Gift of the Gabberer:
By Jess Lilley
Dee Madigan wields quite an influence in Australian political discourse – both in front of and behind the camera. She’s a regular panellist on ABC’s Gruen and The Drum, as well as one of the few left-leaning commentators on Sky News. But perhaps where she has the most impact is in her role as founder and Executive Creative Director of her national agency, Campaign Edge, which specialises in political campaigns at a state and federal level for the Australian Labor Party.
It’s a pretty incredible journey for a woman who fell into advertising as an English teacher in training, at the suggestion of a regular at the Sydney pub she then managed.
On the eve of Campaign Edge opening its newest office in Darwin, we dropped by their Sydney HQ to chat to Dee about her career trajectory, and how she navigates the feedback of some of the most powerful people in the country – as well as the voters they answer to.
J: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into advertising?
D: I always wanted to write, since I was a child. But I was never prepared to starve for my art. So I ended up doing an English teaching degree. First I did a bachelor of business in property – I had this theory I was going to make a lot of money and retire by the time I was 40. I did one year and it was terrible. So I switched over to teaching English.
I was teaching at Fort Street High, a selective school. It’s as good as it gets and I just had no interest at all. I was also managing The Clock Hotel, a lot of ad people used to drink there because they could buy coke… allegedly. I used to call them artistic prostitutes. But then one day they said, why don’t you do Award school? Back then when you graduated in the top 10 you got a three month paid job placement. I mean it was shit money but it was a job. And they partnered me with some guy who was also in the top 10. After three months I got offered a full-time job there, he did not.
Once I started doing it I discovered it was fun. This was back when you were pretty cloistered as a creative. You turned into a bit of a child in some ways because you always had someone to look after you. All you had to do was come up with good ideas and I could do that. So I found it enormously fun.
Being a chick in an ad agency that had the Johnson & Johnson account, every time there was a tampon brief it came to me. The bad thing was that the client always insisted on chicks on a beach. But the good thing was that I would spin the globe and choose a location, then I would write the idea there. If I’ve got to do a boring ad it’s got to be in a great location.
Occasionally you’d get a director who’d say, ‘we could probably recreate that here’, and I’d look at the producer and go, ‘cross them off the fucking list.’
So I shot tampon ads in Vietnam and Fiji and all around the world. I had a lot of fun but it did get to a point where I started to feel increasingly uneasy about the ethics of advertising. And that’s when I started to think, I really love some of it and I’m really good at it, but is it what I want to keep doing?
I’ve always been quite politically active anyway and that was quite separate… And then I got a chance to do an election campaign, and even though we got totally smashed that was the moment of like, oh my god it’s both my worlds colliding.
To know that you’re doing the thing you absolutely love and feel like you’re using your powers for good, not evil. That was incredible to find that niche.
J: There’s quite a difference between an inanimate product and a living, breathing politician. How does that affect the way you approach political campaigns?
D: What makes me good at politics is my brand learnings – a lot of people who do political campaigns don’t come from a brand background. So they’d say, ‘oh we’ll just give people the facts’. And I’m like, facts don’t work! We know this from advertising. It’s about making people feel.
If I used the word ‘branding’ a lot of politicians say, Dee I’m not a brand. And I’d say, well you are because a brand is just what people feel about you. But politics has to be a little bit realer in that you can’t create something from nothing – and certainly not in six weeks. You have to find the stuff that’s already out there and amplify it. But in a sense good branding should do the same thing.
I’m very brutal! I certainly speak truth to power.
Sometimes they’re like, this is really important. And I’m like, yeah no it’s not. You think this is important but no one out there does. I always say to progressive people in politics, start from the position that no one gives a shit about what you’re talking about and go from there.
Because swinging voters aren’t thinking about who to vote for, they actually don’t care. Not because they’re bad – they’re just busy and they’ve got a million things on and politics sits right down there.
