Q&A: Merlee Jayme – “My right brain is calling me back”

After one year as dentsumcgarrybowen’s Global Co-president, Merlee Jayme recently returned to her creative roots as Dentsu International’s Chief Creative Officer, Asia Pacific. She will work closely with Fred Levron, who joins as Global Chief Creative Officer in November.

As co-founder of DM9 Jayme Syfu in Manila, which was later acquired by Dentsu Aegis Network, she brought the Philippines its first Cannes Lions trophy. A committed rule-breaker, she says she doesn’t break rules for the sake of it, but because “the impossibility of doing it excites me”.

Jayme will soon represent Dentsu International as an Executive Judge at the AD STARS 2021 Awards.


You have just moved into a new role as Chief Creative Officer for Dentsu International in APAC. What are you most looking forward to?

As we all know, creativity means business. It has been a year of launching dentsu mcgarrybowen from West to the East, pitching globally, learning processes and skills in a much bigger way than when I founded my own shop years ago.

This global role has opened my eyes to the opportunities and possibilities that we can build to push creativity and experience across markets.

Now, I want to go back to what I love most. Creating. My right brain is calling me back. Just this July, I shifted to a new role: Chief Creative Officer for dentsu International in APAC.

I am excited to create and collaborate with my brilliant and amazing colleagues in APAC to reinforce our creative reputation and win more awards and businesses this year. And with the recent news, our new Global Chief Creative Officer Fred Levron is joining soon. Things are falling into place. Dentsu will be a creative force to be reckoned with.


Do you think Dentsu’s fusion of east-and-west leads to a unique creative perspective in the work you’re making today?

Dentsu’s creativity is a unique fusion of the Eastern and Western cultures. There is that air of mystery in the work. No predictable thinking, signature style or templates. Each market’s work draws strength from rich deep local insights, executed with beautifully written and produced stories or innovations with advanced technology. All done with zen-like simplicity for great human connections.

“Creating campaigns for women is my passion to make this world a better place for my daughters.”

Take our work from the US: Crayola’s Colors of the World – multi-cultural skin-tone colors –to Oreo’s touching film about a proud parent as an ally to his daughter’s coming out loud and proud. Then look at Sinyi Realty in Taiwan, a Cannes Lions Grand Prix-winning film about the fear of commitment and marriage, to India’s better-half cook book from Swiggy for gender equality in the kitchen.

During lockdown, you encouraged creatives to “do something you’ve never done before”. Did you take your own advice? How did you survive lockdown (with four kids!) and stay sane?

I truly believed that by doing new things that you’ve never done before during this time, your brain will get a little confused. And, that’s good. Imagine the engine of a car once you get to jumpstart it. That’s what happens when you do totally new things in life.

I recommend this especially when you’re in a slump and can’t think of any great ideas.

If you know me well, you’ll be shocked to see me near the kitchen. I am the worst person when it comes to cooking. One day, my daughter challenged me with a recipe. I took it and decided to bake focaccia bread. I made this into a serious project. Everyone was super surprised. Now, it has a logo and a name on the box, “What the F*#@caccia!” But of course, I only bake when I’m in the mood.

The other weird thing I did was cut hair. I cut my husband’s hair, trimmed my Mom’s, daughters, and even our Maltese “Gucci’s” fur. I found out I’m pretty good at layering:)

My daughters and I also had “clay sessions”, painting and doodling afternoons. We keep ourselves active too. One would play golf, the others go to the gym while I regularly go out for a run. A healthy body sparks a creative mind.

How are you changing the creative culture at Dentsu in an industry that is known for tireless work hours?

At dentsu, I am also the APAC Diversity Equity Inclusion Executive Sponsor. Last January, we had a women’s forum to plan for the year. In a breakout session, we had some small talk among ourselves and I started hearing stories of home. I could feel everyone is tired, working more than double time, distracted, burdened.

“I think when I’m dead focused on achieving something to help or to create a meaningful project, the impossibility of doing it excites me.”

