Being bicultural and bilingual propelled Mike Martinez to success

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EL PASO, Texas — Stepping out of a business meeting to negotiate his transfer from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Chicago, Mike Martinez looked out into a violent Chicago blizzard. “It was snowing horizontally,” he recalled. He had been promised a move to Spain — a dream job for him — but the company decided they needed his skills at a national office. It was Christmas Day.

He called his wife in San Juan telling her about the storm and asked her, “So, how would you like to move to Chicago?”

“How would you like to move to Chicago,” she countered.

A UTEP Homecoming audience acknowledges Mike Martinez accomplishments. (Brian Kanof/Courtesy of the UTEP Dept. of Communication)

A UTEP Homecoming audience acknowledges Mike Martinez's accomplishments. (Brian Kanof/Courtesy of the UTEP Dept. of Communication)

He gazed out at the snow. “That’s not fair,” Martinez said. But moving from city to city was nothing special for Mike Martinez. In the world of international public relations and advertising, it’s a job requirement.

Back in El Paso recently to receive the 2010 Hicks-Middagh Award for Excellence in the field of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso, Martinez told a Homecoming audience that his bicultural heritage was the key to a successful career in Public Relations and Advertising. He said he learned the ins-and-outs of the business starting in a local printing shop and working his way up to President and CEO of the largest Public Relations and Marketing firm in El Paso.

“All of this, I would say, is a result of being brought up bilingual and bicultural in El Paso, Texas,” said Martinez. “If I didn’t have those advantages, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities, I think, into the major leagues of international business.”

Spending most of his professional life out of El Paso, his success story is as deeply rooted in the border city as an Ocotillo’s taproot.

Martinez was born in 1926 to working-class immigrant parents who have been his moral foundation. His father came in from Santa Fe, New Mexico and his mother, a refugee of the Mexican Revolution and one of the last of her family to survive, came over from across the border as troops moved into Juarez.

Martinez admired his mother’s “ability to raise five kids and make them decent, well-educated people.” His father worked with the County Clerk’s office under different titles through the years and was greatly involved with his children. “He’d take us all out to ball games, made us participate in sports, made us understand of being good citizens and the importance of law and order,” said Martinez.

“I think our parents always taught us the value of a work ethic,” Martinez said. “Nothing came free. I was working when I was eight-years-old, delivering magazines, then groceries, then newspapers.”

This work ethic, along with his bicultural upbringing was only the start of Martinez’s success.

Martinez joined the Air Force when he was 17-years-old, out of high school and in the thick of World War II. Awaiting an appointment at West Point Academy, he attended Oklahoma A&M (presently Oklahoma State University) for cadet training then transferred to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. At Keesler, he first entered the world of Communication.

“My job was to do, sort of like editorial cartoons on the different stories and training programs,” said Martinez. “I always had a knack for cartooning. It came easy and they liked my work. These guys encouraged me, hearing them talk about their backgrounds and experiences and so forth. They’re the ones that encouraged me to go into advertising. My plan, at the time, was to be an architect. They said, ‘You need to give advertising a whirl.’ When I got out of the service, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

Mike Martinez receives the 2010 Hicks-Middagh Award for Outstanding Alumni in the field of Communication from Dr. Frank Pérez. (Brian Kanof/Courtesy of the UTEP Dept. of Communication)

Mike Martinez receives the 2010 Hicks-Middagh Award for Excellence in the field of Communication from Dr. Frank Pérez. (Brian Kanof/Courtesy of the UTEP Dept. of Communication)

Upon discharge and return to El Paso, a chance meeting with then prominent businessman Dan White proved to be a godsend in laying out his first steps in the business. White graciously sat down with Martinez and gave him about an hour of his time.

“He told me,” Martinez remembered, “‘The first thing you need to know how to do is how to get your hands dirty in this business.’ I thought that was strange advice. I always thought of advertising as a glamorous profession.”

White told Martinez to learn his trade well. “Do the journeyman stuff. Learn to put things together,” Martinez remembered the advice. On White’s suggestion, Martinez got a job at a printing company in order to learn about the printing process as well as a job in retail in order to learn how different products are marketed. “That training, to me, was another college degree, to tell you the truth,” Martinez said.

In addition to those jobs, he was also encouraged to write for a newspaper. This check on his list came in the form of The Prospector and El Burro, the since defunct campus humor magazine at then Texas College of Mines where he was working towards a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism.

As Associate Editor of The Prospector and Editor of El Burro, Martinez often confided in his journalism professor, John Middagh. “The only thing I don’t like about this,” Martinez once said to Middagh “is that I’m going to be graduating with a degree in journalism from a Texas College of Mines! That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Middagh encouraged Martinez, with his rank in the school’s publications, to write something in El Burro about it.

“I wrote a long article about why we should change the name of the school,” Martinez said. “There was a lot of support. So, all of a sudden, we had a student movement going on. It grew and became very powerful. And the next thing we know, we’re petitioning the school authorities to get the name of the school changed. They decided to listen. We were trying to get it to ‘TWU,’ but we couldn’t get ‘University.’ So we got ‘Texas Western College.'”

