Merlee Jayme: How a Former Nun Became an Advertising Queen Bee
Day after day, young Merlee was restless. She had numerous questions she could not find the answers to, she lived in a world she could not understand. So she packed her bag, wrote a letter to her parents explaining her decision, and entered the convent. She was 13 years old.
Her parents and grandparents pleaded with the high school freshman to go back home. She was too young, they said. She should not have made such a rash decision on her own. But Merlee was as headstrong as she was restless. She ignored their pleas and stayed put.
It was a tough three years for Merlee. She hated working in the kitchen or washing clothes for 50 people, but she hid her distaste for it.
“If they saw that you hated it, they would give you the same chore the next week,” she says. “They would give you whatever you didn’t want. That was to kill the desire of wanting anything.”
Josie Natori slip dress (worn as top) and Tadashi Shoji skirt, Rustan’s Makati, 813.3739;
Outdoors was a different story. Merlee loved being outside. Here she was free from the world of contemplative prayer and silence inside the convent. She watered the trees and the plants. She learned all their scientific names. She took care of the animals. She whispered secrets into their ears. They became her friends.
Ora et Labora. Prayer and work. Those were the cornerstones of the
Benedictine monastery in which she lived. Every morning, she was encouraged to read. Not the teenage fluff other girls her age read, but heavy, religious books. Tomes about the saints, collections of letters from the popes. They taught her concentration, widened her vocabulary, sharpened her grammar.
After three years of washing clothes, harvesting sweet potatoes, and praying, Merlee still found herself restless. So she walked out of the convent and went home.
Cameo top and skirt, LCP, MDI Corporate Center, 10th Avenue corner 39th Street, Bonifacio Global City, 815.7510; Damiani ear cuffs and ring, Rustan’s Silver Vault Makati, 813.3739.
Today, at 50, Merlee Cruz-Jayme, DentsuJaymeSyfu’s chairmom and chief creative officer, is the queen bee of the advertising world. She is vibrant, dynamic, passionate about her work. She remains a restless soul, constantly trying to outdo others and more than that, herself. She thrives on challenge. And she still seeks guidance from God.
Entering the company’s offices, one can immediately see how she and her team have conquered those challenges. Row after row of trophies and other awards. The pièce de résistance? The 2013 Cannes Lion Grand Prix trophy, the biggest creative award in the most prestigious global advertising convention.
It was for work that Dm9JaymeSyfu, the company she founded with Alex Syfu in 2005, had done with Smart Communications. Merlee’s team had been tasked to come up with ideas for a print advertising campaign. It was to demonstrate many ways Smart helps children and public schools all over the nation. The team members sat down together and asked each other, “How can we be different? How can we go beyond what is asked of us?”
They went out to observe students’ lives, and discovered that many of them spent a good amount of money on transportation to avoid lugging around heavy books for miles. They spotted another child transporting his pile of books in a bangka.
All three of her younger sisters now live in the same nunnery she had lived in as a teenager. She hasn’t spoken to them since they entered their life of prayer and contemplation more than two decades ago, but she and her parents get to see them once a year when the cloistered convent is open to the public for Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“We wanted to come up with the message that Smart truly helps schools. So we started tinkering with old SIM cards and asked, ‘What if they could be used like a USB flash drive for storage?’ And then we worked on coding, and we came up with the idea for TXTBKS.”
The team presented both ideas to the client, showing how for a fraction of the cost of a print ad, they could turn old analog mobile phones into e-readers, and old SIM cards into a handy library of information for students. That way, students would no longer have to lug around their heavy books every day.
Smart loved both ideas, so Merlee’s team ran with them. The simple idea changed lives not just in the Philippines, but in countries in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Merlee and her team brought home the Lion trophy from Cannes and put it on a shelf. It sits with the D&AD Yellow Pencil and the Grand CLIO (which she accepted from actress Whoopi Goldberg) won for the same Smart TXTBKS ad campaign, and many others from Dm9JaymeSyfu’s decade of success.
Josie Natori dress, Rustan’s Makati, 813.3739; Damiani ear cuffs and Roberto Coin ring, Rustan’s Silver Vault Makati, 813.3739.
