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Abbie Dubin-Rhodin: Strategising a More Equitable Future

Abbie Dubin-Rhodin is Strategy Director at Leo Burnett in Sydney, where she’s strategic lead on Suncorp's retail insurance and banking businesses, as well as Diageo's portfolio of global brands. Mavens corresponded with the American expat to learn more about the career she kickstarted in New York, and what she’s learned since joining the ad industry in Australia.

Tell us about your background. How did you get where you are today?

I like to think of my career in two parts – the USA/healthcare advertising years (2011-2017) and then the Australia/consumer advertising years (2017-foreevveerrr).

For the first part, I very much ‘single-white-femaled’ my older brother’s career. We both have Masters of Public Health and are both strategists – although he’s still on the healthcare side of things, running his own agency. My first strategy internship was even on his team at FCBHealth in New York where I consistently undermined his authority by telling people stories from our childhood. I regret nothing.

I still find healthcare really interesting and may have even stuck a bit closer to it had I known ‘epidemiologist’ would be the hottest job title of the following decade. But the US healthcare system leaves a lot to be desired and working in it, I was losing my passion for work. Around that point, my partner (who’s Australian) made the decision to return to Australia to go to graduate school.

It was 2017, Donald Trump was somehow president, and I was basically packed before he’d finished telling me when school started.

The 4.5 years since then have been pretty mad. Getting a job here was tough. While every Aussie in advertising has traveled to the US and seen all the pharma ads (and loves to tell you about them), convincing people that strategists in healthcare advertising could do all the same stuff as strategists in ‘regular’ advertising was a pretty tall order. I cold-messaged every person with any sort of senior strategy title in every agency I could come across on LinkedIn to varying levels of success (my current boss left me on read, haha).

I ended up at a small content/creative shop called Edge where I spent my first 15 months. It was a bit of a baptism by fire. Small shop = small teams = covering lots of accounts from lots of different strategic angles. In addition to brand strategy, I did digi, I did social, I built content plans, SEO recommendations, and measurement frameworks for brands covering everything from banking to universities to QSR (Quick Service Restaurants).

This is the part where I admit that – it turns out – there may have been some additional skills that I had to learn on the job. Skills that I didn’t have as a healthcare advertising strategist. Whatever, I’m a fast learner. It worked out.

And now I’ve been at Leo Burnett for the last 3 and a bit years, where I like to tell people I’m the most junior and most senior person not also in charge of the department. And it’s been a BIG few years.

My strategic work has led to Australia’s first Australia-proof home, the world’s first (we think) acoustic album about periods by artists on theirs, and incredible social content that raised the world’s awareness of the magnitude of the modern slavery of girls and women globally.

I’ve also been building out the agency’s offering for startups and helping to lead Viva Women (Publicis Groupe women’s ERG), specifically developing a program to support female and non-binary owned small businesses and organisations in tackling marketing and media challenges.

What does a typical day look like for you?

The best thing about a strategist (well one of them, it’s a cool job!) is that every day is a bit different. In the last couple weeks alone, I’ve led an all-day workshop to provide a period poverty NFP with customer journeys, creative ideas, and connections planning; wrote an Effies paper, developed a localised cultural strategy for a spirits brand, built the brand strategy to launch a new over-the-counter kids’ medication, did some product planning for a breakfast brand, and of course held down the fort strategically on all the projects I’m overseeing that have moved into creative and production.

I’ve also been making space to do more mentoring and particularly working to get more junior strategists started in the industry, both through formal and informal avenues.

I have obviously benefited from the fact that Australian agencies import a lot of their strategic talent but also recognise the giant blind spots I have regarding the totality of the Australian experience and think we need to train up a lot more Australian strategists to move the industry forward.

There’s nothing like winning a bunch of Effies to flex your strategy muscles! Your team’s work on Bonds ‘Bloody Comfy Period Undies’ did just that, winning Gold and Silver for APAC, and two silver for Australia. Can you tell us more about the campaign?

That was a great time!

Anyone who’s met me will tell you I’m extremely passionate about women’s repro and menstrual health. My dream client/job is Planned Parenthood.

So 6 months where I got to talk about periods all day and be part of creating a literal album about them? Yes, 1000x yes. Also, I can now say with anecdotal confidence, that you can get men really comfortable with chatting periods if you just talk about it 8 hours a day for several weeks in a row.

