There’s no better way to introduce Merlee Jayme-Cruz than to show you one of her many works.
From concept to the tagline ‘suportahan taka,’ now a Pinoy household expression, it bears the mark of Merlee, the woman who never runs out of ideas. She is the reason why some of the top consumer brands in the country trust her and Dentsu JaymeSyfu, her creative agency that began with 20 employees in 2004 and is now one of the most awarded agencies in the Philippines. She is an astute and razor-sharp creative who is a force to be reckoned with, and it comes from her former life as a nun.
Yes, this advertising maverick lived as a novice in a convent, which she entered when she was 13 years old! (This feels like it deserves three exclamation points.) Where did this intense desire to enter a religious order come from?
"First, my mom was very religious. She would bring me to her prayer meetings since I was Grade 2. Whether she just wanted a companion or she wanted me to imbibe the religious life, I wasn’t really sure," Merlee recalls. "But somehow, the experience left me with a curiosity and desire to live a life ‘away from the world.’ By 13, I was asking so many questions, and so restless with my life. I just packed my bags and left. Of course, my parents and grandparents tried to get me back. But my stubbornness to stay prevailed."
In her book Everyone Can Be Creative (published by Summit Books, a sister company of this website), Merlee provided details of her life at the Benedictine Monastery where the motto was ora et labora (prayer and work). She owned only three pieces of clothing, made sandals from old car tires, did laundry for 50 nuns, farmed fields of sweet potatoes (often their food for weeks), among other chores, and lived in contemplative prayer and silence.
Merlee did all the illustrations in her book.
The restlessness that led her to a spiritual life, however, was the same force that made Merlee leave the convent. “After three years of praying for the world, I was raring to take an active role in life; I had been quiet long enough,” she wrote in the book. “I thought maybe I should go out and make some noise to help. And so I left the convent and went back to school. Destiny then led me to the best business to make the noise in: advertising.”
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It should have been a weird, or at least, an awkward transition. It wasn’t the case for Merlee, but that is not to say the new chapter of her life was easygoing. She wanted to learn from the best, which meant quaking in her shoes in every pitch, in every presentation. In the book, she described rejections and incidents where she felt she was a total failure.
Quitting though was not an option. And somehow Merlee again transformed her restlessness into “creative strength,” and took advantage of the mental skills her previous life of simplicity, meditation, and backbreaking work provided. As a result, there was nothing you could throw this woman’s way that she didn’t seem ready for.
"When you are naturally restless and when you feel like there’s really nothing to lose, you get to try new things," she told us, "experiment different ways of doing work, look for the bright side in every darkness you encounter on your path."
Today, Merlee is still the only woman in the top 20 of the Creative Directors in Asia, and was ranked fourth in the 2014 Campaign Brief Asia Ranking. She is the first Filipino to be awarded The Creative of the Year for Southeast Asia in 2013’s Campaign Asia-Pacific Agency of the Year Awards. She has also been recognized with The Hall of Fame Award from the Creative Guild of the Philippines, and the New York Festivals Creative Achievement Award.
The awards and accolades show no signs of stopping especially for her campaigns that help uplift lives of women. As industry magazine Adobo points out, it has long been something of a mission statement with Merlee. She has had a hand in crafting multiple award-winning advocacies, campaigns and initiatives for clients such as Gabriela ('Scandal'), Anmum ('Trimester') and Modess ('#StopTheBulong).
Family, Merlee says, is her greatest achievement.
As if to prove that women can have it all, Merlee raised four daughters, two of whom are set to follow in her footsteps, with husband Timmy. It’s an impressive and inspiring balancing act. How does she do it? “You just do” came the quick reply.
Here's the rest of our email conversation with Merlee who answered in-between a looming deadline for a radio script and a promotional tour of her book, just another day in a creative life. Do you find yourself making compromises when it comes to your faith and the industry you work in? Yes. I am very uncomfortable when women are portrayed as sex objects in any form of communication. I’ve also decided to back out from working on certain issues that the church doesn’t agree with. An example is birth control or condom ads. (Merlee also made the decision to not do any political campaigns this year.)
We have to ask: if one of your daughters came to you and said she wanted to be a nun, how do you think you’d respond? I’ve always asked myself that same question. It would be tough because I love them dearly. To be honest, I can’t even imagine life without them. However, things happen for a purpose. I know that they are just as restless and stubborn as I was. If that day comes, maybe I should let them go. But I can only survive making that decision with a lot of prayers.
Do you talk to your daughters about your days as a nun? What’s that conversation like? Yes! Before, when they were younger, I loved making up stories before bedtime. One day, I decided to tell my stories in the convent. They were awed when I told them how I cared about the animals, farmed the fields, and harvested fruits from the trees. They couldn’t imagine how a city girl like me could actually have done all those things. Then, during one feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I brought them there to see the place and appreciate it.
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When it comes to your parenting style, what were you most conscious about especially when it came to nurturing their creative side? I’m a different kind of mom. I can’t help but laugh when they’re mischievous. Giggle when they’re naughty. Secretly feel proud when they do something out of this world-kind-of-weird. I don’t want them to lose that childlike innocence. All of them got a “little of me.” My eldest is good in drawing and writing and very restless. My second has a knack in fashion and is very witty. My third has a good sense of humor and the most sociable. And my youngest is the stubborn one, obsessed with dancing and making crafts. And I love all of their creative qualities! If ever, I am strict when it comes to keeping their values intact.
In your experience, what are the top three roadblocks for women when it comes to pursuing their creativity? 1. The worry of not fulfilling their dream of building a family while pursuing a career. 2. Related to this is when they do decide to pursue both, how can they balance this? 3. The guilt of not being a good mom while being too “ambitious” at work
Tell us about your quiet time. Running is still my quiet time. I do this every other morning before work. This clears my mind to prepare me for the day. However, prayer is a must. In the middle of a very stressful day, you’ll find me at the Greenbelt chapel.
"At some point in my life, I thought that big decisions I’ve made in the past actually resulted to lost opportunities. Then, one day, I just realized that on the contrary, it pushed me or prepared me to achieve what I have today. This was when I left home and entered a convent at 13. I decided to share all the wonderful learnings of living a quiet, simple life [in a book], and how it made me a better creative all these years."
Everyone Can Be Creative: Inspiring Habits From An Ex-Nun is available at Summit Newsstand.