Out of Print

Voice of Reason

by Jonty Cruz
Photos courtesy of Cecile Dominguez-Yujuico
Talking to Cecile Dominguez-Yujuico about the business of communications, the struggle of the last several months, and the pressure of the supermom myth.

“I’m an overthinker when it comes to this stuff,” Cecile Dominguez-Yujuico tells me after the interview. She worries about maybe going into detail too much or sounding too serious. She asks and wonders over the next few days if her answers are good enough. She doesn't say it but it’s clear she wants this to mean something because these things really matter to her. Can you blame her though? When the world seems to be running on half-truths and incoherent ramblings, clarity in this day and age is a godsend.

It was in early 2018 when I first met Cecile through a common friend. I had just left publishing and wanted to do something in the realm of social impact. Cecile already had years of experience in the social space at that point and as it turned out was interested in creating something for online as well. Later that year, we launched a new platform called All Good. She and I continued working together in 2019 on a couple of projects but never really got to talk shop until now.

Cecile is the CEO of Evident Communications, a specialized agency for integrated marketing and public relations she co-founded in 2013. She says she saw Evident as a solution for issues she recognized way back in 2007 while serving as the executive director of her family’s foundation, the Conrado and Ladislawa Alcantara Foundation. “Social media was beginning to transform how people engaged with each other and with organizations,” she says.  “I saw it as a great opportunity for NGOs because it created a more level playing field, where smaller organizations could connect with their publics in cost-effective ways.”

She says she started Evident with the goal of helping organizations use communications as a means to improve their work, to make it more effective. “I realized that my background in grassroots community and NGO work is the foundation of a more holistic approach to communications,” says Cecile. “It’s not just focused on selling products or advancing a one-sided agenda, which can sometimes come at the expense of others.”

2013 seems like a lifetime ago. And for Cecile especially, these last several months have been some of the most trying and unexpected times she’s had to face. She gave birth to her second child in late May and has since been raising two children under the age of 5 on top of navigating her agency through the pandemic. “Before COVID, I thought that I’d be able to fully take time off during maternity leave,” she says. “But again, because of the situation, I found myself back at work much sooner than I had anticipated.”

On the eve of the Philippines’ seventh month in quarantine, Cecile finally found the time for an interview to talk about her career and the impact COVID-19 has wrought not just on her business but for non-profits as well.

The following interview was conducted via email and edited for publication.


Since starting Evident in 2013, Cecile Dominguez-Yujuico has worked hard to be the kind of leader she wants to see. “The concept that I keep coming back to is leading with empathy,” she says.
Out of Print: How hard was it to start a business? I can imagine you faced some setbacks early on.
Cecile Dominguez-Yujuico: My co-founder and I both come from non-traditional communications backgrounds—neither of us had worked at agencies before starting our own. We built everything from scratch, including the design of the products and services that we offer. For our early clients, we were certainly not a safe bet, as we didn’t have a track record to fall back on. [I’ll] always be grateful to our clients who put their trust in us, a total outsider and newcomer.

The good thing is that social media and digital marketing, when we were starting out, was such a new field and we could show that we could deliver just as well as the big box incumbents. Building an agency from scratch allowed me to build it in a way that aligned with my values, but it also meant that I had more of a learning curve when I started out.

Is it safe to say that it was even harder to gain or network with clients as a young woman?
In the beginning I found that it was difficult for me to network and close deals. I look young for my age, and I found myself in situations where I wasn’t taken seriously. Now that I have a solid track record as an agency leader it happens much less, but I still occasionally encounter mansplainers and patronizing people. But now I have more confidence to decline potential projects or clients that seem like they don’t value or respect us as partners from the get-go.

So how does a solid communications plan improve businesses as a whole?
We tend to focus on outward-facing comms like marketing and PR. But from a macro perspective, communications has an impact on other key parts of the business like hiring top talent, rallying employees with a shared company goal, and building trust between a company facility and its local host community. These different audiences and concerns have to be considered when you’re developing your core strategy.

At Evident, we have a near-religious devotion to strategy: we try to make sure that we deeply understand the problem that we’re trying to solve; the levers that need to move to solve that problem; the people and stakeholder groups that are critical to help move us in the right direction. We understand that there’s no such thing as a perfect strategy, but having the rigor of testing hypotheses, understanding the issues, and developing creative solutions means that our work starts from a position of strength.

