“Companies are now direct news sources: they no longer need big media”

A conversation with Verb’s Victor Aimi

Last week, Avo sat down to speak with Victor on occasion of the fifth anniversary of Verb, the digital content company they co-founded along with Federico in May 2015. An entirely online enterprise since its inception as each of us lived in different places—Miami, Buenos Aires, Venice—at a time when it was not cool and it was very unusual, five years on Verb finds itself in a world that massively switched to remote work almost overnight following the COVID-19 pandemic. We spoke about the presence and future of media and social networks, the importance of information in open societies and how our information gathering is transforming. Below we provide an edited version of the conversation conducted over videoconference.

How can we keep open, democratic societies informed at a time when traditional journalism is compromised?

V: It’s sad to see how jobs in journalism are disappearing. From Verb’s point of view, I think it underscores our responsibility to offer useful, good quality information to journalists. It’s also important to acknowledge those journalists that are working in media companies with sustainable businesses, who have the opportunity to communicate, need the information we can provide, and have more work than ever. That work is harder than it was before, because there are fewer journalists and there is more information around.

In the longer term, I believe the change in the capacity of businesses to provide their own information will turn them into direct sources of information, and they will fend for themselves to provide that information to the market. This is true of companies but also of any organization: governments, nonprofits, etc. Governments and companies could handle media coverage more effectively knowing that they can express their points of view in the manner that they think is fairest by their own means.

The big role of influential media has no place in the future. In a world in which we can provide our own information by our own means, lies have the shortest legs ever.

Within that context, what’s the role Verb plays?

Verb is a digital content organization for tech companies. What’s digital content? It’s not easy to create and run a news outlet.

Companies that want to provide their own information to the public need the support of companies like Verb: to create that information; make it truthful; timely; put it out quickly, and make it relevant for the targeted public.

Victor Aimi

The role of Verb is to support tech companies in ensuring that the information they provide has these characteristics. Why tech companies? That’s the industry we know more about. The main challenge a company faces in providing information to the market is developing the information sources, finding the information. And it is because of this challenge that journalism exists.

Companies that are only now beginning to provide information find that their own, internal sources are not always available. Or they may lack the necessary clarity to communicate to the public what their products or services are, especially in the technology industry. As we work with tech companies, we have developed those external sources—the public, the customers, the government, other companies—to be able to explain these products and services tech companies provide. And that is Verb’s role. That’s why the company exists.

What vices do you see that are a consequence of repetition and habit in the editorial content business and the public relations industry?

The main vice we all have is trying to get the biggest audience possible. That’s a habit we all have developed because we all have come to believe that the influence of a media company, an ad, a journalist, depends on the size of their public. And this is a consequence of how marketing and advertising were before the Internet, when media companies could not identify who was receiving the message. And the business model of media and advertising companies is based on the number of people they offer access to. Therefore, a lot of people can have access to your content at the same time if it is published in such media outlet, if you ran ads there or spoke with their reporters. The reward of having a big public is clear: those who do, sell more. So we all have the vice of getting excited about large audiences. That habit, now that media is changing and have a smaller public, is often an obstacle to think about the audience we need… If I’m a communicator, the process should be: I have this information. Who is it useful for?

We are no longer rewarded by this [large audience] system as it did before. At the same time, what happens too is that we have these huge directories where large chunks of society are connected, like Facebook, and we are not looking for the public there. We keep investing in the communication mechanism that functioned in the old times, but that no longer works well.

The public today has a median education that is higher than it has ever been. Is traditional advertising effective now with this audience? And how do you see the advertising business?

I think that advertising, as far as content is concerned, works. The advertising business has severe problems. That’s not because we are now better at telling propaganda from information. The reason is that the advertising public is disappearing.

The advertising business has severe problems. The reason is that the advertising public is disappearing.

Victor Aimi

How?

One of the most powerful advertising mechanisms is TV. And people now watch less TV than before. My 15-year-old-son does not watch TV at all. He downloads shows on the Internet, mostly YouTube or Netflix. Advertising is based on appearing when people are connected: so is the ratings system and everything else we were discussing before about the number of people. As supply has been so atomized, what’s the point of paying for a space where there are not as many people connected as before? This is a concrete, immediate problem. In the end, the business of advertising is having a lot of problems to adjust to the proliferation of available content for all of us as consumers of content. And that is a big change. It’s gradual, but trends are shifting. Whereas revenue at big companies of digital advertising is growing, traditional ad companies’ revenue is going down. This is something bigger than any company. Look at Facebook: they are doing what works best for them, not because they are evil.