Back to the campaign. It was honestly a pretty dreamy gig. While globally, there had been a lot of progress in the period space – Viva La Vulva, Womb Stories – down under, things were moving a bit slower when it came to comms (I should note, things have moved along RAPIDLY since). I led a bunch of research groups with teen girls to kick us off and found a few interesting (and also depressing things):

  1. The shame and generally sense of hate my friends and I had about our periods when we were teenagers hasn’t abated whatsoever.

  2. The idea that someone might find out you’re on your period was a point of genuine fear for girls and they’d go to extreme lengths up to and including skipping school to keep people from knowing.

  3. No teens had seen the groundbreaking overseas work that had begun to normalize bleeding and the diversity of life as a menstruator in period advertising.

Behaviour change campaigns are hard to pull off under the best of circumstances, but when people’s current choice is partially made based on fear (of the unknown, of leaks etc.), it’s magnified ten times.

What we needed were people who got it, who could credibly speak to the diversity of real period experiences – all the ones that exist in-between the Tampon Ad Standards™ of ‘emotional, chocolate shoveling werewolf’ and ‘white lycra wearing beach frolicker.’

This is where amazing creative thinkers really come in handy. The creative dream team on this one – Stacey Karayannis and Ellie Dunn – responded to the brief with ‘what if we created an acoustic album where every artist writes a song about their periods while they’re on theirs oh and by the way, we want to call it Unplugged.’

Literal chills.

There is no group of people more equipped to transform their individual period experiences into moving storytelling like musical artists. It’s literally their whole deal – transform personal experience into storytelling that can connect to the experiences of millions, regardless of background.

And while ‘make an album’ was very much not the original ask from the client, I can’t imagine how we would’ve reached similar impact without it. We had loads of downloads, massive growth in business and brand metrics and most importantly, heard from Aussie parents that it was encouraging their teenagers to proactively start conversations about periods with them. Something they’d never done before.

Again, chills.

As the strategic lead on Suncorp’s retail insurance and banking businesses, you helped to develop ‘One House to Save Many’, the world's first home tested and designed to withstand life in Australia. What was your individual role on the project?

The TL;DR version is that I developed the brand and connections strategy for the project.

The slightly longer – and I think more interesting – version is that One House as an idea actually came out of the first storm season campaign I led strategically for Suncorp at Leo’s. Every year insurance brands, including Suncorp, do storm season campaigns to help people get ready and then recover when something happens.

This was a year and a bit after I’d moved to Australia from the US. I did not know what storm season was. I had been to Queensland literally once before and it was for 3 days to go to the Great Barrier Reef.

Needless to say, I needed to do some research and talk to some actual Queenslanders.

(Fun fact: a producer at Leo’s at the time actually wrote me a list of 30-something things that ‘every Queenslander’ experiences – A LOT of cane toad related items on the list.)

Before I could talk to people though, I needed to know WTF wanted to ask them.

Any strategist can tell you this, but it really bears repeating, your clients’ own archives are absolute gold mines of data and insight. LOOK AT THEM.

So while I was trawling through Suncorp’s website, I came across a wealth of research they had been conducting for 5–10 years with James Cook University in Townsville, all of which centered around understanding and quantifying the resilience of Queenslander and Queensland homes.

It never really got talked about in the brand’s marketing though. And at that point, no brand was really talking about housing resilience in a meaningful way.

That research unearthed a ton of interesting insights, but one nugget in particular stood out: the fact that 9 in 10 claims made after a natural disaster could have been prevented had resilience/mitigation efforts been made before the event.

In a state where home insurance rates are $$$ and some areas are staring down the barrel of uninsurability, building resilience could quite literally change the equation on access and affordability.

One House obviously did not go live for that year’s storm season. All told, it took about 2 years from the original briefing to the premier of the documentary on A Current Affair. Its impact has already been massive, both in terms of shifting business focus and cultural conversations around resilience and what it means to truly be protected in a state as heavily impacted by climate change as Queensland is. Keep an eye on this space, we started with One House, but there’s a lot more work coming.

Abbie Dubin-Rhodin is Strategy Director at Leo Burnett Sydney, 2020 B&T Women in Media Strategist of the Year Finalist and a Startmate Fellow. Follow Abbie on LinkedIn here.


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