The fact was women were getting bogged down by a higher share of domestic chores and responsibilities with the imposed work-from-home strategy. Even when both partners are working from home, women have to handle a majority share of domestic responsibilities.

The Women From Home initiative is all about working women whose lives have been changed by the pandemic. How can we women rise up from our multiple roles as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mom while succeeding in our careers? We’ve come up with some simple solutions to lighten workloads and help women out in the network.

Women for different markets have shared with us their home stories, and most importantly, some actions for this. Wellness Wednesdays started in our Philippine office. It is that much-needed break in the middle of the week after non-stop meetings. Today, some offices in India are now implementing this as well.

Other great ideas submitted to the site are:

  • “Zero meeting hour before meals” to give proper time for meal preparation.
  • A virtual daycare we aptly called “Theycare”: colleagues can entertain kids over Zoom in different households through stories and crafts to give Moms some “Me Time”
  • “Free breakfast Saturdays” to let women sleep in and relax a bit
  • Lastly and very important is the “HESHEWorks: A chore share program”. This was inspired by our dentsu Webchutney office’s award-winning work called The Better Half Cookbook for their client Swiggy. This idea pushes the benefits of both the man and the woman in the house to share the task of cooking meals.

As a mom to girls, have you become more conscious of gender stereotypes that are perpetuated in the media?

I have been a member of a feminist group since college and they’re still my client to this day. Creating campaigns for women is my passion to make this world a better place for my daughters.

As a woman in the industry, I have experienced sexual harassment and I made sure I talked to my girls about this. In fact, we created “Gabbie the chatbot” for this – a chatbot that you can talk to without being judged. It also helps you report the incident in the easiest and fastest way possible.

And to go beyond gender stereotypes, we’ve launched a gender identity campaign this Pride month. This was the “Unlimited Language of Love”- a campaign about listening to what LGBT people might hear in your words and speaking with complete love and acceptance. It is enlightening people that when it comes to the LGBT community, tolerance is not acceptance.

You feature in a book called ‘Fearless Filipinos’ and have said that ironically being fearless got you into trouble in your younger years! What kind of kid were you?

Being fearless really got me into trouble through the years. As a kid, I hated that trend of wearing matchy clothes with my sisters. So I’d sweat myself out running back and forth just before leaving for a party. This will of course force my Mom to change my outfit. Being different was very important to me at a young age, I guess.

When I had so many questions in life at 13, I left home and entered a contemplative convent. I stubbornly stayed there against my family’s wishes. With a life of “ora et labora”, I decided to come home after 3 years.

In school, I applied to the college paper as a writer. The snobbish team didn’t accept me. So, I found my own rebel writers and formed a team. I asked for funding from one professor who admired our guts and founded my own tabloid.

My dad almost had a heart attack when I found a way to gather 300 signatures on my graduation day, to kick out a teacher who was a sexual predator.

Maybe I don’t break rules because I just want to. I think when I’m dead focused on achieving something to help or to create a meaningful project, the impossibility of doing it excites me.

Did you get to meet BTS during the recent Smart Communications shoot?! What can our industry learn from their success and ability to connect with such loyal fans?

This is the only time that made me really miss traveling during the pandemic. Meeting my bias Jungkook and V! I love BTS. Their new song “Permission to dance” is the first song in my running playlist.

Sadly, we shot the whole film – communicated with the director and the producer via zoom. As loyal “ARMY members” we were thrilled when the BTS idols would say hello or interact with us.

What I loved about them is how they made the world love and accept their culture, their music, talent, dedication to craft and even their language.

Funny, this is similar to our Asian work. Hopefully, the world will embrace our creativity wholeheartedly and really try to understand it.

This is your second stint as an Executive Judge at AD STARS. Why did you agree to return again this year?

With my new role, all the more I’d love to see the best work coming from a pandemic year, on our side of the world.

The Staff

The Staff

Gettin' it done, when the done needs gettin'.

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