In Search of Creative Excellence: From the Convent to Cannes



The following is an excerpt from
Fearless Filipinas: 12 Women Who Dared to be Different. The book features stories of Filipina women who broke barriers across a wide variety of fields, including sports, entertainment, academe, business, and more. Authored by Ezra Ferras, this chapter tells the story of what made Merlee Jayme a Fearless Filipina.

Life of silence

At thirteen, Merlee Jayme wrote a goodbye letter to her parents, ran away from home, and asked her aunt to bring her to the gate of a Benedictine convent. After a nun ushered Merlee inside and led her to the convent, the gate closed behind them with an audibly loud clank. She realized she was at the point of no return—once you were in, you couldn’t get out.

In the dining hall, the nun ladled soup into a bowl and served it to Merlee, who was famished from the long journey. She lifted the spoon toward her mouth. The nun cleared her throat, made the sign of the cross, and clasped her hands. Merlee followed suit and the nun led them in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

“How old are you, young lady?” the nun asked.

“I’m thirteen.” Merlee took a spoonful of the soup, then grimaced from the bitter taste. She poked around the bowl and saw boiled ampalaya (bitter gourd) circling in the broth.

“You’re more than welcome to stay. On top of our daily prayers, you’ll be assigned different duties every day, which is what keeps the convent going,” the nun said.

Merlee was about to respond, but the nun held an index finger to her lips. She instead nodded, embracing the prevailing silence that would define her life at the convent. Everyday tasks were handed to all of them. She cleaned stables, watered trees, harvested duhat, cleaned 15 bathrooms, pastured goats, and prayed every hour without fail.

This life consisted of “Ora et Labora” or “Work and Pray”—very different from how she lived back home. Merlee had run away because she was questioning everything—even more voraciously than any of her friends or classmates—and wanted answers. Why are the school rules like this? Why do I have to listen to teachers? Why are there so many poor people in the city?

None of the goats brought her answers, but at least they also didn’t
dismiss her questions outright as some of the people back home did. With a stick, Merlee drew the profile of one of the goats—her favorite one from among the trip because it was off to the side, separated from most of the group—into a clearing of dirt. She then erased her sketch with a smear of her foot. Merlee recited the Lord’s Prayer and then prayed in her own words, asking God for guidance.

After praying, she walked over to the bank of the pond, got on her knees, and gazed at her hazy reflection in the blackish-blue water. Because the convent had no mirrors (Merlee knew vanity was a sin but didn’t know which commandment it broke), here was where she would mark the passing of time, in between the prayers and theological books, livestock, and farming, during a period when she was rapidly growing. Merlee had no contact with the outside world, but because she was a minor, the nuns assured her parents that she was doing well whenever they reached out, which they did regularly.

She came into the convent as an angsty fresh-faced teen and then blossomed into a young woman of 16, at which point she felt ready to leave the convent and face the world again. She hadn’t found all the answers she came in search of, but she had a new source of strength: Whenever she encountered something she was unsure about, Merlee would go into a corner and pray.

Outside the walled gardens of the convent, Merlee had to contend with one of the issues that bothered her the most before she entered: school. She had missed much of her schooling for a girl her age, so if she were to enroll again, she would be classified as a freshman, a near adult among new teens. Rather than take this route, Merlee spent a year out of school, and then tried her luck on a placement exam for out-of-school youths that her dad had recommended.

Upon passing the exam, Merlee qualified to enroll in college. Because she loved drawing, even if her sketchpad had mostly been the convent ground, she matriculated into Maryknoll College’s course in communication arts. There she branched out from her inclination to draw toward everything else in the field, including radio and playwriting to copywriting and journalism. As with many of her classmates, Merlee’s dream internship was at the newscasting department of ABS-CBN. By the time she applied unfortunately, all the slots had been filled. Merlee was referred to J. Walter Thompson, an advertising agency, even though she knew nothing about advertising.

During her interview, the agency representative asked Merlee a series of questions, so they could determine where to best place her.

“Do you want to be in account management?” the interviewer said.

Merlee said no because she was bad at math and figured account management was related to accounting.

“Do you want to be in media?” the interviewer said.

Merlee said no because she was still somewhat shy on camera, only realizing later that he had been referring to media buying and not being a media personality.

“Do you want to be in creatives?” the interviewer said.

Because it was the only thing she understood, Merlee agreed to be
part of the creative team.

