Merlee is the first Filipino to be awarded: The Creative of the Year for Southeast Asia in the Campaign Asia Pacific Agency of the Year.
She is ‘‘Chairmom’’ and Chief Creative Officer of Dentsu Jayme Syfu and the only woman in the 20 top creative directors in ASIA as reported by Campaign Brief Asia.
Under her leadership, Dentsu Jayme Syfu has already been named the 2016 Creative Agency of the Year Philippines by Campaign Asia and the inaugural SPIKES ASIA Country Agency of the Year 2017 and recently, The 4As Agency of the Year Best in Creative 2018.
Her works push Insights and innovation. She has won major awards that include a Cannes Lion Grand Prix for Mobile, Grand CLIO, NYF Grand Awards, D&AD yellow and wood pencils and just last June, a Gold and Silver Lion for Outdoor: Green Peace “Dead Whale”.
Merlee is a sought-after international speaker and an opinion leader when it comes to topics close to her heart: From Working Mothers to Harnessing Creativity. This year, she has given a talk about “Meeting the Momillennials” in Tokyo for Adweek Asia 2018 and has also mentored clients at the Young Marketers Academy in Cannes.
She is CEO of MamaLab- a network of moms from Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan, to create great ideas that truly understand moms. One of CNN’s Leading Women, she initiated the #sistergood project in the office to inspire women leadership.
A creative at heart, she wrote and illustrated an inspiring handbook to discover everybody’s creative side “Everyone Can Be Creative”. Merlee is also a mom to 4 beautiful girls, and an inspiration in breaking the glass ceiling in this mad men’s world.
My first question is about your title ‘‘Chairmom’’ and Chief Creative Officer. Why Chairmom and what does it mean?
The Chairmom position is close to my heart. It reminds me of who I am: a woman leading a family. It’s a title that reminds me of my responsibilities at home and at work.
My role makes sure that I inspire with a strong vision, nurture talent and skills and give advice and guidance to make people grow.
I can be strict at times, and I love to instill discipline, in thinking and in creating. Craziness curated for relevance. I try to teach the value of respect, integrity, and humility. My leadership is fun, fearless and surprisingly simple and efficient.
I dream big for my family and I want everyone to dream with me.
I must admit, that being a real Mom in the industry makes the balancing act of work and family truly tough. I have raised four strong-willed, very creative daughters, while having long hours at work. The guilt always gets to me when thinking! “I should have been in that client presentation or, I should have been in her ballet recital”. Bilocation is one superpower that I wish I had.
You won many awards with your “Dead Whale” campaign. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea?
The Philippines is the third largest contributor of plastic wastes in our oceans. The inspiration came from the fact that more and more sea creatures were being washed ashore our coastlines. The problem simply grew so bigger that people no longer bothered to ask why it happened and what could be done to stop it.
The challenge given to us by Greenpeace was to make people see the effects of plastic wastes in our oceans. My team visualized this in the biggest way possible by creating a dead whale.
How did you manage to make a dead whale from plastic?
We made it look like a real whale that had been washed ashore. Our objective was to surprise people around the area, and at the same time, raise awareness of the dangers of throwing plastic into the ocean. The location was a beach in Naic, in the province of Cavite, considered as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.
We first made a miniature model of the whale. It was our guide to decide the type of plastic materials to use for each part of it and, since the space we had was big enough, we decided it would measure 73 feet.
The texture was tricky. Layers and layers of different plastics were molded to make its body look like it was decomposing.
For the whale’s colours, we decided not to use any paint but the actual colour of the plastic we were using. The blue, black, gray, and white trash bags and strings and straws went to the skin. The twisted white sacks went to the underbelly. The PET bottles were for the teeth. The innards were red net sacks used to pack onions. The trash coming from the mouth consisted of assorted plastic wastes. We stuffed the installation with 60 kilos worth of plastic materials. The whole plastic whale weighed 160 kilos.
Regarding your creative leadership, what methods or tips do you use to encourage and get the best out of your creative team and the people that work with you?
As Donald McGannon’s famous line goes “Leadership is action, not position”, I try to lead by example.
I want people to see that no title can prevent me from writing my own scripts and create ideas from scratch, attend shoots, collaborate with directors or even draw my boards. This way I can show them how it’s done, with dedication and hard work without any shortcuts.
However, I will also patiently teach and guide young creatives to think deep for insights, write better, push the art direction in newer ways and challenge ideas whenever I can.
What I have observed is that their ideas are usually great, but the work needs more “heart” for better consumer connection.
Definitely, I could never be a CEO who simply looks at work, gives comments here and there and then hides in a nice big room.
You have been in the jury for many awards. What do you think makes a campaign award-worthy? What do you look for when you judge?
I look for a powerful idea, based on a relevant insight, executed with brilliant writing, art direction and excellent craft, garnering the most effective results.
You are also the CEO of MamaLab, a network of moms in Singapore to create ideas that understand moms, and you also gave a speech on ‘The Science Behind a Mother’s Instinct’. Do you think moms are often forgotten by brands or creatives when thinking about their ideas for campaigns? Or maybe left apart as a target market?
No one forgets the world’s number one target market. As a mom myself, I know that a mother is a wife, a teen’s best friend, a family’s breadwinner, a CEO, a sister, a household ‘doctor’, a psychiatrist, a teacher and more importantly, the family’s main decision maker. Mothers are a tough target market. Marketers need to truly understand what motivates and inspires mothers of different ages, cultures and personalities. Today, the challenge is to engage with what I call “Momillennials”. These are young mothers who are more difficult to impress and persuade. Being very digital, they research a lot and compare products and practices with other mothers in online communities. MamaLab partners with multinational and local brands and helps uncover the power of mothers and connect with them through genuinely insightful, thoughtful and innovative campaigns that are also cool and fun.
Have you thought about what you want your legacy to be? Or how you would like people to remember you?
That relentless woman who used her creativity for humanity.
Do you have any favourite quotes, slogan or motto?
Success can never compensate failure at home.
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