Jorge Martínez: “The important thing is to make things happen”

He was a little boy with a burning ambition. He wanted to be an architect and, along the way, to combat the evils of the world. But architecture seemed very far away… Maybe even farther than living in slums as an expatriate. Jorge Martínez did not like studying. And that, which could have become a heavy burden, ended up making the teenager much more mature than would be expected for someone of his age.

At 14 he left his family home to go to study in a place called the Escuela de Artes y Oficios, where he could find lessons that seemed much better than the language and mathematics classes at the secondary school where his friends went.

“Most of the people were much older than me, with a very romantic and artistic vision of art and craft trades, real people with very clear ideas and a human sensibility, who were committed to art and culture. This place had a great initial impact on me, and subsequently left a deeper mark on me than I would have thought possible,” he says.

At that school he tried an endless array of artistic disciplines until he discovered graphic design. And he liked it. At the age of 23 he set up a design studio called Germinal, in honour of the novel by Émile Zola. “It was a personal project, the result of the enthusiasm and innocence of three classmates who, 15 years later, are still my business partners,” he says. “In Murcia there was a great graphic arts tradition. The graphic work was well done and aesthetically pleasing, but nevertheless lacked potency and transgression. I have always been interested in design because of its ability to move people and produce emotional effects. Aesthetics, in a superficial sense, did not interest me at all. I have always thought that design is actually a wonderful tool for communicating.”

Being born on the southern Mediterranean coast did not make things any easier. Being a long way from the cities where the big advertisers are keeps you away from their focus, according to Jorge. “It could have been a broken dream or one of the many projects that fail every day,” he says, “but we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. We proposed a graphic and communication narrative that was needed in that context and were lucky enough to call attention to ourselves very quickly.” Later, several studios sprang up in the city (“I think they were encouraged by the experience and work of Germinal,” he says), and a new design scene was created. “We competed among ourselves, forcing us to strive, and that made us better. I think that together we have put Murcia on the international creative map on our own merit.”

Yet design, even though it has won him 20 Laus Graphic Design and Communication awards, was not everything. He liked many more things. Many. Many more. Photography, film, performing arts, conferences, documentaries… And he brought all this together in a festival called Punto y Aparte, held for eight years in different spaces throughout Murcia, which, from a perspective of social commitment and a contemporary vision of culture, covered topics such as madness, legal limbos, immigration and subversion.

Jorge was the director and also had all the other jobs in the organisation of the festival. There is no other way when you organise everything yourself and the projects become a personal endeavour. It was a project he did out of pure emotion. A project, he says, “almost therapeutic in that it emptied all that energy and hyperactivity that was bubbling inside of me.”

I learnt to make things happen

“It was a great master’s course,” he continues. “I established relationships with a lot of fascinating people, very talented people, but above all, committed and generous people with a worldview that was very close to mine. I convinced them to come, often for free, to a small festival in a small town which some of them had never even heard of. It was an amazing experience. I learned how to make things happen. I discovered that I had the ability to charm people and to participate in proposals that were highly personalised, but that endeavoured to transcend, denounce, help and generate debate. And I also saw that the combination of disciplines and teamwork are essential for a project to become truly innovative.”

That’s the A-side of his passions. But there is also a B-side. “I’ve always been very interested in social engagement, finding answers to all these questions that we ask ourselves… Getting involved in solving conflicts and problems.”

Jorge says that although he sacrificed many things so Punto y Aparte could go ahead, the effort was well worth it. What he received far exceeds what he put into it. For example? Meeting Toni Segarra. In 2007 he invited this publicist he so admired to his festival to ask him, as part of a debate, if creative talent at agencies could help to change the world. The meeting turned this admiration into a stable partnership that has been evolving over time into a deep friendship. “Toni offered to let me run Milmilks*, the creative laboratory of the SCPF agency to propose unconventional communication projects to the brands, often based on collaboration with other disciplines. It was a difficult moment for me, but I knew I could not afford to miss that train, and that that decision could only bring good things. Toni was very generous and let me combine that collaboration with my studio and the other projects I was doing at the time.”

That was his second master’s course without academic accreditation after the Punto y Aparte Festival. Jorge learned the advertising trade under the protection and leadership of one of the best creative minds in Spain. “I went from admiring Toni and his projects from a distance to working with him (something very different from working for someone), sharing our concerns and our way of understanding communication.”

Although Jorge thinks that being in a small town can sometimes pose a disadvantage, at the same time it is a challenge. “If you decide to work and live in Murcia, a big brand name is unlikely to call you to hire your services. You have to go looking for it, and to do that, you have to develop a particular personality which is determined, brave, proactive and utterly unapologetic. It is much less comfortable, more fragile and difficult, but, on the other hand, it teaches you to fight for what you want.”

And then came a day when his life changed again.

This time forever. In one of the editions of his festival, Jorge produced an exhibition for the photojournalist Juan Carlos Tomasi and then programmed a symposium on neglected diseases, showing those images and the work that Doctors Without Borders did in the field to combat a situation that kills 8,000 people every day. “It is a tragedy that would be preventable with a proper diagnosis and treatment, but they are not forthcoming,” he says. “The pharmaceutical industry is not interested in saving human lives. It is interested in the business behind this ‘miracle’, accessible only to those who can afford it.” The tragedy left Jorge shaken, and he didn’t just think he should do something, but also that he could do it.

So he imagined pills that do not heal the pain of those who take them, but rather of the people who cannot afford them. He applied his small town theory, got in his car and went to Barcelona. He presented the idea to Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) and the humanitarian medical organisation quickly saw the potential in the idea. Jorge used his techniques to make things happen and, after two years pushing the cart shoulder to shoulder with the MSF team, the campaign began to roll. MSF has sold 6,000,000 boxes of Pills for Other People’s Pain, and it has gone down as one of the most effective, well-known and innovative actions in advertising history.

The most important thing is not the ideas

“It’s funny. From the first moment I knew that this was an idea with enormous potential, and so it was worth the fighting to the end for it, but I didn’t realise to what extent it would mark a turning point in my life,” he says. “The most important thing is not the ideas. It’s making things happen. And I had to turn this project into a reality, out of personal pride and professional egotism, but above all because the lives of many people depended on it, which is what MSF taught me throughout the process.”

Jorge says that Pills for Other People’s Pain “is a project that is part autobiography; it’s about how to do something that perfectly suits your abilities and attitudes”. But it was also the event that awakened an old childhood ambition that today has been harnessed for this purpose: to devote part of his time during the rest of his life to undertaking social innovation projects. Since then he has worked with Oceana, Peace and Development, Vicente Ferrer Foundation, Save the Children and the UN’s Millennium Campaign. And so, he says, “every day I have the wonderful feeling that my work is important, of facing wonderful challenges that also offer the ability to change things, to help those who need it most”.

every day I have the wonderful feeling that my work is important

Jorge Martinez could describe himself in these words: “energy, hyperactivity and infinite curiosity”. And this means that today he is alternating various social projects for international organisations and brands with the production of documentary pieces such as Minera (which recounts a trip by Rocío Márquez, a flamenco singer, into the mine shaft of Santa Cruz del Sil in León, where eight miners remained locked for 50 days in protest); the creation of Instagramers Gallery, the first gallery of Instagram photography, based in Miami and Madrid; and the management, along with Toni Segarra (his friend and teacher), of The Table.