In search of creative excellence

Though she fell into the advertising agency on a whim, and again into the creative field on another whim, Merlee consciously chose the industry after graduating from Maryknoll. She had liked the ability to marry both her artistic talent and her writing skills into various collaterals, each bannered under some larger campaign.

She joined her first agency as a junior copywriter, but it was a poor fit. She felt that there was too much of an “okay na yan” (that will do) attitude when it came to the work, such as pitching campaigns that would pass with a client but not necessarily represent the cutting edge of the field. While this carefree culture allowed her to enjoy an active social life unlike others in advertising, Merlee realized it was ultimately to her detriment. If you aspired to be a great creative, how much can you really develop if you didn’t have people holding you to the absolute highest standards?

Merlee did research and discovered that Ace Saatchi & Saatchi had the reputation as the strictest advertising agency in the Philippines. She was overjoyed when she was invited for an interview, only to find the lobby full of what seemed like all the fresh graduates in Manila vying for the single copywriter opening.

A parade of Ace Saatchi & Saatchi employees burst into the lobby from the elevator, smelling of liquor and celebrating what seemed like a victory from a major industry show. One of them stopped to address the crowd of fresh graduates. She gave no introduction about Ace Saatchi & Saatchi, jumping straight into the brief like a gamemaster on a television show. Each of them would have three days to come up with a copy and a design, after which they would present to the head of creative.

After her competitors filtered out of the lobby, Merlee approached her. “Give me a pencil, paper, and a room. I’ll do the campaign now and present today,” she said.

She studied Merlee, then agreed.

Though she had no official time limit, Merlee strove to complete the campaign posthaste. When she finished, she informed the receptionist. The head of creative appeared promptly, as though it were a meeting scheduled well in advance.

During her presentation, Merlee second guessed herself. How could she, who barely had any experience, get the gig? Common knowledge held that a creative had to have one to two years at another reputable agency to even be considered for Ace Saatchi and Saatchi.

After her presentation, the head of creative crossed his arms. “You’ve got guts,” he said, leaning back in the leather chair at the head of the long boardroom table.

Merlee grew more nervous. How good could her presentation have been if his first comment was about her personality? “If I had more time, the work could have been more well thought out. This was a mistake. I should have presented with—”

Though Merlee had the gall to demand an impromptu meeting with one of the highest-ranking executives at the best agency in the nation, even she had her limits. She fell speechless for a moment at the sudden job offer, before stammering a response and thanking him for her time. “I’ll be in first thing on Monday morning,” she said on her way out.

On her first day, Merlee already felt the imposter syndrome that would characterize her time at Ace Saatchi & Saatchi. Everyone she was introduced to had produced company-defining campaigns, won awards at industry events, and fired off ideas with the velocity of a cannon: For every one Merlee came up with, they could come up with ten.

Though most people strolled into the office around 11:00AM, Merlee was always at her desk by 8:00AM, so when she presented to her bosses at lunchtime, she would have plenty to show. But being an early bird did not help. On one occasion, Merlee had submitted a body copy for an ad to her partner—every writer was paired with an art director—who took a few seconds to scan what she had been working on since early morning.

“These aren’t funny,” he said.

“Why does it matter? No one reads anything beyond the headline,” Merlee said, realizing her mistake almost as soon as she spoke.

The art director tossed the paper back to Merlee. “Come up with a hundred body copies. And I want the funniest punchlines.”

Though her first impulse was to lash out at her partner, she acknowledged the task with a nod and regrouped at her desk. She looked outside the window and imagined the fields in the convent. She would harvest sugarcane for hours until her arms were scratched and her back ached. “Patience,” she whispered to herself, before taking five minutes to pray. This became a habit during her darkest moments at the agency.

Merlee burned the midnight oil to produce the hundred body copies, one of which was approved after several rounds of revision. When she presented the splayed newspaper to her dad several months later, he looked at the ad’s headline, the product shot, and then flipped the page. “Great work,” he said.

Merlee turned the page back. “Look at the fine print. I spent several days on that.”

Her dad did not do as instructed. “Alam mo, anak (did you know, child), I can ask your tito to hire you over at his agency. You’ll have a higher role with higher pay, and you can clock out by six.”

He gave the newspaper back to Merlee. “No more bags under your eyes. How can you not want that?”

But Merlee didn’t want it. She tried to explain she wanted to stay to her dad every time he had brought it up, which seemed countless. Taking the easy way out would spare her of the challenges she knew would ultimately make her a better creative. Like a diamond, creative excellence was forged through time and tremendous pressure.

