Marta Porto

This description of Marta Porto's work was prepared when Marta Porto was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010 .


Marta Porto is driving lasting behavior change around key social issues that are poorly understood in Brazil. She has developed a new paradigm for communication whereby she tailors social messages through dozens of media tools in order to communicate with thousands of micro-audiences. By effectively targeting these communities, speaking to them in a language they understand and leading them through their behavioral changes, Marta is impacting the lives of thousands of people throughout Brazil.

La nuova idea

Marta understands that hearing a message is not the same as understanding it. This is why she has developed an alternative to the common approach of targeting mass audiences solely through mass media; recognizing that such strategies often fail to reach those who most need information about pressing social issues such as tuberculosis or human right’s abuses. In 2004 Marta founded XBrasil: The country’s first cause-oriented communication company operating as a social business. She has turned the idea of a communications/PR firm on its head and has shown that people’s attitudes and behaviors can change if you begin to understand the needs of many different micro-audiences in a grassroots way, then use an array of media tools to reach them via hundreds of partners and organizations. Marta doesn’t take clients; instead, she chooses causes. To prepare for a campaign, XBrasil undertakes a three-step process to acquire a deep understanding of a key social issue such as AIDS, TB or human rights through in depth conversations and research with thousands of micro-audiences from youth in Rio slums to isolated and poor farmers.

XBrasil works with a large network of producers, graphic designers, distributors, and artists, some of whom cooperate without charging XBrasil, and they develop a wide variety of media tools to reach this wide variety of audiences with different levels of understanding about the social issue. Films, spots on community radio, text information to be sent by cell phone, podcasts, complete mini packages with DVDs, talking points, frequently asked questions and answers and telephone hotlines are all prepared. These partnerships and Marta’s dissemination strategy have allowed her to create campaigns that cost 90 percent less than commercial, while still ensuring a return on investment for her organization. Marta has carried out 30 campaigns since 2004.

In a typical campaign, XBrasil develops partnerships with 35 TV stations, 1,000 community radio stations, 125 movie theater chains, 42 partner citizen organizations (COs) and 200 schools. In addition, the information is sent individually to thousands of small town mayors, clinics, schools, public health officials, and others so that they can become, in spite of having no local budgets, the reference points for high-quality information free of charge. They can get the materials to the people who will benefit the most, answer many of their questions and direct other questions and concerns to a national hotline, which also tells them where to go for testing, treatment, and how to change simple behaviors that have a major social impact.

The social impact of her approach was validated by a major study undertaken by the Global Fund in 2007, after her TB and AIDS prevention campaign.

Marta is now disseminating this approach to COs and other institutions by training their staff to help them develop their own campaigns without depending on XBrasil. She has trained 10 replicators using her toolkit and is in the process of systematizing the training modules to scale her model and reach an increasing amount of diverse audiences. Marta is also constantly creating new projects: Her newest venture is Lenses, a program aiming to give universal access to audiovisual cause-marketing content through social media. She is thus headed to spread XBrasil’s methodological paradigm shift throughout Brazil and Latin America.

Il problema

Although Brazil has enjoyed significant economic growth in recent years, as of 2006 it was still the 10th least distributed wealth in the world according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The UN Development Index does not simply measure income disparity but it also ranks countries according to citizen’s access to different wealth enhancing assets such as education, information, private property, credit, and infrastructure, among others. The fact that Brazil is ranked so low on the UN Development Index makes it clear that inequality will only be addressed once it democratizes the access to knowledge and information. Unfortunately, it is much easier to build infrastructure and new services than it is to change behavioral patterns related to education, and public health, among others.

Such behavioral change could be greatly aided by increased information flows. The right messaging about the right topics to the right people could play a key role in stimulating individuals to become active citizens. However, the communication industry in Brazil often broadcasts information, in a top-down manner. This translates into significant challenges for the public, private and citizen sectors alike.

Governments often invest in traditional media campaigns that can cost up to R$9M (US$ 4.95M) and are highly ineffective: The communication industry’s top down approach does not allow for a differentiated understanding of the issues from the point of view of the average citizen. Thus most publicly funded campaigns fail to reach the sectors of society that most need the information being relayed.

