Is Opportunity Equality as Important as Gender Equality in Forging Ad Careers?

Dentsu’s Cruz-Jayme on helping women prove their worth

Merlee Cruz-Jayme is Asia's fifth most-awarded creative director and one of the best-known advertising executives in her native Philippines. She's also a member of that rare club of women who start their own agencies. In her case, Cruz-Jayme launched DM9 Jayme Syfu, 11 years ago, which recently sold a majority stake to Dentsu Aegis. Cruz-Jayme's current work is a far cry from what she set out to do as a teenager—she was a Benedictine novice for three years. But even away from the convent, she's sought out transformative goals. In 2014, her agency won a Grand Clio Award for its "Smart Txtbks" campaign, which turned used SIM cards and old GSM phones into a new kind of textbook for underprivileged schoolchildren. It wasn't only a proud career moment. As Cruz-Jayme noted when she collected the prize: "I'm happy that it recognized an idea that showcased creativity for humanity." This year, she serves as the jury chair for the Clio Awards' Direct & Engagement/Experiential category.

Adweek: What sort of work are you looking for in judging the Clio Awards this year?
Merlee Cruz-Jayme: This is one of the most exciting categories. Unlike other forms of media, where you create then you wait, this category lets you see consumers' real-time reactions, immediate feelings and live experiences about an idea. However, some ideas can be gimmicky and overly complicated. Agencies should always remember these elements when making campaigns: genuineness, simplicity and a key, powerful message that is delivered in the freshest and most compelling way.

Why skip the kind of chest-thumping public service ad that might be expected for your telecommunications client Smart and develop an award-winning solution like "Smart Txtbks"? 
I always look at the objective of a requirement. Smart had wanted to show its involvement in community work and how they have helped public schools with their services and technology through a print ad, and we could have done just that. But we decided to challenge ourselves to think of other ways to achieve the same objective.

We stumbled on the problem of schoolchildren carrying a heavy load of books, walking to school, and that inspired us to create a simple solution like "Smart Txtbks" to reduce their burden. It not only went beyond the requirement, but also genuinely made a positive impact in the community and changed lives.

Do we see enough of that kind of innovative agency problem solving in the industry today?
I do see inspiring pieces of work in award shows, and hopefully, creating problem-solving, innovative ideas will become part of every agency's DNA. After all, this is the best way to connect with our consumers today.

Did winning the Grand Clio impact your career?
Winning the Grand Clio was a first for the Philippines. It made our agency, the industry and the country proud. It definitely inspired me to create more life-changing ideas.

What made you decide to leave the convent and pursue a career in advertising?
It must be weird that from a life of total silence, I went into the business of communication. The creative in me has always been guiding my life. I entered the convent because I was a very curious kid thirsting for answers. At 16, I left the convent, decided to share my learnings and got into volunteer work. In school, I harnessed creativity through writing, acting and creating all kinds of artwork. My accidental internship led me to JWT. And the rest is history.

The recent controversy surrounding alleged sexist comments from former JWT chief Gustavo Martinez has raised questions about the way women are treated in the ad industry. What's your view on this?
Of course, it bothered me, and I know that this exists beyond the advertising industry. In my 25 years in advertising, I've had my share of sleazy comments and harassment. I fought back. Throughout the years, I've also helped other women fight back. But don't get me wrong. I was also lucky to be mentored by extremely brilliant men who are very respectful of women.

People think that gender equality will help women fulfill their goals. The biggest factor for us women to reach our goals is opportunity equality. We have to keep breaking the glass ceiling to prove to the world we are just as good or even better. Give us equal opportunity and we will teach differently, but brilliantly. We will solve problems differently, but efficiently. We will fight differently, but bravely. We will lead differently, but greatly.

I am also part of a committee in Dentsu Aegis Network's initiative One@ Dentsu Aegis, which looks at diversity as a whole, with the initial focus on women. It is programmed to scale across APAC, spotlighting female leaders as they continue to have increasing influence in their roles as consumers, employees and leaders.

What advice do you have for young women considering a career in the marketing communications and media industry?
Do not rush. A lot of young talent today is impatient. They want to hit it big, the fast and easy way. There are no shortcuts in this business. But there's luck. A creative talent who learned the discipline well will not stumble and fall when lady luck strikes.

This story first appeared in the April 25, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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