Though she welcomed the trial-by-fire, she still felt every last burn. When her bosses liked none of her title studies on one occasion—not a single one from the batch of fifty she had painstakingly crafted— she had to go back to the drawing board (a fitting metaphor for a writer who was also an artist). She stayed at her desk as midnight approached, when the office was dark and Merlee had no other company other than her thoughts—thoughts which seemed to drift to everything (the friends she no longer saw, the family she never spent time with, the weekend outings she missed) except memorable titles. The title that her colleagues had given her for this schedule, the “OT queen,” with OT short for “overtime,” was even more creative than what she had on her notepad.

She recalled her dad’s offer of an easier, higher-paying job. The shortcut was tempting, especially during moments like these when she was still brainstorming half-asleep. Merlee put down her pen, rubbed her eyes, and clasped her hands in prayer.

Chairmom

After thirteen years at Ace Saatchi & Saatchi, Merlee had risen up the ranks, coming in as a junior copywriter and culminating at the Vice President level as an Executive Creative Director. Through all the blood, sweat, and title studies, Merlee had achieved the creative
excellence she had once sought as a bright-eyed fresh graduate. She
felt confident in her abilities as a writer, artist, and most importantly,
as a creative leader. Merlee was thankful for her time at Ace Saatchi
& Saatchi, even if it was time for her to move on.

Merlee spent a year at another agency, before leaving to found DM9 Jayme Syfu in 2016. Though she had learned a lot across the agencies she had worked at before, Merlee had also been conscious of what she wanted to do differently. Over the course of her career, she had been jotting down ideas for how she would tun her own agency, and now came the time to implement them.

Some changes were cultural. At other agencies, “creative” was one specific department, composed of copywriters, artists, and creative directors. Merlee felt this was artificially limiting— everyone should be creative, not only for their clients but for the company. At DM9 Jayme Syfu, Merlee encouraged everyone to act creatively, including the messengers, the executive assistants, and the finance people. While they didn’t deliver client work, they could find many ways to be creative in executing their own tasks and deliverables.

The most sweeping changes were deeply personal, especially relating to her title. In lieu of creative director, Merlee decided she would be “Chairmom” for two reasons. One, she felt that although the Philippines could at times be a very matriarchal society, this quality was top-heavy. While the Philippines has had two female presidents when most of the world has never even had one, most women were infrequently given a voice and frequently the target of unfair criticism. If you spent too much time at work, you were a bad mom. If you spent too much time at home, you were a bad leader. There was just no way to win.

Second, she wanted DM9 Jayme Syfu to be more like a family than you could realistically feel at a larger agency. Her team would ideally treat her like a mother figure, and she would be there for them. To Merlee, Chairmom was not only the kind of quirky job title that has recently become popular, but was also a promise to protect her people as she would her own children.

On one occasion, an art director had accompanied a client out-of-town to assist their photographer in ensuring that their shoot successfully executed the concept DM9 Jayme Syfu had created. When she came back on Monday, Merlee sensed something was wrong.

“How’d the shoot go?” she asked.

“Better than I imagined. The concept was followed down to the last detail,” the art director said.

“Then why I am getting the sense that something’s bothering you?” Merlee asked.

“It was the food,” the art director said. “They—”

“If you’re not feeling well, you can stay home. You already worked
overtime the whole weekend,” Merlee said.

“They didn’t give me any food,” the art director said. “They gave everyone at the shoot food except me. Maybe because I wasn’t part of the team.”

“What?!” Merlee yelled, drawing her phone out. “It doesn’t matter what team you’re on. It’s courtesy to feed whoever’s there.” She dialed and indicated to the art director to wait.

Merlee did not bother with pleasantries. “She came to make sure your shoot was a success. She volunteered, on a weekend. Why was she not given meals along with everyone else?” she said, speaking with the tone that clients occasionally used with team members from her previous agencies.

The client was apologetic, insisting the incident had been some kind of operational mistake. By that afternoon, there was a delivery of merienda (snacks) for the entire office. Merlee had a big lunch, but the merienda was one of the most satisfying she ever had as a Chairmom.

That her art director had been able to work directly with their client was also a conscious change. At a large agency, there were many layers. To communicate with the client, you would have to first speak to your creative director, who would relay it to the account manager, and so on and so forth like some long game of telephone.

