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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.

This story first appeared in the June 21, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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.”

In Arkansas, she stayed with a friend, Kate Askew, and her husband Jess. Askew is a rare book dealer, and Badger tried doing small projects involving old volumes and antiques. “We were just constantly coming up with crazy ideas and fun things to do,” she said, recalling how she realized one day that she had an ad agency that “I built from the ground up and I’m going to go back there.”

While Badger was down South, Winters kept the business moving forward, knowing she would return. He moved the office to much larger quarters, expanded staff and lined up new business. “We knew there was going to come a moment when she was not only going to want to come back, she was going to come back,” he said. “Our job was to make sure she came back to the healthiest, most vital situation possible.”

Badger said she came to realize that the ability to successfully run a business that sustains people and feeds their families “is pretty massive stuff.” Referring to the spacious offices full of young people, she recalled, “One of the first things that Jim and I really talked about when I first came back [in January] was, how can we be an inspiration to all the people that work here for us?”

Perhaps the big opportunity to answer that question is the fact that Badger & Winters has become the agency of record for Avon, according to the company, and is charged with creating and producing the worldwide campaign. “We selected them because of their deep expertise in understanding the emotional drivers of the beauty and fashion consumer,” said Patricia Perez-Ayala, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Avon. She added that the “team is working closely with us to gain a first-hand understanding of our consumers and representatives.”

The agency has worked for Avon for four years, including the creation of a global design vision for its brochure, which acts as a store and advertising campaign combined.

Winters estimates that 60 percent of the agency’s business is in beauty, including Living Proof, Laura Geller Beauty and continuing with Clairol Natural Instincts at Procter & Gamble. As part of its new global push, the agency is planning to open offices in São Paulo and London. On the fashion-retail-lifestyle side of the equation, the agency picked up the Smart Set in Canada, Godiva and the Donghia fabric and furniture brand.

Beraud, who has worked with the agency while at three companies, described Badger’s key strength as “having tremendous vision and an unparalleled aesthetic.” She also is adept at “disruptive thinking — breaking new ground in mature categories.”

While Beraud was at PepsiCo, Badger created a new concept and packaging for a water product that was “so aspirational it would take the water category to a whole new level.” Beraud pointed out that Winters adds a smart, strategic strength that he demonstrated in her absence. “He provides a steadfastness and is highly strategic and also they share a similar aesthetic,” Beraud said. “He has the operational strength that maybe is not her favorite thing.”

Talking about Badger, Calvin Klein observed, “It’s this rare combination she has — an ability to understand clients’ needs, to think creatively and pull together the team of writers, visual people, graphics people, directors and to be able to target the audience — if it’s on television, or the Internet — to market it.”

Similarly, Vera Wang cited her talent for interpreting a designer’s “voice” as it evolves through a career and “translating that specificity in such an artistic way.” Wang added, “Madonna is one of those people who really had a sense of art and taste and past and present — historically.”

She noted that the ads Badger had done in the early days of Wang’s business exuded a timeless sensuality and sophistication. “It’s not even romance, it was art,” she said.

Winters and Badgers maintain that the beauty industry is going to have to think differently if it is to lure a new generation of users, especially when discussing the Millennials. It starts with getting to know the customer in every phase of her life, Badger said, adding that some companies like Living Proof are trying to break the mold in plumbing individual consumer needs. The industry needs to tell the consumer: “We understand your life, we understand who you are, that your life is a lot bigger than just your skin care.”

She continued, “A lot of it is the idea that they are the creators. When you take out of the equation this idea that we are coming from on high and coming down, saying ‘this is what you need to know,’ the more we as brands are a part of her conversation, a part of her world and understand her world with a single, clear and concise message, then we’re giving her the chance to not only choose us but also create with us.”

It boils down to what Badger calls “this age of empathy,” a concept that resonated last Christmas when she was visiting an orphanage for young girls, aged three to 18, in Thailand. She had given them toys and other gifts that she had salvaged from the detached garage in Connecticut that escaped the fire. All the girls had come from homeless or wretched backgrounds. “I told them what had happened to me, and I said, ‘I’m just like you. I’ve lost everything, you’ve lost everything and here we are.’”

The head of the orphanage asked if they could pray with her. She said yes and bowed her head. “It was very emotional,” Badger recalled. “When I opened my eyes, all 25 of the little girls were all standing around me and they were all praying over me in Thai. That was mind-blowing.”


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