From a hopeful start-up to a full-fledged communications agency that represents one of the most remarkable gender movements of today, CASTRO PR is both known for impeccable PR partnerships and its role in pushing the LGBTQ+ agenda in the Philippines.
The brainchild of Martin Castañeda, who spent his early professional years in the Corporate Communications arm of L'Oreal Philippines, CASTRO recognized the opportunity to penetrate the lifestyle PR market as more and more brands clamored for non-traditional and creative ways to communicate with the media and the public. "At that time, I had been working in Corporate Communications and PR for over three years and I knew I had enough skills and network to establish my own firm," reveals Martin. "I also saw it as an opportunity to create a business that embraces and celebrates the LGBTQ+ community where I belong."
As Managing Director, Martin knew that growing the business wasn't a task he could do alone, so he sought out the services of long-time friend Janlee Dungca, formerly an events professional and now the firm's PR Director. "I’ve been friends with Janlee since high school, and we’ve worked together in a couple of projects both in and out of school," says Martin, "I knew she had the skills as she easily connects with different types of people, and the patience needed to succeed in this industry with me and being a transgender woman, I felt that we are aligned in terms of raising gender inclusivity in the workplace. And I wasn’t wrong."
[related: In Focus: From Canada To Manila, Fringe Manila's Jodinand Aguillon Takes His Individuality With Him]
Together with the rest of the team, CASTRO slowly built its lifestyle and luxury portfolio. Having an extensive network of colleagues and friends in the PR industry from both the client and media side helped immensely during their early years, partnering with companies such as Branded Lifestyle Inc., distributor of Ray-Ban and most luxury eyewear brands in the country, and the L'Oreal Philippines flagship, with its lineup of hugely successful brands such as L'Oreal Paris, Kerastase, L'Oreal Professionnel, NYX Cosmetics and Kiehl's. Other well-known brands part of their clientele included Nivea, Levi’s, Guess, SM, and Celeteque. "As with most, if not all, startups, working with a very lean team was very challenging in the beginning," relates Janlee, "There were moments where members of the team would clash due to pressure and it would take a toll on our outputs. We dealt with this by keeping things professional and by being very patient while working extra hard until we were capable of expanding and hiring more people."
Sadly, discrimination still proliferates the industry. "There were also a few clients who had very traditional views and weren’t comfortable working with transgender women like myself," recalls Janlee, "As much as this saddened us and as much as we hope that everyone is truly accepting, we understand that we can’t force everyone to accept us. People we encounter everyday also transition towards us and it is our duty to educate them and open their minds. We dealt with these clients by still relating with them professionally, doing our craft really well, and proving to them that we are worthy of the same trust and respect they give to non-LGBTQ+ people."
In 2014, Martin and Janlee welcomed frequent collaborator Lui Castañeda into the agency fulltime as CASTRO's Accounts Director. This move proved to be a truly auspicious step for the agency, as from there CASTRO grew both in terms of clientele and employee size—two telltale signs of highly competitive and successful startups. "Having worked in PR during my early employment years has made it easy for me to work in and help grow Castro PR. Prior to being fully employed at Castro PR, I was already working with the team as a PR consultant for some campaigns while doing brand management as my full time job," reveals Lui, also a transgender woman, "Coming from the brand side allowed me to share my knowledge and perspective as a client to an agency that is Castro PR. It was refreshing to have someone from the client side as it gave a wider POV to Castro PR as a company. This helped me put more structure to what Martin and Janlee have already built, apart from being the most organized among the three of us. Our working dynamics have proven to be effective and healthy through the years."
[related: In Focus: PR Director And Proud Transwoman Janlee Dungca On Volunteering For HIV Awareness]
Currently, CASTRO has expanded its client portfolio to include household FMCG brands such as Toblerone, Cadbury, Cheez Whiz, Eden Cheese, Oreo, Belvita, Tang and Berocca, and has partnered with the most successful celebrities and content creators in their campaigns and events. The depth of PR services it provides is executed by CASTRO's solid team of hardworking employees, a creative group of individuals who have become both colleagues and friends.
As the Martin-Janlee-Lui trifecta developed CASTRO's commercial success, they also started to be recognized as one of the most progressive, pro-LGBTQ+ companies in the country. The name CASTRO itself was inspired by Castro District in San Francisco, where the yearly LGBTQ+ Pride Parade found its early beginnings. Individually, CASTRO's founders are LGBTQ+ members and advocates themselves, who actively contribute to the cause apart from their full time responsibilities in the agency. Janlee is a member of LoveYourself, a non-profit organization that aims to spread awareness on HIV-AIDS prevention, testing and treatment, especially towards members of the LGBTQ+ community. Martin and Lui also continually push forward the Pride advocacy in their various interviews and features.
"Working for our personal advocacies, particularly raising awareness on the LGBTQ+ community and HIV-AIDS, has helped us appreciate the work that we do more," relates Janlee, "Most people would say that PR is all about branding, imaging and sugarcoating but it is really beyond that. PR is a truly powerful tool and it should be used responsibly. With the skills and network we’ve built in our years of working in PR, we’ve been able to help put forward causes that are truly personal."
As proud LGBTQ+ individuals, Martin, Janlee, and Lui's staunchest act in showing their support for the agenda is choosing to work with and collaborate with members of their community. Throughout CASTRO's seven years in the industry, they have continually hired employees, commissioned suppliers and worked with LGBTQ+ groups and individuals, and consider it as their way of changing the stigma against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in society. Locally, one of CASTRO’s most valued members is Niko Pedro, a proud gay man who does consultancy work for the company and also works as a consultant for a local news network. Outside the Philippines, CASTRO has expanded in Singapore, with an office headed by happily married gay couple Alvin Miranda and Jappy Reyes, both established marketing professionals.
[related: In Focus: After Coming Out At Her Own Fashion Show, Designer Kaye Morales Lives Fab And Free]
In an interview she did in 2016, Janlee defined CASTRO’S practices as ways of "debunking myths about LGBTQ+ people perceived to always be parloristas or sex workers." As CASTRO built its corporate brand, the trio realized that their pro-LGBTQ+ stand has become an essential part of the company's identity—in fact, it's become the introductory line in their client pitches. The CASTRO directors consider this brand DNA both a privilege and a responsibility, for they now recognize their role as frontliners in the cause to raise awareness on gender equality in the workplace, both locally and internationally. "Effectively working on an advocacy requires people and various groups to work together instead of competing against one another," states Janlee, "In our experience, projects where various LGBTQ+ individuals and groups all collaborate prove to be most impactful. Truly, we need all the allies we can have."
[related: In Focus: Pineapple Lab's Andrei Pamintuan On Fostering Change, One Art Installation At A Time]
As Martin works on expanding and starting an office in the US, he explains: "We founded CASTRO in the hopes of introducing a new lifeblood to the Philippine PR and branding industry, which I built with transgender women I trusted for their talents and work ethics. I did not expect that our personal identities would affect and inspire the LGBTQ+ movement both in and outside the country. Now, as CASTRO fully imbibes this spirit in our DNA, I only look forward to how the company can continue to push the Pride agenda through our unique place in the PR industry."
ALSO READ: In Focus: This Independence Day, These LGBTQ Personalities Redefine What 'Freedom' Means
Photographs from Castro PR