COs may have a deep understanding of social issues and have excellent solutions, but they have not been effective in explaining and communicating to diverse audiences with different levels of understanding. Until this powerful field of communication and knowledge production is perceived as strategic and highly relevant to social change, it will continue to be dominated by very few advertising and media companies with no commitment to social causes or public interest. For example, improving information about health issues could result in the prevention of certain diseases. The overall health indicators in Brazil remain terrible partly due to the fact that information and knowledge about preventative care simply does not get to the people who need it the most.

La strategia

Marta created XBrasil in 2005 to introduce a new communication paradigm capable of mobilizing different social networks, media outlets, government agencies, and communities to promote social and behavioral changes.

She begins her work not by having a client but instead by choosing a key, poorly understood social issue in Brazil. Her team identifies a community’s main challenges in order to define the social cause to focus on, either on behalf of another organization, a governmental agency or by XBrasil itself with the participation of a council of COs. Once that is accomplished, Marta’s organization undertakes a macro-analytic exercise, carefully examining data, statistics and qualitative information about the targeted social issue. This process brings up questions about the main decision-makers and leaders engaged with this issue; the risks and opportunities; and the public and private resources available. XBrasil develops answers to these questions by engaging in a deep dialogue with the communities targeted through the campaigns. The organization turns existing public institutions (e.g. schools, libraries, and community centers) into spaces for civic engagement, thus introducing a bottom-up approach to the development of cause-related communication campaigns. After developing a differentiated understanding of a particular social issue and the way it affects citizens, XBrasil develops customized communication strategies to generate behavioral change.

By the end of this initial campaign building process, XBrasil will generally have developed three sets of products for implementation: An orientation guide (i.e. including an action plan, profiles of initiatives, guidelines for the creative process, and social branding), a stakeholder engagement plan, and a cause communication plan. It is only then that XBrasil begins the creative process. It attracts strategic partners, and pulls in various citizen groups, including social networks, COs, unions, community organizations, schools, and international organizations (i.e. the United Nations) to encourage increasing support for, and a diversity of insights into, cause-related communication campaigns, publications, ads, and special projects. XBrasil also puts a great deal of emphasis monitoring, supervising, and evaluating the quality of the end product and outcomes.

As a result, Marta’s organization is able to develop innovative social messages with deep and proven social impact. For example, XBrasil established a partnership with the Ministry of Health to raise awareness about the treatment and prevention of TB. The goal was to inform the general public about the disease through simple and effective messaging, and to encourage them to take preventative measures, or to get diagnosed and treated. XBrasil launched a campaign broadcasted on major television channels throughout the country, including TV Globo, but also used a variety of other media, distributed through hundreds of others channels, including connecting directly with health clinics in order to prepare them with appropriate information and messaging for an influx of new patients.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, supported this initiative and undertook an independent evaluation of XBrasil’s campaign that demonstrated its significant impact. As a result of its tailored campaign, the Global Fund found a significant increase in the number of citizens that sought and received treatment at community health clinics: Achieving one of the main objectives of the campaign. In addition, by providing health clinics and call centers with new communication tools using XBrasil’s tailored products and techniques, public organizations also learned how to interact differently and more effectively with their target audiences. Thus, it can be said that XBrasil very effectively caused behavioral change among previously disengaged portions of the population; something that no other traditional campaign (no matter how expensive) had been able to achieve.

Apart from the methodology used to develop the message, XBrasil also differentiates itself from typical marketing firms in the way it disseminates information to all those who need it. All campaigns produced by XBrasil are broadcasted for free: It is a company policy that public interest communication campaigns should not have to pay for media space. In order to turn this vision into a reality Marta has partnered with 35 TV stations, more than 1,000 radio stations in 125 municipalities and a few strategic players, such as: Educational Television Association of Iberoamerica (ATEI), TV Brasil, Integration Channel, SESC TV, community-based TVs, university channels, COs, YouTube, and many more. She targets, both, large media companies and smaller audiences through health clinics, schools, poor communities, international organizations, and digital media spaces. Not only has this strategy allowed XBrasil to directly reach and affect a wide audience it has also done so at about 10 percent of the cost of traditional media campaigns.

