Gabrielle Martinez: Self-Made, By Design

When the leader of the free world needs an event planned, entrepreneur Gabrielle Martinez of agencyEA is up to the task.

Gabrielle Martinez (standing in her newly renovated Chicago office) credits her family for her entrepreneurial spirit. “I grew up watching my aunts, uncles, and grandparents start their own business and compete in an oversaturated and very competitive market—and actually succeed,” she says.
Photo by Sheila Barabad.

Gabrielle Martinez is one of the most sought-after talents in the event-marketing field. As cofounder and managing partner of Chicago-based agencyEA, Martinez produces marketing campaigns and large-scale events for some of the biggest companies in the world, including Target, Boeing, GE, Oprah Winfrey, and AOL, and has worked with the Obamas since before they moved into the White House. But despite the prestige of working with such high-end clients, Martinez proudly traces the roots of her career back to a more humble beginning—her family’s Mexican restaurant in Dallas.

“My family owns a small Mexican restaurant, so I grew up watching my aunts, uncles, and grandparents start their own business and compete in an oversaturated and very competitive market—and actually succeed,” Martinez explains, adding that her family still owns and operates the restaurant today. “I later figured out that, by waiting tables there and watching my family build their business, I was developing my own skills in business and client relations, which I still apply today.”

Martinez left Texas in 1989 to attend Lake Forest College in Illinois, trading in the familiarity (and beautiful weather) of her hometown for new, exciting terrain only an hour outside of Chicago. In 1993, she made the move to the big city, enrolling in law school at DePaul University in Chicago to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer—or so she thought.

“After my first day of law school, I had a sinking feeling that I had made a huge mistake,” she recalls.” “I didn’t feel like I was in the right place.” Martinez realized she was not passionate enough about the law to pursue it as a career, and after finishing her first year, decided to explore other options. “I was trying to be reflective and figure out what the backup plan for the rest of my life should be. I worked various jobs and tried to turn inwards to evaluate my passions, interests, and natural strengths.”

Two years later, Martinez found a position working with a catering company—a fitting career move for someone who grew up in the food-and-beverage industry. Slowly, but surely, she began to find her niche. “Every year, I would work on bigger and bigger projects that had more layers to them, in the sense that I wasn’t just selling food and beverage. Instead, I was selling all of the components you could imagine for an event—transportation, décor, floral, entertainment,” she says.

After Martinez got more involved with event planning, she soon began to feel that it was time to take her career to the next level and branch out on her own. She always saw herself following her family’s example and becoming a small-business owner. In 1999, Martinez and her husband Fergus Rooney started Event Architects, a full-service event production company. She says, “We started with just two employees; here we are, 14 years later, with 45 employees.”

The company grew quickly through word of mouth, attracting high-end clients like Procter & Gamble, Nike, and then-Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “Like any company that’s starting out in any marketplace, you’re always striving to gain traction and to build your reputation,” Martinez explains. “We were always working to build our credibility so that we could become a trusted partner to what we saw as the ideal client, so with that we were always reminding ourselves that we would need to adapt and deal with new concepts in the market.”

As the company grew, Martinez and her team shifted from a solely event-focused firm to an integrated marketing agency, conceptualizing and overseeing marketing and event campaigns alike. She and her husband decided to formally rebrand the company to reflect its new focus in 2011, when Event Architects became agencyEA.

“We were really viewed as a creative partner by our clients, so that led to our rebranding into an agency where we now have a fully articulated creative team,” Martinez says. The agency now develops programs, events, and experiences that present brands to consumers and audiences in unexpected ways, with the goal of elevating the brand message and giving life to that message after event is over. “We have become a nontraditional marketing company that deals specifically with experiential marketing,” Martinez explains

Martinez has led her agency to the top of the industry with her marketing savvy and natural client-relations skills which have helped her attract high-profile clients—and keep them coming back for more. “We intentionally try to develop a very close working relationship with our clients’ internal marketing team to make sure that there’s always a collaborative process and that their message and tone remains cohesive from the conception of the event or the campaign all the way through the execution,” she says.

One of Martinez’s repeat clients just so happens to be the most powerful family in the world—the Obamas. “We began working with the Obamas when he was running for president the first time. Through that we developed a relationship with the campaign that, when he was elected, evolved into a relationship with the White House,” Martinez explains.

She and her team have worked closely with First Lady Michelle Obama to create, manage, and execute all of the White House Christmas décor for the past three years, as well as overseeing events during President Obama’s first inauguration. “With the first inauguration, we worked on six different events, and this time around, I was able to take my daughter with me to the inaugural events,” she says.

A proud mother of two beautiful daughters, Sophia and Lucia, Martinez took her 13-year-old daughter—her oldest—with her to Washington, DC, to see President Obama get sworn in and witness an important piece of history. She also took her daughter with her to the Latino Inaugural Ball at the Kennedy Center. “I feel so privileged to be able to do that. Being able to live in that world and have a healthy appreciation for it while also sharing it with my family is just outstanding,” she says.