Robert Sawatzky
Jun 20, 2022

Merlee Jayme on her 'marriage' and divorce with Dentsu

As her tenure with the agency network draws to a close, Dentsu's APAC creative chief reflects on her career of lessons learned and what lies next.

Merlee Jayme on her 'marriage' and divorce with Dentsu

As Campaign reported earlier this month, Merlee Jayme, Dentsu's Asia-Pacific chief creative officer and one of the region's most prominent creative advocates, is leaving the agency.  Her last day with Dentsu will be June 30th.

Jayme joined Dentsu back in 2015 when Dentsu Aegis Network acquired a majority stake in the Manila-based agency she co-founded in 2005 with Alex Syfu to form Dentsu Jayme Syfu. In 2020, Jayme moved to Singapore to become global co-president of the newly-formed DentsuMcgarrybowen creative 'superagency' alongside Jon Dupuis in New York. 

In this exit interview, the self-described agency 'chairmom' elaborates on her decision to leave Dentsu, the ups and downs of joining a big network, lessons learned along with way and speculates on what may be next for her.

How did you arrive at this decision to leave Dentsu?

If you know my history, I know when to start something and when it ends. When I founded an agency, I wanted to upgrade its innovation skills to have more capabilities for clients. So when we partnered with Dentsu—besides returning to my roots because I'm partly Japanese—I felt this was a very good fit, with a technology-led Asian-based agency. Then years later, after the acquisition, I was also very lucky to join as a global CEO of Dentsu Mcgarrybowen and gain more experience before I ended my term. And now, the agency has won several technology innovation awards, which was my dream. So I can never thank Dentsu enough. 

But I’m running out of time before retirement and I have certain things in life I still want to do. So that’s where I am now, looking at what’s next. 

What advice do you have for independent agencies unsure if they should join a big network?

I was asked a lot about this by friends who have their own agencies, both business and creative people. It depends. If it's about business, it's really about how to grow and what else to offer clients. When you’re looking at where to go, how to grow, where to bring your people with you, I guess that's where the decision lies. Some would rather stay independent to have more freedom. With my partners, we felt the need to tread into new unknown ground to become something bigger. 

When you set out as an agency, you have to think where you want to bring it. I suppose it’s almost like being single or being married. There's nothing wrong with being single forever. You grow, you’re fun, you're free, you're independent.  But in marriage you can grow together and you learn more and meet each other’s friends. It becomes a bigger playing field. So it really depends on your objective. 

There are different difficulties you encounter. When you are on your own, it can be scary. When you win an account, you have to keep the account and client happy. When you lose an account, you're on your own. I used to wish I still had a boss, because at a big agency when you have problems, you can just walk away and the boss can fix them. I learned the hard way in having my own agency that in difficult situations there's no one else to make the decision but me or maybe my partner Alex Syfu. Then creatives would want not to have anything to do with revenue, but I had to face revenue problems. So there were a lot of learnings.

What were the main highlights of your time at your own agency in the Philippines?

At DM9JaymeSyfu we had a blast. We had 30 people and at one point we decided to bring the whole agency to London in one plane. We did fun things, we went to Hong Kong and Korea and bonded like a family. That’s where I was really the chairmom, because I felt responsible like a mom to a family. I went to weddings and was the godmother to babies, so we were quite close when we joined up with Dentsu.

At Dentsu Philippines, they already had 150 people, so there was an adjustment when my 35-40 people suddenly joined a big agency and I was asked to be the chairmom of that huge agency. It was supposed to give me stability, but building the culture was more difficult. Our culture as a tight family of hungry go-getters was suddenly placed in a big, stable agency where people were more Zen and less hungry because they had enough accounts. It was a tough year and I lost people who were with me from the beginning. It’s a natural thing, you lose some people who won’t buy into this new kind of culture and then you hire new people who buy in into whatever is there. 

What did you learn during your time in a global role with Dentsu Mcgarrybowen?

I thought I knew what I was getting myself into with the global role, but it was bigger than that. It also came at the height of the pandemic. Because I didn't leave my home, I was having meetings with different countries everyday and I got to know so many people right away. 

I've been in global networks before I went on my own but this wasn't like that. These were business discussions with CEOs beyond work and ideas. I've never felt intimidated in a jury room talking about ideas and I can battle over what is good and not.  But in a room full of people where they know their business very well and they're discussing why revenues are down ahead of the pandemic, where accounts are lost, what to do and asking how to revive business, I tried too hard to be one of them. 

And then I figured out I'm not. I’m a creative by heart so I started bringing in more ideas like a creative—and I would apply this to issues like bonuses and staff well-being. So my ideas were helping out the business, but in a different form. And while I’m sure some were uncomfortable with a creative in the room, little by little the business ideas jelled and I discovered some of my closest friends now who are non-creatives. 

And now I’m pretty comfortable speaking about business. So even if I now get out of advertising and start a business I've learned a thing or two that will help with finance and what important things to look out for.  At this stage in my life, I'm not just a creative anymore, I'm a businesswoman. So for that experience I’m very thankful. 

What’s next?

I'll eat, love and pray for a while. I’ll go to places where I haven't been before and I’ve had bucket-list suggestions. I want a few months of doing that before I get back to whatever I love. I have ideas where I can put out creative energies, but change the model. This is where you learn business, create and put all that into good use.

I also want to go back to school. I’ve always wanted to take up design. I'm also judging at the LIA in Vegas as a creative consultant.

I also want to continue working with Asian women’s voices that are not heard at all. This is something that is still very relevant. I have a lot of friends now in APAC so I want to see how we can push these voices louder and how smart they are beyond language and cultural barriers.

What title will you hold in your next job?

My new email address now already includes chairmom. I'm launching a chairmom book in July that I’ve just about finished. I have a nice idea as chairmom to invite popular women leaders to bring their favourite chairs to a panel to discuss why we feel that we are chairwomen in our own lives.

You've already been such a strong proponent of advancing women in the industry for more than a decade. What’s your assessment of what has progressed and where a lot more work still needs to be done?

At first I thought the younger women from Asia were braver and bolder than older women who may adhere to more cultural tradition. But after seeing [Cannes Lions’] See It, Be It twice now, I think they’re actually undergoing the same things we went through growing up in the industry. It's just that they're better at covering it up than we were.  And that feels worse for me because it feels like it's okay with them to be free spirited but deal with hidden effects underneath. 

We never discussed mental health issues growing up, but their mental wellness issues today are worse. Saying something about [bad experiences like harassment] on social media can get you in trouble. So women try to show perfect lives on social media but they’re not. So that’s where some of the difference lies. 

It’s becoming hard to attract younger people to this profession in age of influencers. How can the industry become a place where they want to work again?

If there's anything I learned about the Gen Zs and the younger generations also, it’s that they're very purposeful. They feel that the world is being destroyed for them, so they're about to make it right. They're very idealistic in that sense. 

I have a Gen Z in the house, my third daughter who doesn't want to go to advertising at all after seeing her two older sisters in advertising. She wants to be part of the UN. I think the way to their heart is purpose. If they find our industry is the best way to push purpose, then they would love to be part of that now. 

Purpose may not be as big as saving the planet from climate change. It may be saving a person from being cancelled or bullied. If they find that this is the best industry to have a voice to do, then I think they will love it. 

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