Speaking of social networks: are they here to stay? Or we will see a fragmentation in the social networks’ universe as well?

They grew offering very efficient communication tools. Anybody can today invest $50 in advertising on Facebook almost anywhere in the world. That’s very efficient. Of course, most ads may not be very good… but when someone hits the mark with their Facebook ads, even if it is by chance, very surprising things happen. Take virality. Nobody knows well how it works. But I still believe that virality is much less important for the future of social networks than their communication efficiency. I think that means social networks will keep growing.

Virality is much less important for the future of social networks than their communication efficiency. I think that means social networks will keep growing.

Victor Aimi

Having said that, Facebook’s competition has already realized this. And Facebook has a lot of competition in advertising. The ad market participant that’s growing fastest is Amazon. And this can be surprising, because it’s an e-commerce company, so what are they doing selling ads? Facebook’s secret is that advertisers can very easily target the public based on what they are doing on Facebook. What is Amazon offering? Amazon offers access to a public in the act of buying. And that’s the most valuable information. Because none of the information that Facebook offers—that I enjoy reading The New York Times, that I go swimming, have two kids, where I live and where I had breakfast, lunch and dinner—none of that is as important as finding me when I am about to hit the “Buy” button. It’s the ideal moment to pitch sales to me. There are companies that run ads on Amazon that do not sell on Amazon. That’s why Amazon is growing so much. Because that’s very valuable information.

But I also believe we’ll see a fragmentation of social networks.

Which trends would you identify in the media industry that were accelerated by the COVID-19 emergency?

The biggest change I see is in events. A habit we all have is that we use events as marketing and communication mechanisms. It’s very important in the strategy of all our clients and many other companies in other industries. There is an entire economy built around events. We have all invested huge amounts of money in it for years… Events are now switching to digital and, frankly, they are working better on a digital platform than they did face-to-face. It’s plain to see. And I think the pandemic created many situations like that. It’s very hard to imagine what’s going to happen.

In 1990, you sat me down before your computer at the Microsoft office in Buenos Aires and you showed me something called “the Internet.” I think you showed me the Soviet Studies page of Stanford University—I can’t be sure, obviously. You told me that everybody in the future would read the news on the Internet and proposed that we create the digital version of “El Delfín,” the newspaper we then published at the University. After I laughed your idea off, my famous last words were: “It’s impossible that people will ever read their news on this thing.” Thirty years on, if you had to show me something and tell me, “in the future people will do this,” what would that be? What will we be doing in ten years?

You told me something lately that got me thinking: “there’s so much to read, that we still go to media outlets because we know that they have the capacity to create true and reliable information.” I think that capacity, in ten years, will be even more important, because as information proliferates, media brands may survive or not, but we know that the need to have good information will be even more important. Investing in creating true information and, especially, finding the public we are looking for, will be even more important.

We must develop the capacity to adjust to new technology to avoid what’s happening to us today: today it’s hard to read information on the mobile phone. One reason why Facebook is so popular is that its mobile solution works very well. It’s fast and fits the format.

Victor Aimi

And there is a practical side to this: I don’t know what kind of technology there will be in place to spread information. But all of us who are in the business of information must develop the capacity to adjust to new technology to avoid what’s happening to us today: today it’s hard to read information on the mobile phone. One reason why Facebook is so popular is that its mobile solution works very well. It’s fast and fits the format. It’s easy to make videos. It’s easy to create audio. So it’s a good way of distributing information on the mobile phone, which is the technology we use today to share information. That’s very clear…

I think an interesting technology is virtual assistants, teaching them to identify reliable sources of information, learning from them as opposed to learning statistically from all over the web… I think that can make virtual assistants more useful, enabling them to read the information for you. The ability to have a conversation with the person who is giving you the information, or that they give you the information, is a good technology.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Yes, how happy it makes me that, for all the problems, we are working on making a reality that idea we discussed in the nineties of having our media outlet on the Internet. I find it very stimulating and, especially, doing it for companies that need to put their information out there. I’m happy and proud to be working on that.