There’s a quote that goes something like, “the right strategy will survive a mediocre campaign, but even a brilliant campaign is likely to fail if the strategy is wrong.”

“Leading with empathy means that you have to see your employees in their full, whole selves: not just for his or her job description at work.”

What’s been a breakthrough project you’ve had with Evident?
Some recent notable projects include a public service campaign to encourage people to go cashless and use e-payments during COVID; a partnership with a beverage company to help barangays build and implement solid waste management plans, advocacy on ethical reporting standards to protect children who are victims of online sexual exploitation; helping more women get access to affordable birth control and take control of their sexual health—and these are just some of the projects that our team has worked on over the past six months.

Everything at Evident is really a team effort and I’m so proud to work side by side with a team of smart, mission-driven creatives and strategists. If you look at our portfolio, it really goes beyond traditional marketing and PR: from social impact and public affairs to ecommerce solutions and sports marketing. I think that it’s also in this diversity of projects that we get to have a lot of fun and be creative.

How has the pandemic changed the way you see your career as a communications professional?
The concept that I keep coming back to is leading with empathy. I think it’s important for leaders to acknowledge that this is a really difficult and unusual time for everyone. Leading with empathy means that you have to see your employees in their full, whole selves: not just for his or her job description at work. It’s important for leaders to acknowledge that there may be other things happening in the lives of their employees that are affecting performance. I think that HR policy is an area that is often overlooked but has so much influence in a company’s culture and behavior.

For example, parents have to spend a lot of time and money to adjust to home school and there are times in the day that they need to help their kids with schoolwork—and companies can make it a little bit easier for employees by providing more flexibility around work hours to recognize that there are other factors at play in the household.

I think it’s even more important [now] to help leaders better understand the fears and concerns of their employees and help them communicate in ways that demonstrate their support and understanding. These days, we all have to be kinder and more understanding with one another. In terms of challenges for the industry, there are a lot of global projections about budget cuts and reduced spending on advertising, marketing and PR. It will require agencies to get creative and try to deliver the best possible results on much smaller budgets.

Another external challenge we’ve been dealing with for a while—especially for those of us who work in digital marketing—is how we are sometimes at the mercy of algorithm changes of the platforms. These changes are often announced after they’ve been implemented, so there are times when you have to go back and revise your campaigns to fit the changes to the platforms.

There’s a tendency to prioritize outward marketing for companies but Cecile Dominguez-Yujuico says communications can do so much more—especially for non-profits. “It’s not just focused on selling product or advancing a one-sided agenda (which can sometimes come at the expense of others).” | Photo of Cecile with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Apart from sudden changes in the algorithm, we’re seeing the rise of misinformation in social media these last couple of years. As a communications professional, how can you get your message across while you also fight against a system that seems to encourage the peddling of fake news over truth?
It is such a complex problem that there’s no one silver bullet that will solve it. Given the nature of how we share information—from messaging to social networks—there are so many opportunities for information and misinformation that, to combat it, it’s not a simple linear battle where you declare victory in the end. I think it requires a mix of individual vigilance and education, government regulation, a healthy media environment, and better corporate transparency and responsibility. 

For one, digital literacy has to be taught at schools starting from the earliest possible time since our kids today start accessing the Internet at such an early age. And digital literacy and vigilance has to be reinforced all the time—all of us have fallen victim to a piece of misinformation at one time or another. So constant reinforcement and education is important.

It would also help for people to better understand how social media algorithms work so people know that what they see isn’t a reflection of broad sentiment, but only sentiment of people they already agree with. Also, a lot of the responsibility still falls with the big tech firms. They control the platforms and the content we see, and they’ve built (and profited from) the environment that we have today. Governments are starting to regulate them more, but the jury’s still out on whether that will really have any impact.

What’s been the hardest test yet for you as a business owner during this pandemic?
I was seven months pregnant when we went into lockdown in March, and I gave birth to my daughter in May. I thought that I would be able to take it easy in my last trimester of pregnancy. Instead, I found myself pulling twelve-hour days with some crisis management clients, and also working with my leadership team to revisit all of our forecasts and projections for the year to make sure we were fully prepared for the months ahead. Before COVID, I also thought that I’d be able to fully take time off during maternity leave but again, because of the situation, I found myself back at work much sooner than I had anticipated. That being said, I’ve also been able to rely on my amazing leadership team. They have really helped me lead the company through the pandemic. Everyone on the team has really rallied together to try to make sure we can all take care of each other.

