Interview: Leigh Reyes on Creativity, Leadership and Limited FTG

Whether it’s award-winning work at MullenLowe Philippines as President and Chief Creative Officer, the wide range of creative topics she covers on her blog, or the assortment of doodles she posts for her 15k followers on Instagram, Leigh Reyes embodies the word, “creative”.

More: Warren Wang, Interbrand China CEO on the State of Branding in China

Yet, perhaps more important than that, she’s also a creative leader; someone who, as Reyes puts it, believes “it’s more important to shine a light on other people’s ideas” in an effort to “engender higher levels of collective creativity.”


Winner of the Philippines’ first gold Clio, Reyes has been awarded and recognized at Cannes, D&AD, One Show, Art Directors’ Club, Spikes, among others. She has also served on juries at Cannes Lions, Clio, Art Directors’ Club, LIA, AdFest, Spikes, and AdStars.

She recently spoke with Branding in Asia from her office in Manila.

What have you been up to lately?

Thanks to our recent office renovation, I confronted the accretion of years: bottled ink, watercolor tubes, sketchbooks and journals, graphic novels, toys – all needed to be sorted and stored in boxes.

I realize the trick to getting organized is to have next to nothing to organize. (In life, as in advertising, the path from realization to action is never straight.)


That being said, I can’t wait for us to finally get settled into our rebooted office.

To misquote John Archibald Wheeler, “Space tells matter how to move.” We gave a lot of thought to how space can encourage serendipitous interactions, provide pockets of quiet and focus, and spark ideas. There isn’t a single surface in this office that isn’t Instagram-ready.

On the industry front, I’ve been elected to the IMMAP (Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines) board for the second year. I again chair the Boomerang Awards, working with Jeff Saez of NuWorks and Mike Constantino of Homonym.

Everyone’s creativity is different. What works for me might not for everyone else. However, leading a creative organization, I know there is one thing that can help anyone be more creative: generosity.

My favorite part of the job is curating the jury. Unlike purely creative award shows, the Boomerang Awards showcases innovative ideas and executions that deliver results. Startup founders, digital marketers, creative directors, media strategists, data scientists – we invite them, they gather around a table and discuss all kinds of digital work, and everyone emerges from the judging room a little more knowledgeable and connected than they were. It’s amazing to observe. I am so looking forward to doing that again this year.

You’ve written that creative entrepreneurs need community, not just customers. Can you talk about that?

Several months ago, a friend I hadn’t seen in years handed me a check for $300. She used to accept Paypal payments on my behalf, back in 2003 when I made jewelry and listed regularly on eBay. (She had set up a separate account in another bank. Things happened. They found her after a decade. Isn’t that remarkable?)  

I was a fledgling creative entrepreneur, pre-Paypal, pre-Facebook. It was a struggle, especially because I didn’t know too many people who were doing anything along the same lines.

I joined local bazaars. Inevitably, I would be one of only two or three tables with handmade creations. Everyone else had mass-manufactured goods. Buyers would bargain and tell me, “But over at the other booth, necklaces are less than a hundred pesos!”  

I’ve become more curious and less afraid. I know how to hack my own process and push divergence. However, I also know that, for the job I have today, it’s more important to shine a light on other people’s ideas.

A creative entrepreneur is a creator, maker, marketer and retailer, all in one. It takes a lot more bravery to market and sell the products of your personal creativity compared to doing it for other people, or for a salary. Your self-worth can fluctuate depending on what people are willing to pay for the work of your mind, heart, and hands.

Back then, there were no visual social networks that let creators express their vision and purpose, and allowed people who might like what they made to discover their work. There was an audience for handmade, but there was too much friction and not enough serendipity between the creator and the audience.

Storm clouds outside, brightness inside.

A photo posted by Leigh Reyes (@leighpod) on

Back then, I had customers. They couldn’t tell other people, easily, that they liked my work. They couldn’t selfie with my necklace and tag me and 10 other friends, one of whom just might have been a fledgling creative entrepreneur, too.

Today, social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are both serendipity engine and global marketplace. Never has it been easier to find and bond with the like-minded. And when that happens, we call that community. Community is a force multiplier for growth. Creators and audience can find one another faster, learn from a wider pool, and improve together.