In order to strengthen the quality of the dialogue with smaller audiences, Marta also develops and manages special projects around social issues identified with the participation of a council of COs, social leaders, and experts. For example, XBrasil launched Universal Milestone in 2007 to generate public discussions and mobilization around chosen topics, every two years. Such civic engagement occurs through the dissemination of audiovisual materials, public debates and the active participation of individuals, collectives, and movements.

For example, in 2007 XBrasil and its coalition of citizen sector actors decided to examine the theme of “Human Rights: The exception and the Rule.” XBrasil disseminated documentaries through cultural and educational networks in more than 200 schools, universities, and public spaces. All participating institutions received a toolkit to guide them in organizing practical activities and presented various films on the topic to generate discussions. The project has enjoyed great success and recognition. The Special Secretariat for Human Rights selected it as the best project in human rights education in Brazil in 2008. It was also identified as a model to replicate by the UN’s Office in Brazil. The launch and dissemination of this special project has brought together a network of artists, cultural producers, media, businesses, public agencies, and 42 COs. In addition, eight television stations showed XBrasil’s documentaries in December 2008 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Marta’s vision for change is much more ambitious than affecting Brazil alone. She aims to spread her paradigm shift throughout Latin America by universalizing the access to social media contents through the Internet. Marta is also training replicators by systematizing XBrasil’s methodology, and training individuals and communities to help them develop their own campaigns and products independently from XBrasil throughout Latin America.

La persona

Marta is in an early stage of her entrepreneurial life cycle but she has been through an extensive apprenticeship in which each step provided another building block which led to XBrasil.

Marta was born in the U.S. while her parents were exiled by the dictatorship in Brazil. She returned to Brazil and studied law and journalism in university but had to stop prematurely at the age of 19 when her father passed away. Her parent’s experiences throughout the dictatorship made it clear to her that the field of communications had the unexplored potential of contributing to the resolution of social issues. Marta was sure that the strength of culture and communication could be unleashed to alter power dynamics and activate the citizenship of silenced or marginalized populations.

Marta began working in Porto Alegre for the State Culture Secretary and her job was to travel around the state to remote and isolated communities; she encountered a whole new world of Jewish, Polish, German, and Afro Brasilian communities, and she learned how to relate to and communicate with each. She married and moved to Belo Horizonte and worked with a state-owned bank, which was trying to reach out to small communities within the region. This helped her further understand how to reach out and communicate with diverse communities and audiences. After having a baby, Marta decided not to return to the bank but she and a couple of friends started a social project, the Association of Ideas, in which they reached out for government and private sector support for various social ideas.

This led Marta to launch her first innovative project in the city of Belo Horizonte: The Urban Object, an initiative that used a participatory process to revitalize an area of the city called Pampulha according to the needs and desires identified by the communities living there. Largely as a result of this process, Pampulha was declared a World Heritage Site in 1994. Marta’s success led Belo Horizonte’s Secretary of Culture to invite her to lead the planning bureau, thus becoming the youngest member of City Hall with such high responsibilities. It is in this role that she launched an integrated information and planning platform that is still being used to this day. This tool also helped her develop the Urban Quality of Life Index, now widely utilized throughout Brazil.

Realizing the limitations of the public sector Marta went on to launching and directing UNESCO’s operations in Rio for three years, She started a UNESCO Culture of Peace program in the slums of Rio, the first favela project ever to receive support from 12 different organizations. Marta’s work paved the way for the organization’s future work in Brazil. Marta decided to leave UNESCO when she realized that she had been as creative and innovative as the institution could possibly allow her, and therefore resolved to create her own initiative.

In 2004 Marta created XBrasil: An entirely new model of social communication, dramatically different from the conventional wisdom of mass marketing of social causes through mass media at incredibly high costs. Marta has all of the elements needed to replicate broadly, not just through her core group of replicators but by spreading her methodology as broadly as possible as a whole new concept of how to achieve social change.