If there’s one thing constant about Madden Media, it’s constant change. Launched in the early 1980s by University of Arizona alumni Kevin and Jill Madden, the company began with a single visitors guide, later shifted into webpage design, and then on to internet search optimization. Now celebrating 35 years of success, Madden has become an industry leader in creating multimedia packages for more than 600 tourism offices across the country. Plenty of Wildcats are along for the ride, too, with more than 30 currently on staff.
What are the keys to Madden’s achievements? No. 1: an uncanny knack for spotting business trends. No. 2: fearlessly putting those trends to work.
Like most great stories, this one starts humbly. Today, we’re sitting in the historic MacArthur Building, a downtown Tucson icon where Madden Media is headquartered. As we chat, Jill Madden reaches for the photo of a nondescript student rental on the edge of campus.
“That was the house we worked out of,” she says, chuckling. “It was on Silver Street, where Kevin lived with his roommate, who also did production and created our first business card.”
Initially, it seemed an unlikely gig. After graduating with a business degree in 1981, Kevin Madden briefly sold typewriters and then Yellow Pages advertising. That was the extent of his experience when they first conceived of Tucson Guide.
“It sure was never meant to be a get-rich-quick scheme,” he says. “It was me driving around Tucson in my VW, trying to sell ads.”
Fortunately, they enjoyed an early boost from Tucson’s flourishing mom-and-pop business community. “We couldn’t have done it in most towns,” Jill Madden says, “these 24-year-old kids walking into businesses to sell ads. But they wanted to support us because we were UA grads, and this was really a small-business town then.”
The first issue of Tucson Guide rolled off the presses in January 1983 — a beautiful, high-production magazine with brilliant, full-page ads. Their next job was hauling it around to hotels, restaurants and anywhere else that visitors congregated.
By 1985, the Maddens began publishing a tourism guide for the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau, now known as Visit Tucson. That partnership was pivotal, eventually leading to similar collaborations with organizations across the country, in what the company calls “storytelling.”
“Our storytelling campaigns have been among our biggest successes,” Kevin Madden says, pointing to examples such as Kissimmee, Florida, where they created more than 40 short feature stories aimed at visitors. Madden also conducted in-depth web analysis for Kissimmee and tapped its proprietary Audience Development platform for boosting traffic to the city’s website.
Another success story was the Man vs. Steak campaign for Amarillo, Texas. That award-winning effort focused on the Big Texan Steak Ranch, which challenges diners to eat a 72-ounce steak and side dishes in one hour or less. The story was cleverly told from a contestant’s vantage, accompanied by folksy, hand-drawn landing page illustrations.
Kevin Madden was among those who recognized the digital revolution’s potential early on. “Back in 1995, when the internet first happened, we created our internet development company called Madden Media, and we spun it off from Madden Publishing,” he says.
“Today our business is 70 percent digital marketing services and 30 percent publications. We’ve done everything, from helping people with their search rankings to creating websites. We worked for EA Sports in the San Francisco Bay area. Coty Cosmetics in New York was one of our biggest clients, and we also did the very first website for America West Airlines.”
The most providential shift came in 2003, when Madden Media purchased Preprint Publishing. The Florida-based company specialized in tourism-related inserts for newspapers and magazines and offered Madden a new level of marketing expertise.
The Maddens talk about all these changes with passion. “I get excited about new entrepreneurial ideas, rather than just the same stuff we’ve been doing,” Kevin Madden says. “I would recommend to anyone who is so inclined to do their own thing to start their own business — particularly if you’re talking to college students. Now is the time, when you don’t have kids and a huge house and can’t take a risk. But if you have a chance to do your own thing, do it.”
And that is the perfect credo for Madden Media and its evolving staff of spirited Wildcats.