained.

Loyal, carefree spenders

One of the first things that came out of the deep dive was that millennials in general are risk-takers who shy away from commitments and tend to spend for the moment.

Millennials are big fans of the shared economy model, such as Uber and Airbnb. “It’s because they hate owning,” Jayme said. “They hate commitments.”

She added: “For my older generation, the badge of success was owning a car or house. You know, stable income, insurance, responsible, and what our parents wanted us to be.”

However, it seems different for the younger generation. “They don’t want to own anything. They just want to rent, move on and rent somewhere else, and it’s all pretty fast,” Jayme said.

“They want to enjoy life as it is, and they don’t worry too much, which I actually want to acquire, that carefree psyche. I’m kind of envious. They’re braver,” she added.

“For the old generation, we save for the future. For millennials, they save for Saturday.”

Jayme recalled that before the focus on millennials, all the advertising attention was lavished on moms and yuppies.

Now, while millennials are younger and may not have the same spending power as the older generation, the gap in spending power is not as pronounced in a developing country like the Philippines as compared to somewhere like the US.

Besides this, millennials also have another characteristic that gives firms an incentive to target them early.

“With millennials, I tend to see that they get very loyal to brands. They hate long-term commitments but they are a bit loyal, loyal in a way that if they like something, they really care for like a certain brand of coffee or a telco network, then I don’t see them changing. They try all of it but then stick to what they like,” Jayme observed.

And, she added, even with the limited spending power here in the Philippines, “millennials here spend on what they like.”

Changing the game

How then do advertisers effectively reach the younger consumers? One of the crucial things is to engage them where they are.

No generation is as closely intertwined with social media as millennials are, having basically grown up with the internet, and this poses a new set of challenges for advertisers.

“In the old days, when you have a message, the only 3 ways to reach consumers were TV, radio, and print,” Jayme pointed out.

“Now, if you’re talking to millennials and you know they are always on these new

platforms, you have to be on them or at least understand these platforms.”

Jayme herself uses social media platforms, including new major player Snapchat, to be able to gain a personal understanding of how they work.

“I have to understand it myself so that I can still make my message really touch them in whatever thing they are looking at,” she said.

Launching campaigns on social media also entails being much more on the ball in terms of monitoring and tweaking campaigns, as everything happens in real-time.

“It’s a very fast world we’re living in now, and you’re always on your toes. If a spot is bad, take it out, put in a new one, and wait again. You have to watch it,” Jayme advised.

“Social media isn’t easy,” she continued. “First, you have to entertain them and grab their attention. You know they have ADHD, it’s 3 seconds. If a campaign is boring, they’ll just swipe on you and forget about you.”

Jayme added: “For me, as long as I get a reaction through a comment, even if it’s negative I’m happy because that’s people reacting to your work and not just ignoring it, and that’s a good sign.”

Relying on human truths

Despite the new challenges, there are still magic bullets to getting millennials’ attention.

“Trying to create a campaign that will resonate with millennials isn’t that different from other age groups,” Jayme said.

“For me, it doesn’t change whichever target market you’re trying to connect to. You always zero in on real human insights. Try to get into truths about people which you’ll understand if you observe people well.”

She gave as an example a touching film centered on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) which the youth would be able to connect with emotionally.

“As long as a spot touches them in a real emotional way and shows vulnerable topics like fear, anger, love, they will relate to it. It’s just a matter of, instead of putting older people [in the ad], putting in people their own age,” Jayme said. –

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Is this a sign of more gigs and new music to come?




( Remember the days of singing along to Eraserheads hits and dreaming of seeing them perform live? Well, this new ad is the closest you’ll get…for now, at least.

Smart Communications, Inc. unveiled a new commercial that features all four members of the beloved OPM band. There’s Ely Buendia strolling around UP Diliman, Raymund Marasigan smiling while he plays the drums, Marcus Adoro chilling by the beach, and Buddy Zabala cruising along the street. Oh, and all four of them are listening to “Minsan.”

In June, the band reunited for a surprise gig after seven long years away from the spotlight. During the show, Buendia hinted at more gigs to come. If anything, this commercial is giving us more hope that we’ll be seeing them live soon!

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by Biba Cabuquit

Lessons from the Merlee Jayme School of Creativity.

I first encountered Merlee at a Young Kidlat competition years ago. I don’t remember the topic, but what stuck to me was that she had made it more exciting with a game. “I want Cannes Lion-winning ideas,” she said, then dangled stuffed toy lions to our sleep-deprived faces. I first thought to myself, “uy, ang effort, may prize.” Secondly, when I was more lucid—the lady had made a point, and had made it well.

A few years later, was my interview at DM9. She was extolling the virtues of what was then an up-and-coming small shop. Her sales talk worked and what followed were the most challenging years of my career—or what I call, the uphill battle in the Merlee Jayme School of Creativity.

Here are excerpts from her book I’d like to expound on (not everything’s in here, otherwise you may not buy it).

CREATIP # 1: Learning never stops.

In one of our clearances-slash-kwento sessions, she mentioned that she wanted to apply to the Berlin School of Creativity. They politely informed her (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Um…looking at your resume, madame, would you be interested in becoming an instructor instead?”