We met at AdStars in Korea last year. You’ve mentioned that at smaller, more inclusive award shows like AdStars, it’s the size of the idea that matters, not the size of the awards budget.

Inflation doesn’t spare award shows. Agencies make hard choices because of rising costs and, inevitably, suffer some form of regret afterward. (“We should have entered that in Point of Purchase /Other instead!”)  Bigger agencies tend to have bigger budgets, and can spread their hopes across more work.

More: Merlee Cruz-Jayme: A Creative Life – From Nun to Chairmom to CEO

AdStars is unique in that it’s a major show that doesn’t charge entry fees. This isn’t an excuse to carpet-bomb all the categories with your artificially-intelligent bar coaster. It does, however, give smaller agencies a little more flexibility.

You’ve been in the creative game for awhile. How do approach creativity now?

On my own, coming up with ideas has never been easier. I’ve become more curious and less afraid. I know how to hack my own process and push divergence. However, I also know that, for the job I have today, it’s more important to shine a light on other people’s ideas.

What interests me more now is how to cast talent and teams to engender higher levels of collective creativity. It’s messier. It’s not just between me and a piece of paper. I’m not that good at it yet. The universe knows I need to be less impatient. But I’m getting better.

Leigh demonstrates water-resistant and waterproof fountain pen inks.

I love your blog, My life as a Verb. There is one post, more of a letter really, “To young women of talent,” in which you write, “And don’t forget to tell us, what you learn along the way.” So, tell us, what have you learned along the way?

When we win, it’s not all about me. When we lose, it’s not all about me. (This is where being an imposter syndrome poster girl comes in handy.)

I have limited fucks to give (FTG), therefore I save them. I no longer have FTGs for dressing up, for example; those went to art supplies.

  • Always be doing something you’re not good at.
  • Always be doing something you’re very good at.
  • This ensures balance in the force.

I refuse simplistic binaries. (That’s how despots rise to power, by reducing the world to them versus us.) I want all of us to live up to our evolutionary complexity, to avoid problem-solution tropes, to thrive in diversity. We must all be able to live with the consequences of our work.

Someone once told me this and it stuck: “I have this friend who rewrites his c.v. every year. He doesn’t need to be looking for a job or anything. He just wants to make sure his c.v. hasn’t stayed the same, that he’s added a new skill, a new language.”

Last year, I added “iMessage sticker pack developer” to mine.

Any advice for creative leaders?

Everyone’s creativity is different. What works for me might not for everyone else. However, leading a creative organization, I know there is one thing that can help anyone be more creative: generosity.

If you’re a creative leader, be generous. Be generous with your time, your attention, your beer and pizza money.

More: Leigh Reyes Ad Stars Dispatch – From a Jury Room too Close to the Beach

Be especially generous when the going is tough, when the team can’t seem to crack it; find your last fumes of generous for a newbie who slips up, for that perfectly avoidable error.

If everyone on the team is working late, don’t go home early. Reward other people first. If everyone else is traveling coach, don’t fly business class. Those are all generous acts – not just giving what’s important, but giving up what’s not that important.

Lastly – turn off email notifications. Best toggle I’ve untoggled ever.

Is there any recent work you’ve seen in the Philippines that knocked your socks off?

I liked Globe’s #CreateCourage Rogue One homage, which ran before the movie premiered here. It’s now up to 7 million YouTube views. I appreciate that it didn’t just remain a story.

They followed it with a call to donate to the children’s ward of the Philippine General Hospital.

I also have a soft spot for the latest distillation of cuteness from McDonald’s.

How are homegrown agencies faring against the global shops in the Philippines?

They’re more than holding their own. When I go up against other agencies in a pitch, it’s usually a mix of local and global. Local agency founders with experience in a network agency can use that to inform their vision and strategy. The democratization of capability isn’t just limited to manufacturers and retailers.

Twentyfive & Thirty might seem extreme to many, but we could all do with reviewing and rewriting our own scripts.

See more from Leigh on her blog, My Life as a Verb, or follow her on Instagram.


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