Working as part-time advertising copywriter and layout artist at Sears Roebuck in El Paso, he was moved to Dallas through an executive training program after college. He rose to the ranks of Corporate Sales Manager of South American operations and worked out of Caracas, Venezuela.

While working with Sears, he received a knock on his door by some gentlemen representing the firm of McCann-Erickson, the second largest global advertising firm in the world at the time. They knew the work he did with Sears and wanted him in their ranks. “That’s how I got to New York: sort of by the back door,” Martinez said. “If I had gone there out of college, I probably wouldn’t have made it by the mailroom.”

Martinez fondly recalls his first meeting with them: “I remember getting to New York at 50 Rockefeller. Getting out of the cab, I took a look at the huge buildings and thought, ‘Boy, Martinez, what have you gotten yourself into? This is the center of the universe. What are you going to tell these guys about anything?'”

He started as an executive trainee and rose to Account Supervisor where he handled international billings of over $60 million. He travelled extensively to Europe and Latin America on such big-name accounts as Coca-Cola, Exxon, Air France and Quaker Oats.

Still with McCann-Erickson, he received a call from representatives from the firm of Young & Rubicam. He took the job and rose to the title of Regional Vice President of Latin America. He was in charge of their operations in Venezuela and helped in doubling the firm’s size in Latin America as well as quadrupling their billings in the span of three years.

Leaving Young & Rubicam after six years, he went with the Ford Motor Company after, yet again, another set of phone calls, this time from Ford. Martinez served as Director of Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations where he assisted in conversion of Ford Mexico from assembly plant to full-scale manufacturing, marketing and export entity.

A year and a half later, the pollution in Mexico was creating problems for his wife and kids. Martinez also wanted his children to receive a high school education in the United States, so he packed up the family and moved back to El Paso.

In El Paso, he founded and built Marcom, Inc. in 1964. The firm evolved into a fully-integrated bicultural marketing, advertising, public relations and research agency. In the span of 10 years, he helped build it to one of the top agencies in the Southwest and the largest in El Paso, something Martinez considers one of the greatest accomplishments of his professional career.

He left El Paso for San Juan, Puerto Rico when he was tapped by one of his associates to handle the Latin American sector of the firm Foote, Cone & Belding. He served as President and CEO of FCB Latin America, where he was initially promised work in Spain. After the firm decided they needed him in Chicago, he decided to leave the firm and join Hay Associates, management consultants in Dallas.

After serving as Director of Strategic Planning and Marketing Services at Hays Associates, the firm wanted him to handle international affairs in Philadelphia. Deciding that he was through with “bouncing around international markets” as well as having his family already centered in Texas, he decided to open up his own consultancy firm in Dallas.

Martinez founded Strategic Management Services, Inc. in 1982 and has been “semi-retired” there ever since.

For Martinez, the means for his success comes right back to his El Paso upbringing. Living on a bustling border city in the 1920’s through the 40’s enriched his perspective, a perspective that has only matured and thrived. “It’s a way of understanding people quickly and understanding different viewpoints and gaps in understanding,” said Martinez of growing up bicultural.

Martinez’s neighborhood in Central El Paso was a virtual “foreign legion,” as he put it. He grew up around Mexicans, Syrians and Chinese people, only grounding his then growing worldview of acceptance.

Working internationally has expanded this. “It taught me that people, regardless of their race, their gender or their religion, are pretty much the same,” he said. “The human element as we know it basically laughs, cries, wakes up, goes to sleep, makes love for all the same reasons. A lot of that is involved in trying to cope with the kind of environment we’ve inherited as best we can. The motivations of humankind are fundamentally the same. If we can concentrate on that, we’d be much ahead of where we are today.”

Flexibility has been Martinez’s strength. “The ability to adapt to change comes from experience, self-assurance, a sense of purpose in assuming you have something to offer in different situations,” Martinez said. “I’ve always considered change as a challenge. I left home at 17 to go into the service. From that day forward, my entire life was one of adapting to change, whether it was adapting to the military, college, work or new assignments. I’ve always considered change as part of life, an opportunity.”

This all-around openness to diversity and change is something he encourages to those who are looking for success in the future. “I don’t care what discipline you’re in today,” he said. “I think the advice I would give to any person in college today is the same advice I gave to my grandson: I think it’s very important to expand your mind liberally – and by that I don’t mean in a political sense. The liberal arts are much downgraded in many schools today because we’re such a country of specialists – we’re engineers and doctors or lawyers. I think that people who focus on their single discipline in college forget the value of expanding their minds by also including some liberal arts. Something that gives you an idea of what the world is about.”

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  1. My father, Mike Martinez, taught me calligraphy and how to play and appreciate music when I was just a kid. He also taught me the value of hard work, family and integrity.

    These continue to sustain me on several personal and professional levels to this day.

    By far the greatest man I know…

    Thanks Pop!

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