Long Reads

This CEO Grew Up Inside Bilibid Prison

He is now CEO of one of the most successful ad agencies in the Philippines.
IMAGE Jeff Paulino/IXM
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"I was practically raised by prisoners," confesses Third Domingo, CEO and founder of IXM, a leading advertising agency in the country and a member of Hakuhodo, Japan's second largest marketing company and fourth largest in the world. "The prisoners were the ones who taught me how to play chess and basketball."

Domingo grew up inside the reservation compound in the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa. As a kid, his playmates were also the inmates that his father guarded. His father was prison guard, while his mother was a public school teacher. His parents met each other at a late stage in life. His father was 41, his mother was 39. Two years later, they had Third, their only child.

"Since hindi naman uso yung mga yaya sa amin, doon ako tumatambay sa Bilibid Prison. Sa loob mismo ng Maximum Security Compound at sa Medium Security Compound," said Domingo.

"My father was a prison guard. He was a chief, pero hindi siya ma-promote-promote kasi hindi siya graduate ng college. Ganoon sa gobyerno noon. Kapag hindi ka graduate, hanggang diyan ka lang. Bibigyan ka ng responsibilities, pero hanggang diyan ka lang. So, ganoon yung tatay ko, kahit na magaling, mababa yung ranggo."

It was life in the national prison that taught Domingo how to deal with life at a very early age. He would witness prison breakouts, and that would have profound effect on his view on life.

"There was a time when I was in grade school, a prisoner was missing after the bell rang at 5:00 PM. The other guards asked my father if they should conduct a sweep of the surrounding lots outside the prison. My father said, 'Hindi. Wala pa sa labas iyon. Nandito lang sa loob iyon, nagtatago. Hanapin niyo sa mga kisame.'"

"True enough, they found the inmate hiding in the ceiling. He had a stash of food. That’s how they would try to escape. They stay inside the compound, wait it out for a week, and let others think they’ve gone far away. Only then will they make the actual breakout," said Domingo.

These are just some of the memories Domingo has of his father, who along with his mother, passed away many years ago.

"My father died when I landed my first job at McCann. It was just before dawn, and my family kept calling me on my cellphone, they were saying that I need to come home. I said, 'Hindi puwede, may presentation ako.' They were so mad at me because I didn’t want to come home. Iyon pala, hindi nila sinasabi na patay na... Sinasabi lang nila na gusto akong makausap ng tatay ko. Tapos, habang nagpe-present ako, may nag-text. ‘Kuya Third, condolence. Balita ko kagabi pa namatay si Papa mo.’ I froze. Hindi ko alam! Hindi lang nila sinasabi sakin."

At that time, Domingo was presenting his ideas to the owner and executives of Jollibee Foods Corporation. Midway through his presentation, he became visibly shaken and started crying. He had to excuse himself.

"I was crying! I had to go to the restroom, and I cried there profusely. The clients followed me, asking me what was wrong, but I couldn’t say why I was crying. They eventually found out that my father died. Pinahiram ako ng kotse ng boss na may-ari ng Jollibee, tapos nag-drive ako papunta sa burol ni Tatay." When he got home, he was inconsolable.

"Alam mo yung kinakausap mo yung patay? Yung tipong nakikita mo sa mga pelikula? I was like that. I told my father, 'Tay, di ba usapan natin dadalhin kita sa spa? Diba sa unang sweldo ko ililibre kita? Bakit namatay ka na!'"

Life as a Poor Kid in an Exclusive School

Domingo attended public school in Muntinlupa when he was younger. Throughout his years in grade school, Domingo maintained consistent top marks in all his subjects. He was valedictorian when he graduated elementary. Because of this, he was selected by Southridge to be one of its scholars.

Domingo considers his education in Southridge to be the most important catalyst that changed his view about the world.

"So I was learning about constellations, but imagine sa isang lugar na eskenita, it’s like, fuck constellations! Makakain ba ang constellation?"

"During my first week in Southridge, we studied constellations. Orion's Belt, the Pleiades, Big Dipper, Small Dipper. One night, I climbed on the roof of our house, and I brought a makeshift cardboard telescope. I was like 'Ohh, oo nga, parang shape nga ng rosary ‘yong ulo ni Taurus.' So I was learning about constellations, but imagine sa isang lugar na eskenita, it’s like, fuck constellations! Makakain ba ang constellation?"