Where a lot of political campaigners do it wrong, is they do all this worthy stuff assuming people care. Whereas I come from a brand background, where you actually know you have to engage people to get their attention. You can’t just do an ad telling people about the ingredients in a Weetbix box and expect them to buy it, and I know it’s the same rules in politics. So I have to say to people in politics, no one is obliged to pay attention to the message. So let’s make it entertaining. Even if it’s a negative ad, I’ll try to make it funny. Because people deserve to be entertained.
J: When in the election cycle do you get involved and how does it play out?
D: Generally about a year out you start playing with some broad narratives and putting them into groups. Everyone bags focus groups but they’re actually just ordinary people who don’t care about politics. It’s really important to have their feedback. So you look at where your opportunities are and where your dangers are.
About two months out you might start shooting your candidate ads. Six weeks out you’re on it every day then during the election campaign you’re on it eighteen hours a day. It is relentless.
With social media, there is no set and forget anymore, and there’s no longer a blackout period just because TV ads finish.
It’s very tempting in the middle of a campaign to switch strategies when things aren’t going well. Sometimes that’s really dangerous. Sometimes you’ve got to say to people, no you just have to trust where we’re going with this.
But having said that, if opportunities arise within a campaign, say with Longman and the issues regarding the One Nation candidate not paying tradies – in an area like Longman that has a lot of tradies that’s a big thing. And with Trevor Ruthenberg who lied about [being awarded a war] medal – you have to start targeting audiences who you know care about that.
J: Is it a two-way relationship with politicians in terms of feedback?
D: Politicians have very little to do with a campaign, except for Kevin Rudd who always thought he knew better than everyone. It’s the campaign director, who’s the state secretary of the party. And by the time you get to a campaign with them, your trust levels are super high. Generally you’re brought in really early, right at the beginning. There’s usually you, the campaign director, sometimes a strategy person and a researcher. And you’ll just start throwing balls around. You all work together to find your territories and go from there.
The politicians have enough to do in a campaign and the last thing you want is their involvement!
But generally they trust me. If I say, look, don’t say it like this or you need to be saying it like this, they’ll listen. Because I know what I’m doing and they know I know what I’m doing.
Ideas can still be a bit of a struggle sometimes with people from a political background because they’ll be like, ‘oh we’ll stick newspaper clippings on there and yellow supers and doom and gloom!’ And I’m like, aaargh no! Good ads still need ideas. It’s the same principles. Try to communicate one thing an ad, try to use visuals not words because they’re stronger. Try to make people feel something about it. It’s exactly the same as brand advertising in that way.
J: Does campaign success purely come down to votes?
D: If you are part of a winning team on an election you tend to get the next one for that state. Otherwise you need to pitch for it.
In the last ACT campaign we were behind when we started the campaign and that’s when you know it works. Because the only difference, really, is the campaign, and you see the polls starting to turn and it’s like, WOOOOAH. But sometimes there’s nothing you can do and that’s really hard.
Votes count. Sometimes, though, you work on an election that’s unwinnable. Then it’s a matter of, did people like you? Everyone needs to be able to get on relatively well during an election because they’re incredibly tense. So certainly people skills count.
Now with online as well it’s changed, because people can literally see how engaging your work is by how many people are viewing it and sharing it... No one wants to look through their Facebook feed and see some boring, negative, yellow doom and gloom ad. So that’s the feedback you get – it’s very online and votes.
J: With a public profile comes criticism. How do you deal with detractors?
D: Within advertising there can be such bitchiness. When I first started on Gruen I’d get, ‘who’s she? She’s done nothing.’ And I was like, oh fuck off.
I feel like I’m removed from the advertising world. I find it hard to take it that seriously anymore. It’s one of the reasons I shifted – you’d have two hour meetings about the size of a logo and I’d think, oh my god this isn’t life.
On the other side, you’re aware that when you say something on TV, all of a sudden people are shouting at you on Twitter. At first it was quite disconcerting but now I’ve got a thicker skin. And, I don’t know, I hit my forties and I got to this point where I think, when in doubt I just say it anyway.
I’m not perfect and I’m kind of okay with that.