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

It’s always fun when writers are they themselves an interesting story.

While Merlee Cruz-Jayme, —The Founder, The Executive Creative Director, The CEO, The Chairmom— has transcended the title of mere “writer”, she remains securely rooted as a woman with a way with words.

Whether it’s an advertising concept, her recently released book “Everyone Can Be Creative,” or a song written and donated for a worthy cause, the Philippine native’s greatest creativity spills forth from her pen.


And the storyline of her life is a tale well written with diligence and determination —and an interesting first step on her career path.

From three years studying to be a nun in her early teens, to what is now a quarter of a century in the ad industry, Jayme has become one of the most well-respected creatives in Asia.

In 2005, after previously punching the clock first at Saatchi & Saatchi and then BBDO, she co-founded DM9 Jayme Syfu, an agency which would, along with other accolades, bring home the Philippines’ first ever Cannes Media Lion for “Duct Tape”, a campaign for women’s rights group Gabriela in 2008.

Five years later, the agency went on to capture the country’s first Cannes Lions Mobile Grand Prix for ‘Smart TXTBKS’ –another campaign centered on helping those in need.


In December of last year, JaymeSyfu Group was acquired by the Dentsu Aegis Network, to become Dentsu JaymeSyfu –opening up yet another, more expansive chapter in the creative life of Merlee Cruz-Jayme.

Branding in Asia recently caught up with the Chairmom at her office in Makati.

You were a Benedictine Novice for three years en route to becoming a nun. You’ve said it was the best training for the work you do now. What caused the drastic change of direction and how did those three years benefit your career?

So restless at 13, I wanted answers to a lot of questions. So, I decided to try something that was beyond the comfort of my home and my family. It was one experience that totally changed my life and taught me so much. For a creative like me, it has taught me a life of silence and discipline. This contemplative life helped me achieve clarity of mind and master the skill of reading people.

When I think about it, those years in the convent were simply preparation to hone creativity: precious training to be a good employee and an inspiring leader at work, and a loving wife and mother at home.

After all, a period of three years means 26,280 hours of cleansing one’s thoughts and erasing ill will from the heart. Those hours were spent absorbing the meaning of faith, and understanding how nature and people work. It satisfied my relentless curiosity, and my thirst to learn the meaning of life was quenched. When the day of enlightenment came, I knew it was time to return home. I was 16 years old then.

The monastic experience is all about “ORA et LABORA” or work and pray. If you think about it, I still do a lot of that today! I work so hard, and pray that the client or the jury would love the ideas.

What are some advertising trends you’d like to see come to an end?

Technology for technology’s sake. Technology and innovation are out there to make people’s lives better and to uplift humanity, not just to dazzle us.

There will be moments when both lives will be in conflict. I was eight months pregnant when I was doing a big pitch. I was going home at 2am for three consecutive nights! I wanted to win.

You’re obviously still very young. But, how would you rank your creative juices now compared to when you were younger?

Haha, that’s very flattering, but I don’t consider myself young! However, my energy and passion for this job have definitely grown tremendously as I age. I put in more heart to my writing. I dig deeper and come up with more relevant insights. My goals go beyond awards but to truly help humanity.

If you could work on a creative project with anyone, who would it be? What kind of project would you like to do with them?

Duct Tape - Gabriela

“Duct Tape” Campaign

I currently work with a women’s group GABRIELA – and have been a member since college, in developing campaigns against sex trafficking and ending violence against women and children. With the group, I’ve also written a song for One Billion Rising, a global movement to end rape and sexual violence against women, with Founder Eve Ensler.

If there was an opportunity, my dream project would be to save lives from disasters. Calamities happen a lot in the world especially in my country. I’d really want to create solutions that would help people be more prepared and not just “accepting” of their fate. I’d love to be part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on this.

You refer to yourself as a “Chairmom”. How difficult has it been to balance family life with the professional life while reaching such lofty career heights as yourself? Any tips?

I have to admit that balancing two roles is really tough. I got married at 25 and had my first child just one year later. I’ve been married for 24 years now and have four beautiful daughters. I helped them in poster making contests, never missed a ballet recital, graduation, First Communion and gave boy advice every now and then. This pretty much sums up my family life.

I was hired just before graduation. I took a copy test early as I was afraid of the thousands of graduates that might apply in advertising. After six months, I applied in the most awarded and toughest agency in the country.