It’s just so typical of her to always want to push herself and be faced with the reality that she needs to follow her own advice. Which leads me to…

CREATIP # 3: Shut down.

Merlee’s idea of relaxing is running. Or Bikram yoga. Or badminton. All very fun and exhilarating, I hear, but thankfully, she also likes drinking red wine—an activity most people can finally relate to.

She had this brainchild of One New Bar A Week where office folks can de-stress and catch up with each other’s lives. Topics can range from the elections, ghostly apparitions, other people’s sex lives and the occasional stupid prank.

CREATIP # 5: Be resourcefool.

My main take-away is that sometimes, you can make a pun #fun

CREATIP # 6: Be positive.

Like every agency, ours has its fair share of hotheads, emo kids, drama queens, demontitas and loudmouths; I’m always amazed though, how Merlee can remain eternally cheerful in the face of looming deadlines, demanding clients and the aforementioned volatile staff.

Is it the nunnery afterglow? Her #blessed life? The good karma from all that kamote? Perhaps all of the above.

CREATIP # 9: Make your creative life difficult.

Reading this part, I literally laughed out loud, and I may have shared it with the rest of the Creatives as we were pulling a midnighter. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but something I am (mostly) thankful for.

It’s become second nature for us to explode a Job Order for a Facebook post into a full-blown digital effort, with accompanying ready-to-air video.

Why stop at a poster when it can become a 360-degree campaign? Print ad? Here’s a CSR idea to sustain it!

Yes, it’s hard, time-consuming and entails more effort than some clients deserve, but honestly, after some time, we don’t know any other way. During internals, the Accounts peeps have the license to go, “Maybe we can push it further…”

We may grumble and roll our eyes, but when working overtime alongside the Chairmom, it’s business as usual.

It’s been 9 years and the lessons I’ve learned from Merlee could fill a multitude of books (Ex: How to be charmingly sarcastic.). Not everyone can have the pleasure, and let’s face it, the pain of working alongside her; this book is a blessing for those who aspire to be artistic in their own fields.

It’s a promise, a threat, or the fulfillment of a life-long dream—anyone can be creative.

This review was first published in the July-August 2016 issue of adobo magazine.

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MANILA – After a gruelling judging process held in McCann Worldgroup’s office on Tuesday, two art directors emerged as the winners of this year’s adobo LIA Young Creative Competition.




The jury composed of Abi Aquino, Executive Creative Director at MullenLowe Philippines; Alvin Tecson, Executive Creative Director at Publicis Manila; Kat Limchoc, Executive Creative Director at Black Pencil Manila; Rey Tiempo, Executive Creative Director at Dentsu Philippines; Dale Lopez, Executive Creative Director at BBDO Guerrero; Brandie Tan Executive Creative Director at Publicis JimenezBasic; Herbert Hernandez, Executive Creative Director at Y&R Philippines; Tony Sarmiento, Chief Creative Officer at Havas Ortega; Mike Sicam, Creative Director at Ogilvy One; Jake Tesoro, Creative Director at Ace Saatchi & Saatchi, headed by Joe Dy, Executive Creative Director at McCann Worldgroup spent a lengthy deliberation process to determine which of the finalists deserve to win the ticket to Las Vegas.

In the end, Miel Soneja, art director from Dentsu JaymeSyfu and Joza Myrene Nada, another art director from Publicis Manila were selected as the entries that best responded to the brief: how do you make working in advertising sexy again?

“The problem was very close to the heart of every member of the jury and we really wanted to see which executions will bring the excitement and prestige to the industry again,” shared Dy.

One of the winning entries, ‘Addvertising,’ aims to encourage people working in advertising to change their social media bios to include different professions that the industry lets them experience as a results of working with different brands with different products and backgrounds.

“I wanted to do something that the advertising creatives don’t have to deal with. These people handle TV, digital, so I don’t want them to deal with the same things,” explains Soneja.

Soneja expects the campaign to succeed if ever it will be executed because of its simplicity.

“We liked how ‘Addvertising’ showcased that a career in advertising allows you to widen your expertise,” shares Dy.

The other winning entry, ‘1 Percent’, which according to the jury is reminiscent of Google’s application test, tries to remind the advertising community of how it would be such a waste to leave the industry that wasn’t as easy as pie for anyone to be in.

“Since the challenge was to make advertising great again, I came up with this website which I called ‘1 percent’. It’s an online recruitment platform for creatives. I wanted to bring back the notion that it’s difficult to get into the industry so people should be excited to be a part of it,” says Nada.

Nada added that she thought of this idea under the impression that ad people are stimulated by challenges that test their abilities and creative thinking.

“The idea focuses on the people who really get through the difficulty of getting into advertising by presenting a challenging but exciting barrier to it,” comments Dy. “If you get through it, you’ll be able to see the kinds of rewards and excitement that the industry’s culture has to offer.”

The two young creatives will be getting a free airfare and accommodations to attend the London International Awards judging and Creative LIAisons program to be held in Las Vegas in October.

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