Finding a niche in the news business

PR professional and entrepreneur Victor Aimi brings the tools of journalism to bear on brand-building—even as he hones his digital skills at Northeastern.

To illustrate the speed of the advertising industry’s shift from traditional to digital media, Victor Aimi (CPS ’22) refers to a line from Ernest Hemingway: “Like the famous quote about bankruptcy,” Aimi says, “it happened gradually, then all at once!”

In 2013, while working as director of public relations for Latin America at Microsoft, Aimi had a front-row seat as that shift accelerated. One day, while checking traffic on the tech giant’s in-house news site, he noticed that a top “referrer” the prior month had been the mobile version of Facebook. That meant a lot of people were linking to Microsoft’s site through an article it had posted on the social media platform. Not only that, but they were doing it from their phones.

“We’re thinking, what’s going on?” Aimi says. “What are these people doing on Facebook on their mobile phones? We were shocked by all this traffic coming from mobile.”

The surge in clicks was startling, and it gave Aimi an idea. Traditionally, companies’ PR departments have pitched story ideas to reporters assigned to an industry beat. An article about a new product or trend that appears in a trade journal or popular publication can draw attention, bolster a business’s credibility, and boost sales. But the activity Aimi was seeing suggested that a different model might be possible.

“The ‘aha’ moment was, oh wait, we have more traffic now on our own news site than some of the trade media we work with,” Aimi says. “If a reporter isn’t interested in writing about a particular topic, this could be an opportunity for us to just tell the story the way we want to tell it.”

Two years later, in a partnership that included several accomplished journalists, Aimi launched Verb Company, a business designed to capitalize on the opportunity he had recognized. By providing tech companies with deeply researched content that matters to their customers, Verb helps firms establish expertise and credibility. The company focuses primarily on the Latin American market, where the Spanish-speaking Aimi, a native Argentine, has years of professional expertise—and where some of his partners and employees have been working for years as reporters. Through customized news articles, intelligence reports and social media posts in English, Spanish and Portuguese, Verb helps clients position themselves as trusted resources and thought leaders.

The key, Aimi says, is to honor a long-venerated journalistic principle: accuracy.

“Customers have to know the information is true,” he says. “Everything marketing companies do has the goal of creating trust in prospective customers. If they are inaccurate, they get in trouble; they fail at the goal—or it results in a communications crisis. You know when you see some company on the news, in big trouble because they posted something silly online? It’s often really because nobody has thought in depth about what they were doing. That’s the value we provide.”

The company’s founding was timely in more ways than one. As advertising has moved online, traditional media such as newspapers have suffered, many have closed, and others have been forced to lay off workers. This has not only created a demand for trusted sources of information but has expanded the pool of talented, experienced journalists seeking employment. When one of Aimi’s founding partners, a onetime Wall Street Journal editor, reached out to former colleagues, he found several seasoned reporters with deep experience in Latin American markets available to work for the new venture. Soon they were onboard, producing articles, white papers, e-books, charts, art and social-media content to the highest journalistic standard for an array of customers.

“We run a newsroom, essentially,” Aimi says.

They also do most of it remotely, an approach—unusual when they started—that made their business resilient when the pandemic hit. In a recent blog post on Verb’s website, Aimi cites the unexpected benefit of having opted out of a traditional office-based work structure: 

“Surely, we said [at the beginning], it would be better if we could all be in the same office. Right? Covid-19 answered that question with a resounding ‘no’.”

In 2017, with his company growing, Aimi attended a conference of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). It was there, he says, that he learned of Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies (CPS) from Associate Teaching Professor Carl Zangerl, the Faculty Director for Graduate Communication and Human Resources programs. In a break-out session for professionals who had earned a certificate of accreditation from the Society, Zangerl encouraged attendees to apply to CPS, mentioning that professional experience could count toward a degree. That piqued Aimi’s interest—both because it meant a saving on tuition and because it meant he wouldn’t have to take classes in topics where he already had extensive practical experience.

“Professor Zangerl said we wouldn’t have to study the things we already know, like communication strategy, which is what we do every day,” Aimi says. “So you can get right to stuff that’s of interest to you.”

For Aimi, some of those topics literally hadn’t been invented when he graduated with a degree in advertising from Argentina’s Universidad del Salvador in 1994.

“My final project as an undergraduate was on advertising in online systems,” Aimi says. “I wrote 60 pages. And I had one page in total on the internet. One page. Think about it. The internet existed, but no one used it. Everyone was using forums and things like that—and I didn’t think of Google myself, I’m sorry to say!”

Having already achieved success in online spaces, and with a business of his own to run, Aimi saw the online master’s in corporate communications as a perfect fit.

“For our profession,” Aimi says, “the change to digital can be a real boon. In corporate communications we’re in a great position to exploit digital, and to develop a digital practice, to a much larger extent than we are doing now. But we need to make the transition. And that takes a lot of courage.”

Zoe Cohen (CPS ’06), the founder of digital communications firm Everbrightly and a CPS lecturer in corporate communications who taught Aimi, agrees.

“Going back to school in the middle of your career is just different” she says.

Cohen sees Aimi as a good example of the kind of student who can benefit from the CPS program. “With years—maybe decades—under their belts, my mid-career students have a rock-solid foundation in communications,” she says. “But many are looking to update their skills. To learn new strategies, platforms and technologies—selectively. Not as a firehose, which it can feel like in digital communications, but in a thoughtful, relevant, career-focused manner.”

Not only did CPS count Victor’s professional experience as credit toward his degree, it also allowed him to study remotely, meaning he could keep building his company as he continued his education. In a parallel to the international collaborations he fosters in his business, Aimi worked for a semester from his office in Fort Lauderdale with two other CPS students, one in upstate New York and one in Nigeria, to analyze the social media presence of a New York artisanal ice cream chain.

“We were able to do the project entirely online,” Aimi says. “With one person in Lagos, one person in upstate New York, and one person in Florida. And we got a good grade!”

He also notes that the program at CPS has had immediate real-world benefits.

“That’s something else I like about Northeastern,” he says. “I thought it was going to be less focused on the practical side, more theoretical. But no, it has been extremely useful.”           

While Aimi is among those for whom earning a master’s through CPS has supplemented a thriving career, Cohen points out that CPS can also be a key for less-experienced professionals to unlock success.

“Many mid-career students are looking for a master’s degree credential from a highly ranked school,” she notes. “According to the census, 13.1 percent of U.S. adults have an advanced degree, up from 8.6 percent in 2000. For mid-career professionals looking to advance in their field or jump into a new job, a master’s degree can be the difference.”

Meanwhile, Aimi continues to discover overlaps between his academic work and his professional life.

“One of the assignments in Professor Cohen’s class,” he says, “was to write blog posts. I had never written a blog post following guidelines on how to write a good blog post. And it was great! I realized that the end result was a much better post than I had ever written before. I’m presenting a project this year for the PRSA, and I’m using a lot of the material that I created in class with Professor Cohen. Those blog posts—I think the association is going to post them. I have to remember to send Professor Cohen the link when they go live.”