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

The Dentsu JaymeSyfu CCO reflects on her remarkable balancing act

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.