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How did you discover that you wanted to work in advertising? I was a junior in college when we had to complete an internship at a reputable company. I wanted to apply for a position at the entertainment and media company ABS-CBN since I had dreamed of working as a news anchor. Unfortunately, all the internship slots were filled up. Then, I got a call from a friend who told me to apply to JWT’s internship program. I had never heard of the agency, to be honest, but I went and met the head of the program, Jun Alcantara. He interviewed me and asked if I wanted to join the accounts department. Thinking that it was accounting, I turned it down. I was definitely bad at math. I also turned down the media department, thinking it was connected to show business. I was a shy person, so that wouldn’t work. But, when I heard about the creative department, I lit up! I knew that my writing and drawing skills would be perfect for this. From then on, I was hooked.

You spent years studying in a Benedictine convent. How have the lessons you’ve learned there helped you as a creative? I didn’t really study in the convent. The life of ora et labora, or work and pray, taught me life lessons that I use to this day.

I learned that the power of silence clears the mind. When silence rules your brain, only the important thoughts remain. I’ve trained my mind to be quiet, and I’ve gotten into a habit of editing out useless information and filtering the noise. Minus the useless and devoid of noise, I develop clarity of thought. I can spot beautiful, raw ideas and easily develop them.

I was also obsessively observant. I could tell if animals were sensing danger coming our way or figure out how many minutes there were before rainfall by studying the clouds on top of the mountains. Observation is a key step in communicating with our consumers. We have to learn how to “read” people to be able to persuade them to heed our messages.

I also keep calm to beat stress. In our speedy world, with faster deadlines; real-time social responses and endless follow-ups in Viber groups; shrinking budgets; tougher clients; and challenging business growth, “calmness of spirit” is needed to survive. Prayer drives this.

What led you to cofound the agency DM9 JaymeSyfu? As I was growing up in the industry, I made mental notes for a future “imaginary agency.” I wrote down the changes I would introduce, the purpose, the rules to break and the kind of people I wanted to spend my long days and nights with. Then, when the opportunity came to move on in my career, I had several offers to lead creative departments. But, I wanted to lead in a far bigger way. So, I asked Alex Syfu if he wanted to partner with me. With a handful of great friends, the agency was born.

What do you wish you had known when you began running your own agency? Numbers. Finances are a big part of setting up an agency. My old worries used to be just beating deadlines, but what kept me running during those times was a revenue that was healthy enough to keep my friends working with me. I realized that running an agency is a business, and as a creative leader, it is important for me to understand financial statements. So, I enrolled myself in a course called “Accounting for Non-Accountants.”

Dream big, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make it come true.”

At Spikes Asia 2019, you mentioned how important it is to “get out of [your] comfort zone and get into your courage zone.” What are some specific things you do to get into your courage zone? When I first became a writer, I was automatically stereotyped and given all the female brands, from sanitary napkins to diapers to shampoo to face cleansers. After years working on these “comfort” brands, I went to my executive creative director and asked for challenging accounts. Mind you, during those early years, Google didn’t exist. So when I was assigned a roof sealant or a tricycle lubricant, I really had to interview to learn more about these products. It was hard, but it made me a better writer.

I had accepted leadership roles even before I trained for them. I just had this gut feeling that I could handle the job of being a leader pretty well. After accepting a chief executive officer role, I enrolled in an accounting class to understand numbers and business. After my agency integrated with Japanese media company Dentsu, I joined a nihongo, or Japanese language, class to be able to feel confident during meetings. I am a firm believer in Richard Branson’s saying that “if someone offers you a great opportunity, but you are not sure if you can do it, say yes! Then, learn how to do it later.”

I’ve also written and fought for controversial campaigns that touched on sensitive topics like religion, politics and stereotypes. I made my voice loud enough to be heard in a roomful of men. This has always been a challenge when I join juries. It really did take more effort to be taken seriously.

How does being a “chairmom” strengthen your work or career? The title “chairmom” reminds me of two things every day: that I am a mom at home and at work. These roles are really similar. This means putting values in place, disciplining when necessary, pushing for continuous learning, and having the desire to excel and lots of family love. The responsibility seems bigger when you’re the mom and not just a leader. The role of the former is taken to heart. Sometimes, even when someone’s resigning, I go out of my way to look for better opportunities for her or him.

What inspired you to write your book Everyone Can Be Creative? The unbelievable feeling of where I am today. Who would have thought my “creative restlessness” growing up would help me achieve all the things I’ve ever dreamed of? I want more creative souls to be inspired and assure them that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.

What is unique about the creative industry in the Philippines? There is a sense of community. Last April, when we invited marketing rock star Fernando Machado, the global chief marketing officer of Burger King, to visit us for the first time, he told me that he had never experienced an advertising family as closely knit as ours in any part of the world.

What advice do you have for women who are currently working in the ad industry? Dream big, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make it come true.

Merlee Cruz-Jayme is the first Filipino to be awarded the Creative of the Year for Southeast Asia by Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Agency of the Year Awards. She is “chairmom” and chief creative officer of Dentsu JaymeSyfu. She has won major awards, including Cannes Lions Grand Prix, a Grand Clio and the NYF Grand Award. One of CNN’s Leading Women, she initiated the #sistergood project to inspire women leadership. She wrote and illustrated a handbook, Everyone Can Be Creative, to help everyone discover their creative side. Cruz-Jayme is also a mom to four beautiful girls, and an inspiration in breaking the glass ceiling in this mad men’s world.


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