Q&A with Victoria Vaughan: Founder of ICL agency

Victoria Vaughan who has over 10 years of experience in the tech space, primarily serving as CEO of Cointelegraph, the largest media dedicated to the crypto market with over 13M monthly visits. Victoria сo-founded ICL, now a leading PR agency, to set the new standards for web3 PR & Marketing. She is also a regular speaker at the top industry events, such as Eth Denver, NFT.NYC, Dcentral, Web3 Summit Miami, and more. In this interview for Everything PR, Victoria talked about the current trends for tech companies in marketing and PR, challenges of PR projects, and ROI that she uses for her projects.

What are some fields you are focusing on? Why those – and how are they different from other sectors in terms of PR?

My agency is focused on Web3 and blockchain. This industry is like its own universe – with specific values, rules and slang. The core value is decentralization – and a new approach to how projects are managed. Some projects in this sector have been set up as DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations,) which means the community is involved in making key decisions.

Often, these projects are launched by anonymous teams, meaning you only know founders by their X handle or NFT avatar. That can make PR coverage an exciting challenge. When it comes to communications, media outlets and working with key opinion leaders is crucial.

Web3 and blockchain have several verticals – and each looks for something different. Infrastructure brands tend to seek more classic PR to secure new partnerships, NFT projects often like collaborations with artists, while Web3 games aim to target audiences who would want to play and make money from their products.

What were some trends that you had seen in PR in 2023?

Coverage in big media outlets remains crucial for tech entrepreneurs, but we are also seeing comms shift to new media. I ran a LinkedIn poll that revealed 80% of founders would prefer to have a big following on X and LinkedIn, rather than an interview with a mainstream publication. So when it comes to personal PR for founders, social media influence matters.

B2B & B2B2C companies value speaking engagements – as appearing on stage at industry-leading events increases trust and credibility, and boosts their chance of securing strong partnerships and investment deals.

For retail-oriented projects, collaborations with key opinion leaders play a key role in PR and community growth. These campaigns can deliver great results, but it’s hard to predict the outcome if you haven’t worked with influencers before. A partnership with someone who has a huge following might not always convert into significant results, but collaborating with influencers who have a smaller, more targeted platform could drive bigger engagement. This is why many companies prefer arranging this through an agency – we have more data on what works best.

What has been your most exciting and the most challenging PR project so far? 

The PR campaign for our first client outside of the blockchain industry was a huge success. In the second month, we secured articles in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and AP. We were quite nervous as it was an AI startup that did several pivots during the campaign – so we had to adapt and change strategies on the go. But it proved that the key skill in PR is being able to come up with a good angle, and ensure it fits with the current news agenda. Connections with editors and journalists are great – but they won’t matter if your pitch is bad. 

Crisis communications is always an interesting and challenging experience – especially when it involves financial hacks where users lose funds. You have to react quickly and have a strategy in place for different scenarios. 

How hard was it for you to start your PR agency from scratch? What did you start with?

ICL was initially created as a media buy agency by my co-founder Alice Stork. The company was placing advertising campaigns across multiple channels – with paid and organic content, display ads, newsletters and event sponsorships. 

When I joined, I focused on developing more services such as influencer marketing and community growth – as well as new verticals so we could serve more clients. From the beginning, I started to develop my personal brand to position myself as a communications and marketing expert, as most people knew me as Cointelegraph’s CEO. 

Having an extensive network, long-term partners who were referring us to potential leads – and leveraging our track records in advisory roles – helped us to close new clients naturally.

We also focused on recruiting a professional and passionate internal team, as people are the key asset in the services industry. 

What is one thing that differentiates your agency from competitors? 

It’s difficult to choose one thing – but if I had to, it would be our team. We’re very results-oriented and always think about how we can help customers achieve their goals – whether that’s new partnerships, securing investments, acquiring more customers or building brand awareness. 

We practice a creative approach to storytelling, and generate different angles to appeal to target audiences. The art of PR and marketing is to understand how human psychology works, how to grab attention, and relate to the problems people have. 

With a good narrative, you can inspire audiences and give them ideas. Like Shahrazad in Arabian Nights, we are creating 1,001 tales that lead to the outcome we need. Even when nothing significant is happening on the client side, we are working on non-news types of coverage such as op-eds, interviews, expert comments and podcasts.