“Creative people are easily flattered. We have this need for recognition. For as long as our idea is appreciated, we love it. That’s why there are so many different awards nights,” says Merlee. “We relish awards, we like having pats on the back for our creativity. But then once we get the award, we put it on the shelf and move on. It pushes us to work really hard on the next project.”
Merlee makes it clear the successes of her team are exactly that, a team effort. “It’s never about just me. It’s always group work, teamwork. I always say, ‘Let’s do this. We do this.’ It’s never ‘I, I, I, me, me, me.’ That makes people very egotistic. We teach our creatives not to be that way. Hindi puwedeng ‘ako’ lang. Kailangan, ‘tayo,’” she stresses. “There’s never just one name on an award. The credits are to the team. Who came up with contributions to a particular idea? Who made it relevant enough to win? So there’s the person who thought up the idea, the one who wrote it, the one who sold it to the client, among many others. An ad campaign would never be an award winner without all the people who contributed to it.”
Merlee and her team are also well-known for their campaigns to help women, not just against abuse, but against sex violence, trafficking, and
Google “GABRIELA pledge posters” and watch the moving video of how the advertising team came up with a campaign to get more people involved in the fight against violence against women. (In the Philippines, a man hurts a woman almost every hour.) Posters with women’s face were layered with lipstick to simulate bruises and other forms of physical abuse. Passersby were encouraged to use the lipstick from the poster as ink to put their fingerprints on a pledge form to fight against violence. Tens of thousands of people signed the pledge forms, one by one till the women’s photographs no longer showed trace of abuse.
Then there was the GABRIELA “Bury the Past” project in 2012 which helped women living in shame for appearing in sex videos make their histories more difficult to find. The campaign encouraged Facebook users nationwide to add the word “scandal” to their profile names to make it more difficult to dig up actual scandal videos.
“We wanted to help secure the futures of the girls who had been featured,” says Merlee. “We wanted to help them bury their pasts.”
The campaign won them the gold at the 2012 Digital Media Awards held in Beijing. Merlee says she has been fighting for women’s rights practically her whole career.
“This Mad Men advertising industry is really very manoriented. It’s very cutthroat. It’s a tough journey as a woman,” she says. “You have to go on leave when you get pregnant and when you get back, you’ve lost so many opportunities. When men go home, they don’t have to deal with household chores, they don’t take care of the kids. Women do. I hope I’ve been paving the way for my daughters to have it easier.”
Merlee is the mother of four daughters, Isabella, 24; Inez, 21; Sofia, 15; and Sabine, 13. Merlee, the powerhouse of a workhorse, tries to makes it a point to spend as much time as she can with her girls and her husband, Timmy.
“When I get home, work stops at the front door,” Merlee says. “We try our best not to talk about work. We don’t bring work home. When I’m at home, I’m a wife and mother. If I need to do more work, I go back to the office after having dinner and praying with the kids.”
Aside from their family vacations, Merlee also plans special one-on-one trips with each of her girls. Her eldest daughter enjoyed exploring the cacophony of the markets of Bangkok; the second preferred spending quiet time at museums and shops in Singapore. Merlee had ribs and went swimming in Guam with her third daughter; and took her youngest daughter to Hong Kong Disneyland where she was given the full royal treatment.
“My mom helped me raise my girls. She was always there for the kids
when they were growing up. I probably would’ve spoiled them because I
felt guilty about my lack of time with them,” says Merlee. “My mom also always reminds me to be a good wife. She reminds me to think about how Timmy would feel. I’m such a workaholic that I sometimes tend to forget about people.
“In advertising, you can only succeed in the business if you have a supportive partner,” Merlee says. “And you can only survive in advertising if your spouse understands advertising.”
Timmy used to be in advertising so he understands how creative minds work, and the hours that they keep. But one night, when Merlee was heavily pregnant with her second child, Timmy came to pick her up at the office at 2 a.m. and she still did not want to go home. She asked him to wait a little longer.
“This Mad Men advertising industry is really very manoriented. It’s very cutthroat. It’s a tough journey as a woman.”
“He said, ‘If you don’t get in the car with me now, you may not have anyone waiting to pick you up one day,’” recalls Merlee. She says that was an eye-opening, defining, extremely frightening moment when she realized that she had to make a conscious effort to make her husband and her growing family a priority. Weekends now are for herself and for her family. This Saturday, for instance, is fully booked. She’s going to take the girls to the dentist, and she’s heading to the salon for a hair treatment. They’re watching a movie in the evening. On Sunday, she and Timmy will go for a run. It’s their longest run of the week, about 10 kilometers. Running helps cleanse their minds.
