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


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. 

—The Clio Awards will be announcing this year's gold, silver and bronze winners on clios.com on Sept. 12. The Grand Clio winners will be revealed at the Clio Awards ceremony in New York on Sept. 28.

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