Dee Madigan

As an advertising executive, creative director and media commentator, Dee Madigan is best known for her tongue in cheek appearances on ABC TV’s Gruen. However, her involvement in political campaigning and participation on social justice issues – including a campaign to reinstate the Australia Day ad featuring Muslim children – is what inspires this former teacher the most. Journalist Fiona Stutz talks to Dee Madigan about the value of a quality education and why it is important to promote women in advertising.

Writing was just one of those things, because literally as soon as I could walk and talk that was all I have ever really done. All I ever wanted to do was write but I never wanted to starve for my art. So the original degree I started was a Bachelor of Business in Property so I could make a million dollars and retire when I was 40. That was my plan, and after one year of university in that degree – which was as horrifically boring as you could possibly imagine for someone who just basically likes to read and write – I thought ‘I can’t do this’ so I switched into a teaching degree. I graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Education in English and History – Secondary.

I taught history primarily and I taught a couple of English subjects and HSC general studies. So I had one year teaching at probably one of the best schools in Sydney, which actually made it even clearer to me that I was not cut out to be a teacher because if you can’t enjoy teaching like that then you never will.

Growing up

I grew up in Victoria and did Prep, Years 1 and 2 at St Mary’s Catholic school in Hampton. Then I went from Year 3 to half way through Year 9 at Loreto Mandeville Hall, Toorak, which is a private Catholic girl’s school. And then I did the latter half of Year 9 at a school called Nagle College in Bairnsdale, which was not great because they graded you on how hard you tried, not how well you did, but I was good at doing very well without a lot of effort. Then Year 10 I did at Swift Creek High School. My father then decided that I should go back to Loreto.

Loreto was a sensationally good school. We didn’t have a lot of nuns teaching but the ones we did have were all highly educated. English, the literature side of it, was excellent. I ended up with an amazing English teacher – I was really lucky with the English teachers all the way through. One I remember in Year 11 was the first person who said that short stories don’t actually have to have beginnings, middles and ends, and sort of introduced me to people like Sam Yeatman and some Russian authors who did things a bit differently.


I got sick of looking at a lifetime on a teacher’s wage so I did a course in advertising; a 12 week course called ‘award school’. If you graduated in the top 10 you got an automatic job placement for six months, which I did, and then that sort of basically started you in advertising and I just absolutely loved it. I ended up staying there for about nine years. It was incredibly long hours but it was fun. Even as a junior you got to work on big brands. I travelled the world.

I had one year teaching at probably one of the best schools in Sydney, which actually made it even clearer to me that I was not cut out to be a teacher because if you can’t enjoy teaching like that then you never will.


Gruen was interesting. I think I’m the only person who didn’t put their hand up to audition for it. My boss at the time, Sean Cummins, auditioned for it and when they were filming the pilot episode they needed to do the pitch segment and he asked “can you do that please” and I said “oh sure!” So I did the pitch segment and Jon Casimir – it was he and Andrew Denton who were doing it – rang me up and said “would you come and audition for the show?” and I said “sure!” I’d never been on TV before. One thing that did help was growing up with a really good education was that we did a lot of public speaking and public speaking was something my parents always pushed us to do. Having said that, I was terrible in the first episode. How they ever asked me back is beyond me.

Working for self and politics

I started working for myself when I started having children. I went back in the industry though as a creative director; I did a placement for a while, another maternity leave, and then just decided I could probably do it on my own. So when my kids were little I just worked primarily for myself. The good thing about the industry now with the internet and all that sort of stuff you can do that, but what you can’t do is build business like that. So about two years ago I said okay, it’s time now to start a proper agency with actual staff.

I have done a lot of government work just because the agency I was working in happened to do a lot of federal government social marketing campaigns and I actually really liked it. I liked the idea of changed behaviour and I was also increasingly uncomfortable with traditional brand advertising because a lot of it is actually selling people things they don’t need, they can’t afford, and we often make them feel really bad about themselves to buy it. And so even though it was so much fun for a lot of years, eventually you sort of actually start thinking about the ethics of it. You just think ‘oh is this the best use of what I do?’ And I’ve always been incredibly passionate about politics so I almost had two things happening: I was writing about politics and doing political commentary on TV and then I was doing advertising separately.

Women in advertising

Advertising does not have enough women in it; politics has not enough women in it. Australia’s better than a lot of countries but we still fall way behind and particularly in my field. What happens is, like hires like, so creative directors will hire a young guy and they think ‘oh it just feels like you’re sitting so well here’ and it’s like ‘well that’s just because he reminds you of you.’ Unfortunately women then see guys who are not as good as them being promoted over them, plus it’s difficult when you want to leave to have a child. It’s an industry that thinks everyone over the age of 40 is almost past their use by date. So it’s just not sexist, it’s ageist as well, which is ridiculous when you think most of the people who buy grocery products are actually women over the age of 35 or 40. Trying to get a job in an agency I imagine would be very, very difficult once you’re over 40. At my agency (Campaign Edge) we’ve only got a few staff, but I’m very aware of these issues. Hiring women, particularly working mothers who are working three days a week, is actually the best because as anyone knows, once you have kids you actually get better at doing far more in a far shorter time. You get better at organising your life.