PR is a powerful tool – and to deliver optimal results, it must be integrated into marketing, sales and business development strategy. That’s why we also offer clients help with email marketing and BD messaging to boost the return on investment of PR campaigns and maximize value.

There are so many PR agencies in the US these days. Would you recommend anyone to still start their own business, or would you say the market is oversaturated already?

I’m a strong believer that – if you do what you do well – you’ll have clients no matter how saturated the market is.A good strategy is to target a specific niche rather than being too general. Find the industry you’re passionate about, and focus on that. Create a network of founders and journalists.

Building a business is another story. Being an entrepreneur can be tough, and it requires a lot of strength and coverage – like the values of a Samurai! But seeing your company grow and thrive is incredibly rewarding, there’s no feeling like it.

What’s your one selling point to gain clients? What would you say to someone who doesn’t know you, but needs PR, that will make them want to sign a contract? 

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for this one. Life is complex – and there’s no clear path to becoming a billionaire, getting married or closing a deal.

For me, the key factor for landing a contract is listening to what the client needs, and explaining how you’ll help them achieve those goals. Expertise always sells well. If you can come up with a good PR angle on the go – and show how a client’s brand can be injected into the current news agenda – you’re onto a winning strategy.

A strong proposal should resonate with the client’s objectives, estimate forecasted results, and be accompanied with a portfolio full of previous successes.

Is it important to be present in the country, or do you think companies can hire international PR pros to navigate the US market?

It depends on the industry and your target market. If it’s an NFT project eyeing an international market, hiring a PR person outside of the US isn’t a problem. The skills needed are understanding the nuances of this niche, and having strong connections with key opinion leaders – even if that’s 100% online. Meanwhile, if it’s a highly regulated financial product targeting American consumers, a US PR person with experience and a network in financial communications is a must. 

ICL has representatives around the world – San Francisco, New York, Paris, Bangkok and the Middle East. This means we’re able to manage communications in different languages, and understand the nuances in local markets. Being on the ground also helps us build better connections with journalists, editors and potential partners.  

What’s the hardest part in PR for you? Is it developing angles, networking, pitching, writing, or something else? Why?

I believe that the biggest challenge for any founder is recruiting a strong team. Although you’ve mentioned that the PR market is oversaturated, it’s still hard to find ‘the gems.’

If we are talking specifically about PR, I personally find it hard to write long pieces myself. I’m a very structured person and usually speak and write in a very dry, specific way – meaning it’s extremely hard for me to create a beautiful text. Thankfully, I’ve got great team members with that skillet.

I also find offline networking challenging – as I’m quite introverted. Having a strong personal brand helps a lot here – it’s much easier when people already know you and want to talk. I regularly speak at key events, write thought leadership pieces and actively grow my LinkedIn. 

How would you recommend implementing PR in a marketing strategy? How can one define ROI out of it? 

That’s a very good question – and I touched on this before. PR shouldn’t just be implemented in marketing strategies, but in sales and business development too.

To maximize a campaign’s outcome, anything that’s produced – articles, podcasts, conference speeches – need to be actively spread on social media, integrated into sales pitches, and prominently included in partnership conversations.

There are plenty of ways to assess the impact – whether that’s response rates, growth in brand searches on Google, sales conversions, interest from potential investors, or the number of new partnerships.

We’re actively helping our clients in all of these areas – and advising them on how to get the most value from the stories we tell in PR campaigns. And if we can make a useful introduction to other partners and investors, we always do. Our priority is to be proactive so our clients can build great products and recognizable brands.

What is the most fascinating thing about working in the industry? What do you get inspiration for work from?

I love working with tech founders who are extremely passionate about what they’re building –  and helping them create a narrative that will resonate with the audience. Knowing you can contribute to the success of the products that change our lives is fulfilling. It makes me very happy when I receive messages from our clients saying they’ve secured a new successful partnership, deal or investment – or seen a spike in users. 

I’m inspired by many different activities. I love to study and better understand human psychology, as this helps me come up with innovative ways of catching people’s attention, persuading them, and giving them exciting ideas.

Sometimes I read classics like Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti, Arabian Nights or a book on theatrical art and improv. I believe that professionalism comes from deep knowledge – and the ability to apply ideas from various fields into your own vertical, in a way no one has done before.

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