"Then, the other kids in the neighborhood saw me on the roof. They called me. 'Kuya Third! Ano yan?' That hit me. Someone called me 'Kuya Third.' It was very profound for me. Sa angkan namin, ako ang pinakabata. Ako usually ang tumatawag ng 'kuya' sa mga kasama ko."

Domingo called his friends to climb on the roof, then he began explaining the different stars and how they were the basis of horoscopes, just like how he was taught in his new school.

Iyan, iyan ang mga constellation, yan ang pinanggalingan ng mga horoscope. Nagmo-move 'yan. Ito ang Milky Way, nandito tayo sa Milky Way."

Then, the entire roof of his house caved in.

"We all laughed. That’s important. That’s important because when the roof caves in, you can cry and get angry and swear you’ll never do it again, or you can also laugh about it and think, 'This is fun, let’s do it again!' That’s how we reacted, we had a sense of adventure."

"Since then, I liked sharing what I learned. Everything I learned in Southridge, I would share with kids in our area."

"I want the young kids to get out of that mindset that their current life is the world and that they’re never getting out of that reality. Dream big. Aspire. You might fail, but at least try."

Eventually, Domingo’s teacher in Southridge discovered that he was teaching boys in his community, so he encouraged him to form a club. That became the Poblacion Boys Club, and Domingo became their Kuya. They would play basketball, and Domingo would teach the boys whatever he learned from Southridge. He would also solicit money for the club.

"I would go to the Munisipyo to ask for money for various sponsorships for our activities. I had a piece of paper with a letter explaining our intention with all the wrong grammar, and they would give me twenty pesos. At a very early age, I was honed to be a community organizer. I was 13 years old. I loved the idea of organizing."

'Diskartehan mo kasi hindi ka tutulungan ng mundo.'

Poblacion Boys Club is now called Malaking Munti Youth Club. Its objective is to complement formal schooling with fun activities that teach character.

"I want the young kids to get out of that mindset that their current life is the world and that they’re never getting out of that reality. Dream big. Aspire. You might fail, but at least try. With Malaking Munti, I teach them na, 'diskartehan mo kasi hindi ka tutulungan ng mundo.' I teach them to find their unfair advantage. I always say that."

"Kapag laking hirap ka kasi, there’s a helplessness that you get accustomed to, and that’s the worst."

“I really had to bootstrap myself.”

Asked about the hardest part of growing up the way he did, Domingo explains that it was the situation of being confined to a simple mentality that you would think the place you live in is already the whole world.

“The hardest part is you thinking and believing that 'this is the world,'” says Domingo. “Kapag laking hirap ka kasi, there’s a helplessness that you get accustomed to, and that’s the worst. I really had to bootstrap myself to gain some advantage for my own interest and over other people all the time, especially when I got exposed to Southridge.”

Domingo tells about the times he was coming home from school when he was chased by intoxicated gay men, and forced by beermen to drink with them, even though he didn’t want to.

"Kapag uuwi ako mula sa school, hahabulin ako ng mga adik na bakla. Wala akong problema sa bakla, I have very many friends who are gay. Pero namomroblema ako sa adik na bakla, kasi hahabulin ka nun, tapos gabi ang classes ko noong high school ako."

"Tapos kapag may nag-iinuman diyan sa kanto at pinatagay ka, kailangan kang uminom. Kasi pag tumanggi ka, sasaksakin ka. Hindi puwede yung 'Ay, sorry po kasi mag-aaral pa po ako.' Magmumukhang wala kang pakisama. Makakatikim ka ng 'Ah ganon? Patayin ka namin!' That’s where I come from. That’s my background."

His life in Bilibid was a stark contrast to the affluent lives his schoolmates had in his high school. He did not envy his schoolmates’ lives, he aspired to become like them.