Merlee Cruz-Jayme Daughters- Interview Branding in Asia

Merlee Cruz-Jayme (left) with her four daughters.

For 13 years, I worked my way up the ladder from copywriter to Associate Creative Director, CD, Executive CD then Vice President ECD. I moved to my number one competitor and barely lasted for a year. It was then that I decided to start my own agency at 40. After 10 successful years, I partnered with a new network which I believe will build an even stronger creative offering for our clients.

How did I survive these two lives? You just have to simply interweave the two roles seamlessly together.

Merlee’s tips for the family work life balance:

Keep your after-work hours ‘work-free’

Avoid bringing work at home during weekdays. In fact I throw my cellphone in my drawer to force myself to stop looking at emails. I try my best to focus on my daughters’ assignments and be a part of all conversations from football games, golf and boys to school bullies. Weekends are completely reserved for Mommy duties.

Never let them feel your absence

This works in both worlds and the key is to stay organized. I make sure I have enough face-time with my clients, same goes for my family. I have date nights with my husband (and my daughters separately) regularly. This gets tricky when I have to travel so when the kids were young, I would leave little notes around the house to make them feel my presence. Now, I stay connected with via Snapchat and Instagram. Thank God for technology!

Address the guilt

You know, you have to come up with tactics to cope or else you’ll die of guilt. Indra K. Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, once said, “The biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other. When you have to have kids you have to build your career. Just as you’re rising to middle management your kids need you because they’re teenagers, they need you for the teenage years. And, your husband at one point would need you too!”

Sometimes I feel like everyone wants a piece of me. There’s a downside to that. Time. But there’s a whole lot more of upside to that. They need you. Be afraid once they start going on with their lives without you. How to address the guilt? To me, it’s all about perspective and the guilt of missing a meeting is less of a guilt than missing my daughter’s birthday.

Achieve Ambition and Mom-bition

There will be moments when both lives will be in conflict. I was eight months pregnant when I was doing a big pitch. I was going home 2am for 3 consecutive nights! I wanted to win. For my kids and health’s sake, my husband went to my office and threatened to confront my boss. I needed that to wake me up that I should know when to stop working.

I have my dreams. And I want to achieve them. I am so driven to succeed as the smallest agency with the biggest dream. At some point, I thought the barrier to achieving this, is family. And, I was totally wrong. Family inspired me and supported me to go and achieve my goal.

Today, I make these two worlds exist.

Do not be afraid to ask for help

Be it from your parents or spouse, having supportive family members will play a huge part in your success. Sheryl Sandberg once said: “”The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.” This is true and I feel incredibly lucky every day.

What advice would you offer up for those who just graduated from school and are looking to ‘make it’ as a creative?

Be curious. Take risks. Look for a creative job where your creativity will be pushed. I always tell my young creative to make their creative lives difficult. Look for great mentors who can push talent. Never settle for mediocre mentors who will just stifle it.

Merlee Cruz-Jayme - Branding in Asia

Merlee the marathoner.

I’ve read somewhere that there are indeed techniques to learn creativity. Gerard Puccio at Buffalo State College in New York teaches his students that creativity comes in four stages – clarifying, ideating, developing and implementing. Clarifying is the curiosity phase. Here, you train yourself to ask all the necessary questions about a subject.

Ideating is forcing your brain to think of not one or two, but a hundred possible ‘ways to go’. Developing and implementing are the finishing and polishing part of the whole exercise. These techniques will force a creative to think of a lot of wild ideas instead of falling in love with a few rational ones.

I recently wrote a book, “Everyone Can Be Creative”, which will be available on March 9th. I wanted to prove that everyone has a drop of creativity in them and all it needs is proper analysis, training, and understanding to hone it further. I believe creativity has the power to change this world for the better.

You’ve been selected to judge at some of the most prestigious shows and festivals. What are some positives and negatives about serving as a judge? Anything you’d like to see change with the process?

Whenever I’m invited to view some of the world’s best ideas, I look for big brands and how they push their brand messages, amplify brand equities and/or solve brand issues. I am awed looking at prototypes that are open to big possibilities but I am even more amazed at real brands with real victories, cutting through clutter and taking up real creative challenges.

Photos courtesy of Merlee Cruz-Jayme and Dentsu JaymeSyfu.


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