A lot of the responsibility still falls with the big tech firms. They control the platforms and the content we see, and they’ ve built (and profited from) the environment that we have today.”

There was already such a demand for digital communications these last several years and will only grow more given the pandemic . It’s clear brands and companies will have to go online even more to communicate and connect with their audience, what challenges and opportunities do you see in this new paradigm?
I think most companies in the consumer space already have some form of digital marketing in their arsenal. The area where I think companies are struggling are in remote work and digital transformation of the organization. Sometimes there’s a bit of trial and error required before a company figures out the software and tools that are the best fit for them, and so if they didn’t get started on these things before COVID, they’re probably having a more difficult time now. Another aspect of digital transformation is that culture is important. You can spend a lot of money on software and tools but if your employees don’t use them then it’s a waste of money. There are opportunities for companies to use digital tools and platforms to strengthen their engagement and communications with employees during this time. With many people working from home, fostering company culture and connection is even more important.

With the world entering a recession, it seems funds and resources will be even more limited for NGOs and social impact organizations. What are ways for people to help support causes they care about?
Support doesn’t have to always mean monetary donations. Many NGOs are lean organizations and need help with services—whether it’s financial management and accounting, developing communications materials, helping find corporate donors and grants, etc. I also encourage people to identify a topic or issue that they care deeply about and find an organization that they want to support over a long period of time, maybe at least two to three years. Get to know the people who run the organization and try to see how you can best help them. This way you have the opportunity to deeply understand the issue that you care about and understand how the organization is solving problems in that area. By working closely with an organization over an extended period of time you also have the opportunity to participate in the problem solving and going beyond awareness-raising—which also serves an important purpose—but I think it’s also good to go deep.”

“Being able to ‘have it all’ is a product of privilege—being able to afford childcare, being able to choose the kind of jobs you want to have or even being able to choose when or how you want to work.”

A big trend brands and companies have done recently are panel discussions—which have now shifted to Zoom given the pandemic—as someone who’s produced and participated in these talks, what do you think they accomplish and what do you think can be done for talks to have a lasting impact beyond the events themselves?
A lot of people I’ve spoken with lately have talked about webinar fatigue. As we’ve all shifted to online, there are so many webinars happening every day and it’s hard to keep track and fit it into your schedule. I think that it’s important for organizers to make sure that the key messages or concepts can continue to be delivered beyond the webinar. This can be in the form of a downloadable deck, a transcript, summarized key takeaways—things that help people engage with the content if they were unable to attend. For talks to have a lasting impact, I think it’s important that the concepts discussed in the panel have a continuity to them through other forms of published content.

You’ve also done a lot of panels discussing women in the workplace with different female industry leaders. While feminism and different social causes have gained more recognition globally, each country has its own history of dealing with these issues, do you think we’ve discussed the right things when it comes to feminist and social issues here in the Philippines?
This isn’t a new concept, and it’s been widely discussed elsewhere, but I think that in the Philippines we still have to be careful about pushing the myth of the supermom, and “having it all.” Sometimes you see women celebrated for being able to successfully balance career, children, marriage, and still have time for a hobby or two. Being able to “have it all” is a product of privilege—being able to afford childcare, being able to choose the kind of jobs you want to have or even being able to choose when or how you want to work. In a country with huge socioeconomic disparities, this image of the supermom who balances all aspects of her life is sometimes pushed towards women who do not have these privileges. It creates an unattainable image of success that is detrimental to many women and creates an environment where women are doomed to disappointment and failure. It’s also important to highlight a key factor for women’s success: a better sharing of responsibilities between husbands and wives at home. Childcare, household management, and even things like house repairs and groceries all add up to a certain volume of labor that women often bear most of the burden for.

I hope that we could see more candor and honesty when we celebrate women’s success: sharing their stories of hard work and grit, but also acknowledging privileges that also served as a springboard for their success. I think that this candor will enable us to have more honest and realistic conversations about what it takes to succeed. Success and achievement are complex topics; it’s often not a linear path and there are many struggles along the way. Successful women have worked hard to get to where they are—and for them to be role models for young women it’d be great for their stories to be told in fuller ways. This way young women can have a better idea from their role models of what they’re up against, and the kind of equal partnership and support that they’ll need from their life partners in order to help them succeed.︎
Jonty Cruz was an editor for Esquire Philippines, The Philippine Star, and Rogue Magazine.