"When I studied in Southridge, I saw students driving their own cars. Makakakuha ka ng ideas, mangangarap ka," said Domingo. "That’s the most dangerous if you grow up in a place like where I grew up. There’s a sense of learned helplessness, and it’s not very conducive to dreaming, aspiring. If I wasn’t exposed to Southridge, literal na Bilibid ang uwi ko," said Domingo. 

"In Southridge, I learned many things, among them, the ethics of things, bawal magnakaw, bawal pala mag-jaks, the human soul, metaphysics, and the abstract truths like the intellect and will. There’s intellect and will! Ako, parang, intellect and will? Ano yun! Hindi naman tinuturo sa kalye yun ah! Parang, wow! But those things turned out to be important."

Domingo in His Office at IXM

Photo by Jeff Paulino/IXM.

How Domingo Put Up His Own Company

After graduating from Southridge, Domingo took up Integrated Marketing Communication at the University of Asia and the Pacific where he was also a scholar. It was here where his interest in advertising was developed.  

Domingo's first experience with the advertising industry was as an intern for McCann, an international advertising agency.  There, he was assigned to the accounts department where he processed documents and other technical materials, but his talents at writing and coming up with ideas just naturally came out.

Domingo with Some of His Team at IXM

Photo by IXM.

"I interned at McCann in their Accounts Department. But they absorbed me as a writer because when I prepare job orders, I injected my own ideas in the document, especially name studies. If the job order indicated that a name for a new product or a new brand is needed, I would add comments on it. 'I have a few ideas!' I would write. And the bosses would laugh because everything they needed was in my notes. And they found my ideas good," says Domingo. 

"I also became part of Sprite’s Magpakatoo Ka campaign because of my ideas. I had an idea that I wanted to call, Magpakatotoo Ka-bulary (vocabulary). Ito iyong mga tao na hindi nagpapakatotoo. For example, I thought of Salamingkeromahilig magsalamin. Kitikitextmahilig mag-text. I became part of that campaign."

Eventually, Domingo's Sprite campaign won a gold award. TBWA, a globally established ad agency, pirated him. According to Domingo, if he learned professionalism, business strategy, planning, and the ins and outs of the advertising industry at McCann, at TBWA, he learned how to express these very creatively in a manner that is very disruptive and sharp and powerful. In fact, it was during his time at TBWA when he managed to win many gold awards for ad campaigns.

After TBWA, he was pirated by Publicis JimenezBasic or PJB. It was in PJB where Domingo understood the business of advertising and rounded out all the skills he learned from McCann and TBWA. "Strategizing and copywriting are useless skills if you don't know how to transform that into money—for the company, for your clients, for yourself, and for your other people," says Domingo. "PJB instilled in me the transformative power of our work."

By his 10th year in advertising, Domingo was already a sought-after creative by big brands. It was at that time when he decided to put up his own company, IXM. 

IXM stands for Ideas X Machina, an allusion to deus ex machina, a literary device characterized by the use of a seemingly unsolvable problem that is abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence. Domingo attributes such solutions to the power of God. 

"That's exactly what we are, we solve problems with the help and guidance of God," Domingo says.

"That was in 2009. Global recession. Absolutely worst time to start a company. This was also the time when there was no independent ad agency in the Philippines, because all other agencies were part of an established network," said Domingo. "People were saying that brands will no longer advertise, but I didn't believe them. Brands will always advertise. They just want the best value for their money, and that's what I gave them."

2009 turned out to be a fortuitous time to put up an ad agency, because it was an election year in the Philippines. Domingo's team crafted the campaign of then-presidential candidate Eddie Villanueva. For Villanueva, Domingo came up with the "Eddie Ako" campaign (a pun on eh 'di ako)  that advocated for change. It became a hit. Because of the success of their Villanueva ads, other prominent politicians started seeking their service. 

"All of the politicians we helped actually won the elections, in the national level. Well, all of them except Villanueva, of course," said Domingo. Buoyed by the elections and the success of his campaigns, Domingo found himself sitting atop a startup company that just made over P5 million revenue in less than a year. The rest is history. 

Interior of IXM

Photo by IXM.

“Poverty is a lubricant.”

Looking back at what he’s gone through, Domingo pauses and smiles. “Going through what I went through, I think poverty is actually a lubricant. It makes you stronger.”

