‘We need to change the way we speak to women’ This exec is transforming advertising for the better

Advertising executive Madonna Badger overcame the unthinkable to find a new purpose - championing women in a male-dominated industry

‘I started at Calvin Klein, where I organised the Marky Mark and Kate Moss campaign. At 29, I set up my own company, Badger & Winters, and worked on beauty and fashion accounts with almost every major designer. I married and had three girls: Lily, born in 2002, then twins Sarah and Grace, born in 2004. In 2009, 
I divorced my husband amicably and bought a beautiful Victorian house on the water in Stamford, Connecticut. However, in the early hours of Christmas morning in 2011, the house caught fire. My three girls, who were asleep on the top floor, died almost instantly. My parents, who were staying with me at the time, also died trying to save them. When I finally woke up, I climbed out of the window on to the scaffolding outside to try to get to the girls, but the smoke was so awful I couldn’t get in their room. After living with a friend for a year, I went back to the agency in 2013. I was trying to find a reason to be here. I kept thinking, “Why did I get left? Why am I here and what am I going to do?”’

‘Why did I get left behind?’

I had read about objectification, and the effect of advertising on children. When women and girls are objectified, they are treated as non-human – and objectification leads to self-objectification. You start to believe you’re never good enough, that you will never measure up. While working with some big beauty brands, my agency partner Jim Winters and I decided we would never objectify another person again, and we made a film called Women Not Objects, which launched in January 2016. We also came up with our own way of explaining objectification to other agencies. It included: don’t treat women as props, let them have their own narrative; don’t treat women as body parts to sell something; don’t retouch to the point of human unviability. The last point was about empathy. Once male creatives started mentally inserting their wives or daughters into ads (instead of a woman they didn’t know), it became clear. They said, “I don’t want my woman depicted that way”. Suddenly women are treated as whole, human and strong.’

It’s not as simple as blaming the advertising industry for being male-dominated. As a woman I also objectified other women early in my career − I didn’t know any better. I don’t think it’s fair to say that once we reach parity within an art department that all of this disappears. We need to reach parity because women are 50 per cent 
of the world, so not having women represented in creative departments is incredibly detrimental. We need to have views and discourse around everything.

‘Objectification exists – we need to take ownership’

When we blame, we become victims instead of people who have ownership of our own paths. With what happened to me after the fire, I understand there are victims in the world but the flip side of that is you have to take control or responsibility, and by being part of a mentorship programme, like the one offered by See It Be It – which is a Cannes Lions initiative that provides training, mentoring and exclusive networking opportunities for up to 20 girls from around the world – there are systemic changes we can make. As a mentor, it helps me to talk with young women about their struggles and their ideas. 
In the end, you have to become your own agent of change – no one else is going to do that for you.

That strength was something I already had. Before that point, I had been an abuse survivor and a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, so there have been many times when I couldn’t get up. But only I can choose how my life goes. And what I found is that helping young women helps me, too − it gives me hope.’

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