Daily prayer also continues to help give Merlee clarity. Aside from morning prayers, on stressful days, she heads to the chapel in the middle of her workday. Merlee also believes her sisters’ prayers continue to help the family. All three of her younger sisters now live in the same nunnery she had lived in as a teenager. She hasn’t spoken to them since they entered their life of prayer and contemplation more than two decades ago, but she and her parents get to see them once a year when the cloistered convent is open to the public for Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“We’re not allowed to approach them, but we see them singing in the choir. They look happy,” says Merlee of her sisters who are now in their 40s. “I wish I could be with them, but at least they’re all together.”
In the last few years, life has been running smoothly for Merlee, her family, and her team, which has again made her restless.
“After 10 years , Dm9JaymeSyfu was pretty set. We had won the highest of awards. We were relaxed. Been there, done that,” says Merlee. “I hated it. I hate when people rest on their laurels. I started asking myself, ‘What next? Where is this world going to?’ It’s going digital. We have to equip ourselves with the technology and innovation to complete.”
And so when Dentsu Aegis Network of Japan came calling, she met up with them. It was like going back to her roots, she says. Merlee’s greatgrandmother is Japanese, from a samurai clan in Yokohoma. And so the Filipino company agreed to be acquired by the Japanese. A few months ago, Dm9JaymeSyfu became DentsuJaymeSyfu. From a small firm of 33 employees, the company now has about 90 people.
In such a merger, it’s usually the culture of the bigger agency that supersedes the smaller one, but in this case, Merlee continues to be chairmom and the face of the company.
“When we presented who we were to the Japanese, they were impressed. They liked our culture. They said, ‘Do not lose it,’” says Merlee. “And so we haven’t. It’s like going into a marriage. You don’t want to lose your identity. You don’t want to feel like one is colonizing the other.”
It’s come full circle for Merlee, who first started in advertising over 25 years ago as a copywriter at DentsuYoung&Rubicam.
“Can you imagine that? I’m now back with Dentsu as a partner,” says Merlee. “Back then advertising was such a cutthroat business. Older, insecure creatives would steal our ideas. We had so many ideas that we would clear with the bosses who would say they were nothing. And then the next thing we knew they were airing and a boss was taking the credit.”
Merlee says that sort of backstabbing was such a traumatic experience for her, she swore she would never to do that to a younger creative.
Monique Lhuillier gown, Rustan’s Makati, 813.3739; Louis Vuitton shoes, Greenbelt 4, 756.0637; Damiani earrings and bracelet, Rustan’s Silver Vault Makati, 813.3739.
And when she started her own company, she made sure everyone feels like family. “Life is too short not to work with people you like,” says Merlee. “We celebrate our successes together and commiserate with each other when we lose a pitch. Every time someone resigns, even if it’s going to be better for them to move on, I feel like a failure. I ask myself, ‘Did I not inspire them enough to stay?’”
The office culture is so family-oriented, they even have a crib at the office, for times when, for one reason or another, mothers have to bring their babies to work.
“We take turns babysitting at meetings. Baka dapat may nondisclosure agreement din sila,” says Merlee.
Merlee believes in worklife balance. People come in at 8 a.m., leave at 5 p.m. She believes the company still draws out the same kind of energy from people without running them through the wringer.
“We can be demanding without being harsh,” says Merlee. “We still win the awards.”
In the afternoons, at about 3 p.m., Merlee opens a bottle of wine for whoever feels like having a drink while brainstorming. Sometimes they walk to nearby Greenbelt to get beers at a pub. Or they play ping-pong to get their adrenaline pumping and their creative juices flowing.
“Every day is an opportunity to be creative. We don’t need to wear weird clothes and color our hair pink to label ourselves as creative,” says Merlee, who is today in patched jeans, a plain black T-shirt, and a gray sweater. “We don’t need to have our offices painted in bright colors and put swings and slides and scooters to make people think we’re creative. That’s for people who are square and want to pretend to be cool.”
This story originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Town&Country Philippines.