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Merlee Jayme, the recently anointed chief creative officer (APAC) for Dentsu International, shares with The Drum her focus on building the group’s creative reputation.

Merlee Jayme hails from The Philippines and cofounded her own creative agency, Jayme Syfu, famed for winning the first-ever Cannes Lions Grand Prix for the Philippines for its client Smart telecommunications. The agency was eventually acquired by Dentsu and she currently oversees the creative mandate for the region as the chief creative officer (APAC), Dentsu International.

Key priorities of the new mandate  

Jayme agrees that she has joined at a tough time when most parts of APAC are back to lockdowns again, with the threat of the virus variants looming. The key task, according to Jayme, is to keep doing great work and have a strong, consistent narrative by bringing brilliant stories, data, and tech-driven ideas to a whole new level.

“My priority would be to help the region push brave work and win new businesses despite these barriers, continue to innovate our tech, to create award-winning campaigns," she says.

Thus, a key part of her job would be to, “overcome barriers to creativity when clients are spending conservatively with the pandemic still approaching.” It is critical to get past these physical challenges and limitations especially when it comes to production, she says.

Benefits of being an entrepreneur and co-founder of an agency 

Jayme brings to the role a unique entrepreneurial vision as the founder of the Philippines based creative agency, Jayme Syfu, which was acquired by Dentsu Aegis Network in 2015. Initially, the agency was called DM9 Jayme Syfu and it was co-founded with Alex Syfu, who is now heading Dentsu One Manila. The hunger and the drive of this small agency of nine kept the pace and they had to pitch to survive, she shares.

“We were pitching for a big client (McDonald’s) without having any tables and chairs”, she adds. It is with that tenacious spirit, the agency won the first-ever Cannes Lions Grand Prix for the Philippines for our biggest client Smart telecommunications, says Jayme.

“Through five years, what drove the success of the agency are two important things: pushing creativity to everyone - beyond the department and balancing great ideas and business building work," she shares, "I was never a believer of templated, very safe, super researched work."

The belief that creativity means business and is the currency of the future, has worked out well.

Life after joining the Dentsu network

Marrying and integrating two different cultures is one of the toughest tasks of any acquisition and can take a very long time.

"We joined Dentsu Philippines in 2015 and the transition is finding the right balance with the comfort and security of a large international network, vs the grit and the drive of a family agency, was not without its challenges", says Jayme.

It has been five years of being an idea-led, data-driven, and tech-enabled strength, she shares, in which the agency has won big pitches and major awards. The pandemic and the rise of 5G has made everyone create their own content, trying to get the attention of consumers in this highly digitized world. 

View on India, one of the key markets under her mandate   

The India footprint for Dentsu has been a sizable one and has grown in the last few years, with network agencies that include Taproot as the flagship and one of the most feted brands.

Jayme admits to being in awe of the work done by the India office – “they are insightful, have a lot of heart, and authenticity and I love that about them. It helps that they have been winning consistently every year."

And it doesn’t stop with work, she adds, talking about the women's programmes at Dentsu India for 'returnship' – mothers returning to work and supporting them in balancing a very important period in their lives.

“I find myself being inspired by their offices and I certainly do not need to fix anything; I am just there to support", says Jayme. 

Unique facets of The Philippines creative market 

  • The Philippines market has a limitation of media channels, and the biggest TV network was shut down due to a license expiration at the height of the pandemic. 
  • The outdoor placements slowed down due to the lockdown while the digital world became more aggressive. 
  • To capture attention in the crowded digital space, clients started going for quick cut-throughs over brand-building ideas. With budget cuts and production limitations, the work has gone down and can definitely be better.

Hacks to make sense of the complex APAC market

  • Be known for the work - keep it strong and brave. Keep the authenticity and uniqueness intact. 
  • Improve the storytelling but you don’t have to be Americanized to appeal. Taiwan won a Grand Prix this year at Cannes Lions on the back of its unique insight and narrative 

Her leadership mantra

“I am 90% creative and 10% a businesswoman. I even took up accounting courses to arm myself with the knowledge that comes in very handy in this business.”