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Madonna Badger, who has endured unimaginable tragedy, is back at work with a sharpened sense of resolve.
Her office at the Badger & Winters ad agency in Manhattan is decorated with pictures of and artwork by her three young daughters — nine-year old Lily and seven-year-old twins, Sarah and Grace — who perished in a Christmas morning blaze in 2011 that horrified the nation. Along with the children, Badger’s parents, Pauline and Lomer Johnson, also died in the blaze that consumed her Victorian-era home in Stamford, Conn.
The juxtaposition of her life-shattering loss and the busy, thriving ad agency — with key beauty accounts like Avon Products and Living Proof — that she runs with Jim Winters tells a story of deep resilience mixed with what solace can be found in work. “I really have to do it a day at a time,” Badger said during a recent interview, sitting in a bright, airy conference room. She had just been discussing beauty marketing, tossing off cogent and perceptive observations, completely at ease in her element. There was no hint of sadness in her voice, until the conversation touched on her immense loss. “When I’m in this, right now, I’m great,” she said of the office. “I know that I’m OK, we’re going in the right direction. I’m taking good care of myself, I’m reaching out.”
An old friend, Calvin Klein, praised Badger, who turned 49 on Thursday, as a rare individual who masters both the creative and commercial sides of business while possessing a unique personal chemistry. Regarding the tragedy, Klein said, “It’s life-changing, to say the least. But it shows the courage and the strength of this woman. She’s moving on with her life and accepting what she has to accept — still contributing — and is living.”
But her return is still a daily climb. “Every day I get more and more acceptance of what’s really happened and what’s really happening,” she observed. “Every day is accepting. I used to wake up every morning and not remember that [the family members] were gone and I’d have to re-remember every day.”
When asked how she can push aside memories of that night in order to summon the concentration needed to do her job, or just function, she talked about coping with “the black feelings. When I try to run away from them, it doesn’t work,” she observed. “But when I invite them and talk to my girls and they talk back to me, I firmly believe they are in a beautiful, wonderful, loving place. I don’t have bitterness.”
Her yearlong recovery effort, largely spent at Psychiatric Research Institute at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, was aided by Badger’s strong bond with her lost daughters. On Aug. 29, Lily’s birthday, Badger got dressed for the occasion. “I put on a really pretty outfit for her and I did my hair and makeup. I sang to her all day and I just wanted to look pretty for her.
“I wanted to look my best,” she continued. “I wanted to show the world that I am OK. I love my children and I am not going to fade away.”
One of Badger’s oldest clients, Jill Beraud, chief executive officer of Living Proof, marvels at her strength. “I would almost say she has more of a serenity and it’s almost like she has a calm strength about her, but she’s incredibly grounded.”
In the days after the fire, when Badger was in White Plains, N.Y., recovering from burns from the fire and trying to cope without even something to wear, since everything was consumed in the fire, friends surrounded her, bringing boxes of clothing and even comforting her so she could sleep. One of the veterans of those days was Francine Gingras, vice president of global public relations at Elizabeth Arden. Saying she has never experienced such an emotional swing “from the worst bottom to what I can only describe as this very soulful purposeful life, there’s a certain calmness and purpose about her life today that has changed over time. There’s a more centered purpose in her being today.
“Whenever I’m with her, there’s an energy around her that’s new and it’s vibrant,” Gingras continued, describing a new characteristic of “empathy with a purpose. She genuinely is trying to be more sensitive, more kinder, more gentler, more understanding…this is her last moment and she will live it the best way she knows how. There’s a lens in a sense of purposefulness in her life today.”
Winters remarked to Badger during the interview that her ability to survive such an ordeal without bitterness made her “an even more empathetic soul,” sharpening her ability to connect with consumers and brands. Badger replied, “No one escapes. Everybody has pain and suffering. What happened did not happen to me, it happened. That’s the important point. This is not life punishing me.” Just as she fights against feelings of self-pity and morbid reflection, Badger admits to occasionally drifting into what she calls “the deep darkness,” where “I can’t feel my children, I can’t feel joy, I can’t feel gratitude that they were my kids.”
She recalled traveling to Thailand during her healing process and seeing women sitting in front of their huts. “They had little tables out in front of their houses and on those tables they would put three little beautiful toothbrushes and one comb and a Coca-Cola bottle and four pieces of candy. It was just this little way of making extra money for their families,” she recalled.
“They took such pride in it. That’s what we do, right? We give love to products, we give them brands, we give them emotional content for people so that they can have choices. That emotional content is important, and I didn’t really realize how important it was until I could really see the pride that those women took in that. It made a big difference to me.”