How I got here….Mako Chaves, Zenith Media Philippines general manager

He shared a home with nine siblings, fell in love with lego and learned valuable lessons in 'summer camp' working at his aunt's botica. And then curiosity led Mako Chaves to the advertising industry


Whenever I tell people that I’m the youngest of 10, there’s always amazement. And when I say each of us was born one year apart, it turns into bewilderment.

My first taste of school was from inside a house of a dozen people. It was modest, but my parents equipped it with all the right tools to foster curiosity.

Lego provided the building blocks of Mako’s formative years

I was drawn towards airplanes, buildings, books, and LEGO. I would flip through Newsweek, rip the pages of airline ads, neatly trim their logos and add them to my Captain Chaves scrapbook.

When dad came home with rolls of engineering plans, the whiff of freshly blueprinted paper drew me to see what new ideas he had in mind. And mom would often tell me that my favourite spot in the house was the library, its racks of which I climbed up energetically to get my source materials.

Then came the LEGO which exponentially fired up my neurons. ‘Set 6362’ was a gift from my aunt and it was the “building block” of my formative years. It was “love at first brick”.

I had a few more sets after that which I pooled to build whatever I could think of — airplanes, trucks, houses, microscopes. I would wake up and sleep with bricks by my side, with fresh ideas every day.

Then there was “summer camp”, of sorts. It was nothing like how kids do it from progressive cities in the Philippines.

Together with my one year-older twin sisters, I lent a hand at my aunt’s botica (drug store/pharmacy) at a town nearly an hour away. That’s where I learned the value of organising and doing things in a systematic way — from making supot (paper bags), to memorising planograms, inventory, ordering and pricing.

When it was my turn as cashier, I panicked at times. I tried to be fast, yet accurate, as I rapidly punched in the Olympia machine in order to avoid a queue building up. It taught me focus and was my first crack at a ‘job’.

College came, in Manila, where everything was bigger than I was used to. It makes a probinsyano (someone from the village) feel overwhelmed, sometimes unwelcome. But my elder siblings taught me to navigate it well and I turned out just fine.

I decided to pursue a degree in statistics – something that’s completely off-tangent from my interests – simply because mathematics and English do not intimidate me.

My final two years were spent as a student assistant at the college’s computer laboratory, with my free time spent playing sport, particularly tennis and badminton.

My start

A month after graduating, in 1997, I joined Asia Research Organisation’s strategy team. It felt like a college examination all over again, only with real-life risks, and handling a hundred times more data sets.

Going through nine-to-nine work days, that sometimes extended to overnighters, was usual. My colleagues and I even had sets of clothing permanently stowed in the office.

My first encounter with an advertising agency was doing a shopper study for Pizza Hut and KFC. I presented the habits of patrons which they turned into action points. It got me so curious that, after two years doing research, I decided to join an advertising agency with a client side marketing job.

I snail-mailed five applications, and very quickly joined Basic Advertising. The years at Basic, working for iconic brands like Jollibee, Lucky Me, and Biogesic, were some of my most fun and memorable.

I was exposed to the typecast of creative people – dimly lit workstations, in jeans, night owls – as well as to the stereotypical media people (my department) who blabber numbers that no one understands.

The depth of experience was amazing, working with pioneers like Minyong Ordonez and Dr. Ned Roberto who fondly called me anak (son). I assisted in his Disattentiveness Study on TV, and Audience Response Effectiveness of Billboard studies for his highly-popular ‘User-friendly Marketing Research’ book.

When the unbundling of advertising agencies took place, and media was elevated into a unique position of influence, I moved to UniversalMcCann to do mainstream media planning.

At that point, it was clear that whoever wields data, and knows how to interpret and use it, excels. I learned the rigors of media for the first time and felt it was natural for me — from deconstructing client briefs, to ideation, amplification and activation.

I decided to stay a few more years in advertising.

Things took a different turn in 2008 when Carat offered me the strategy director post for Procter & Gamble. My role wasn’t entirely the nuts of bolts of media planning and buying.

However, it gave credence to the rising importance of media agencies in the new world of communications. Media practitioners were already heavily influencing what creative materials to produce and why. This was unheard of prior to the unbundling.

As media expanded its sphere of influence, the more the industry appealed to me. An offer from Carat Malaysia further sucked me into the advertising vortex.

Malaysia was an initial two-year assignment to drive the group’s communications planning agenda. It was a privilege working for another trailblazer, Margaret Lim, who paved the way for the industry.

Time flies indeed when you’re having fun: my journey there lasted seven years, with roles covering research and insights, strategy, and innovations. Precise consumer targeting, business performance, and mobile-first were on my agenda during my final years in Malaysia, as clients were demanding “more for less”.

After Malaysia, I was back in the Philippines as head of agency at Zenith Media in 2016. It was an opportunity that came at the right time — I was at a crossroads, deciding whether to become a specialist in strategy or an agency leader. It wasn’t an easy choice. However, Publicis Groupe’s Power of One proposition appealed to me.


Learn. Life exposes us to various learning experiences, but many others require active self-learning.

There are skills that have to be taught methodically, and there are lessons that repeat until you learn them — these make you resilient.

If everyone heeds Richard Branson’s advice – “if someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes, then learn how to do it later” – then we’ll have endless milestones to reach.

The same is true with how I manage my team. Praise a job well done. But get them to question their strengths. The great talents will naturally feel uncomfortable, but take on the challenge, and come out better for it.

Highs & Lows

Highs: Winning the Agency of the Year award four times consecutively is evidence that our fundamentals are working exceptionally well. It’s team work and never a one-man show.

Lows:  In an industry where the picture of success is almost always a win over competition — be it brands, other agencies or even your own previous performance — a loss is never easy to take.

I think the right attitude to lows is to see an opportunity to recalibrate. If things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place. But only if you pick up the pieces and try again will you see a change in outcome.

Do and Don’ts

As one team working towards the same goal, I remind everyone when needed:

  1. Do what is right, because it’s the right thing to do.
  2. Aim high, but keep grounded.
  3. Respect individuality and uniqueness.
  4. Devise a plan.
  5. To talk is to listen.

Someone said not everyone is meant for advertising; it’s cut-throat. Not entirely true. Too often I see people limited by their own strengths or what they believe they are only capable of.

Trying is the first step to success. After all, as toddlers, didn’t we all fall a few times before we could stand up?

I compile life musings and dub them as #Makonversations. One may be particularly appropriate: everything is relative, even our best. Winning is not guaranteed, but losing is certain if you fail to try.

MarkGabriel Chaves (Mako) is general manager, Zenith Media Philippines


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