In this manner, it could take two weeks to even complete a simple print ad with all the back-and-forth. At her agency, Merlee eliminated the layers so anyone could talk directly to clients. At first, this immediacy was partly out of necessity since they were still very much a small business (which the early cash flow issues reminded Merlee every month), but she made it a point to keep communication simple even as they grew.

Merlee, of course, tried to model this behavior by speaking directly with clients whenever she could. After taking out a business owner for dinner and drinks one evening, they went back to the office to discuss a few unresolved issues with an upcoming campaign. Upon finishing, Merlee offered to walk him out of the building—he was one of their biggest clients, after all—so he deserved the red carpet treatment.

When the elevator doors pinged open, he said, “After you.”

Merlee boarded the elevator, waited for him to follow, and then pressed the button for the lobby. When thinking about what to make for small talk, she sensed him approaching her close. Too close, she thought.

She took a step back (as much as the cramped confines of the elevator would allow), and assumed a defensive karate pose with her arms. Merlee did not know karate but she had seen this pose in movies a few times, and this was all she could think to do in her shocked and still slightly buzzed state. Raising her voice, she said.
“Behave yourself.”

The elevator door opened, washing them in the light of the building lobby. A guard stood a few feet in front of them. “Is everything okay, ma’am?”

“Yes, it is,” Merlee said, seeking refuge at his side. “I have some work to catch up on. You can go on ahead.” She pointed at the door, avoiding eye contact with the client.

After summarizing the incident the next day to her partners, they were supportive, even if the client represented a large part of their monthly recurring revenue. “We can always make up the business. We’ll move double-time. What we can’t get back is the self-respect we lose by forcing ourselves to work with monsters like him,” one of her partners said.

Merlee’s partners were right. DM9 Jayme Syfu would grow on its own accord, working with clients and partners of its choosing, as reflected over the progression of their company trips in the ensuing years. For their first trip, they took a short two-hour flight to Hong Kong. For their next outing, they flew to Tokyo, which was only four hours away but seemed like an entirely separate universe, one where the people lined with quiet discipline for subways and other queues, the sushi, tempura, and other dishes were plated to perfection, and neon was splashed across the cityscape. On their tenth anniversary, DM9 Jayme Syfu took a trip to London, which was significant not only for the cost of flying the entire team across most of Eurasia, but for what it represented—they had arrived at one of the capitals of the advertising world.

Along with her partners, Merlee had taken DM9 Jayme Syfu as far as a boutique agency could go. Since deals for larger international clients were done at the regional level, they could only do their best to retain the local clients they already had. They have also won the biggest award in the country and the world: a Cannes Grand Prix, the equivalent in the advertising world of “Best Picture” at the Oscars. They were at a plateau and also at a crossroads, as to go any further would require Merlee to make some big decisions about the direction of the agency.

Around this time, a representative from the Dentsu—a large agency headquartered out of Japan—approached Merlee as he had been searching for “lighthouses” in the region. This term referred to promising, up-and-coming agencies that could further augment their reach in various emerging markets, the Philippines included. He wanted Dentsu to buy DM9 Jayme Syfu, so the agency could be their lighthouse in the archipelago.

After a long pitch and even longer negotiation, Merlee and her partners accepted Dentsu’s offer to acquire DM9 Jayme Syfu. One of the major deciding factors for Merlee was that her team members would now have the support of one of the largest agencies in the world to further grow as a creative professional.

DM9 Jayme Syfu thus combined with Dentsu Philippines, their existing operations in the country, to form Dentsu Jayme Syfu. Those who elected to join the new company soon experienced a culture clash between the two organizations that were suddenly under one roof. While those from Merlee’s team were gung-ho and ambitious, their counterparts from Dentsu were much calmer and relaxed. Over time, the culture of Dentsu Jayme Syfu came to be equal parts of both namesakes, like—appropriately enough for Merlee the Chairmom—a child.

To say that Merlee’s journey had been a whirlwind would be a vast understatement. She had begun as a curious teenager at a Benedictine convent, rose through the ranks rung-by-rung at one of the most prestigious (and strictest) international agencies in the Philippines, and found herself nearly coming full circle when her local agency was bought by a global player. Most players in the advertising industry associate Merlee as the visionary chairmom in front of a podium, but she was made—across all the hardships and challenges of this journey—in the stillness of much quieter moments when she would retreat to a corner and meditate on who she was, what she wanted to achieve, and what, God-willing, it would take to get there.


To get more insights from other Fearless Filipinas like Merlee Jayme, please check out the full book, available for purchase
here


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