Since starting The Vida Agency nearly five years ago, Edmonds resident Amalia Martino has been on a mission to change the way that organizations communicate with their increasingly diverse audiences.
Her strategic communications firm, which moved its corporate headquarters from Seattle to downtown Edmonds earlier this year, is committed to bridging the communications gaps that often exist between organizations and their constituents – especially when those audiences are multicultural and multilingual.
Martino’s company mainly works to assist public agencies and nonprofits, from the City of Seattle to Cascadia College to AARP, but it has developed campaigns for the private sector as well. (Check out this work for Everett Mall, which focuses annually on highlighting local students for its back-to-school advertising.)
The agency’s Spanish-language commercial for Community Health Plan of Washington won a Northwest Regional Emmy award.
Regardless of the client, the goal is the same: to develop communications strategies that “are intentional from the beginning” in engaging more diverse audiences, Martino said.
The 46-year-old Martino, who describes herself as mixed race, is no stranger to diversity issues. The daughter of a single mother, she grew up on Seattle’s Capitol Hill and was among the first students to participate in Seattle’s school busing program, which took her to white-majority schools north of the Ship Canal. She graduated from Roosevelt High School and the University of Washington, with the dream of becoming an international diplomat.
“I grew up as the only brown person in a really white family,” she recalled. When working with clients, Martino said, she brings not only that background but also what she describes as “a Northwest sensibility. When we talk about race and multiculturalism, languages, that’s an easier conversation to have in New York than in Seattle, the Northwest. Seattle has its own unique way of doing things when it comes to race.”
As a child and teen, Martino also acted both in stage productions and commercials. Before heading to a post-college graduation study-abroad program in Mexico in the late 1990s, she appeared in a national Microsoft commercial, which funded a good portion of her study-abroad living expenses.
“I came back (from Mexico) and said, ‘I’m going to go be an actress and go to Los Angeles,” Martino said. For a short time, Martino had a role on the NBC soap opera Passions “but it wasn’t really for me,” she said.
She moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where she was hired at Kaiser Permanente’s institute for Health Policy. Starting as an administrative assistant, she was promoted to a communications coordinator and then worked for Kaiser Permanente International, interacting with health care leaders worldwide. During this time, she also gave birth to her daughter, Sophia.
In 2007, with her daughter ready to start kindergarten, Martino decided to return to Washington state, where she had family. Her mother, Theresa Norris, invited her to move into a home in Edmonds that Norris and her sister had recently purchased as an investment. (Norris now lives in Edmonds and also serves as the Vida Agency’s bookkeeper.)
Martino settled into the Yost Park residence, which she eventually purchased. Doing freelance communications work from home, “I joined the PTA and spent some time as a soccer mom,” she said. (Sophia, who graduated from Edmonds-Woodway High School and is now a college student, played soccer for the Warriors.)
As her daughter grew, “the more freedom I got as a single mom to really think about what’s next for me and really helped me expand out of freelancing and think about doing a business,” Martino said. “And here we are – almost five years old.”
What motivated Martino to create The Vida Agency? She pointed to her past work in other U.S. cities – much more culturally diverse than Seattle — and the realization that the Seattle area, too, “is growing and changing.”
As the region becomes increasingly multicultural, many organizations have good intentions when trying to communicate, she explained. But often, their efforts to reach diverse audiences is “an afterthought – we’re going to do it (communications) in English and then we’ll translate it,” she said.
The problem with that approach? “There’s not really great quality control in that translation,” Martino said. “If your intention is to do a bilingual campaign, then you start with that intention from the beginning. That’s the approach that we really bring through our work, and I think it’s the approach that works best.
“We’re not just talking about translating language,” she continued. “We’re talking about, how can we do a creative campaign that says the same thing in English as it does in other languages and has the same look and feel and sentiment that you’re trying to convey?”
That means involving what Martino described as “community partners and language partners” who are in on campaign creation from the start, ensuring that any strategic communication effort will effectively reach its intended audience
As an example, she pointed to the “Be Ready. Be Hydrated” campaign that The Vida Agency created for the City of Seattle. It was a multicultural marketing effort aimed at reducing the demand among young people for sugar-sweetened beverages and promoting the value of drinking water.
Instead of simply translating an English-language campaign, the agency engaged a community-based coalition of organizations and young people to develop a bilingual English/Spanish communications approach.
Martino recalled that those working on the campaign started out with three or four concepts but quickly eliminated two of them because “some were a play on words that just weren’t going to work in Spanish” and also “included some slang that in parts of Mexico probably was not good to put out.”
The campaign earned a President’s Choice Award from the Public Relations Society of America’s Puget Sound Chapter.
The Vida Agency works with a Lynnwood-based company, Andromeda, which provides interpreting and translation services in more than 20 languages. The difference between Andromeda and other translation language services companies, Martino said, is that those who work there are committed to a process known as “transcreation.” It goes beyond rote translation and instead works to adapt content from one language to another while maintaining its intent, style and tone. “It involves understanding the context of what we are doing, so it’s a lot of background information, understanding where we want this language to go, what’s the purpose of this,” Martino explained.
The Vida Agency was initially headquartered in downtown Seattle but left when employees began working remotely during the pandemic. As her employees began returning to the office – but still maintaining hybrid schedules – Martino established several smaller regional offices so workers could be closer to their homes.
Given South Snohomish County’s projected growth as light rail comes to the area by 2024, Martino said she thinks that downtown Edmonds is a good spot for the company’s corporate headquarters.
She anticipates that the agency will also continue to grow, perhaps doubling in size in the next five years.
“To think about what this county is going to look like in 10 years, I feel this (Edmonds) is the right place for us to be,” Martino said.
— By Teresa Wippel