“Poverty is a lubricant. Come to think of it, instead of making things difficult for you, it actually, easily, slides into you quite nicely, all the skills and values necessary for your future success: resourcefulness, discipline, patience, thinking on your toes, the ability to bounce back from a setback and rectify your mistakes, and crucial of all, compassion," explains Domingo.

"Poverty is a virtue. It gives you strength. Getting rich is easy. Being rich, now that’s difficult. I heard that from a movie. Yet, still, nothing changes the fact that success requires you continue to live a life of poverty, at least in mindset.”

He then tells a story of a tamarind tree in his high school. “There’s a tamarind tree that has a lot of higad (caterpillars). Teachers would tell us to stay away from that tree. Of course, that motivated me to get closer to the tree. One time, I approached the tree and saw a cocoon. There was a butterfly trying to get out of it, so I was trying to help it by opening the cocoon.

My teacher and mentor saw me. ‘Anong ginagawa mo?’ he said.

Tinutulungan ko yung paruparo na makalabas.’

Then he said, ‘Tsk, mali yan!’

I asked, “Bakit?”

He replied, “Because that butterfly will become weak. That butterfly needs to struggle to get out of its cocoon to become strong and survive.”

That image was so powerful that it hit Domingo.

“I realized that you have to go through a process of pain and suffering and hard work because that’s what ‘s going to make you stronger. Grit is a very important thing to me. Up to now, I like to inspire people to really work hard and have grit. That’s very important.”

Photo by IXM.

Breakup Leaves, Date Your Parents Benefits, and Other Benefits 

One of the ways that Domingo inspires his people at IXM is by having a set of unique company benefits found nowhere else in the country. The following are just some of these benefits:

Date Your Parents Leave: A paid leave with a subsidy of P2,000 that can be availed 4 times a year so you can take your parents out on a date. You have to document the date by taking a picture of you and your parents enjoying a date outside.

Breakup Leave: A paid leave that you can take if you break up with your S.O.

Reimbursed Date Expenses: A subsidy worth P1,500 that you can avail 4 times a year just to go out on a date with someone. “We don’t care who or how many you date, just go,” says Domingo.

Subsidized Dating Apps: The company pays for a premium subscription to any of the dating apps such as Tinder, Harmony, etc.

Wedding Expenses Subsidy: If you get married during your employment with the company, it will shoulder reception expenses worth up to P50,000.

Movie Passes: The company regularly subsidizes movie tickets.

Fashionism Benefits: Interested employees participate in a runway-style show where they flaunt their OOTDs. If their style elicits applause, they receive a cash benefit of P4,000. If they receive no applause, they receive 70 percent of the benefit.

Why does IXM have all these benefits? Domingo has a simple answer.

"Creativity is nourished outside of the office, it’s definitely not inside the office. You don’t have to be a regular employee to enjoy these benefits. We offer these even if you're working with us contractually or as a consultant," says Domingo.

"For me, the most important benefit there is the Date Your Parents Benefit. Mahal na mahal ko parents ko," says Domingo. "I really encourage people to go out and date their parents, please."

"Besides, you're not gonna function if you just broke up with somebody!" he adds. 

Good Things Happen to Those Who Deserve It

"Brilliance is mandatory, but more mandatory than brilliance is hard work," says Domingo. He firmly believes that good things happen to those who deserve it, and the best way to achieve that is through grit and hard work.

"I always say that to young people, young professionals, and students when I get invited to speak. That’s my philosophy in life. It might seem like you deserve something, but the only way you will truly deserve it is if you work for it."

Also Seek Those Who Deserve It

"Marami pang ibang batang katulad ko na 'di-hamak na mas mahirap ang pinag-daanan o pinagdadaanan kaysa sa akin. Mas magagaling sila. Nasa probinsiya sila! Hindi natin sila kilala kasi hindi sila nabibigyan ng pagkakataon, so they create their own opportunities often in ways that are bound to fail and sometimes illegal."

For Domingo, it is kids like them whom we should seek out. 

"Sila ang hanapin natin. Isn’t this whole digital information age about giving everybody a shot, even if you’re just passing by?"

Photo by IXM.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
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