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Ralfs Vilands: Mass Media Is Competing with Democratically Produced Content

Ralfs founded corporate communications company Vīlands Associates (VA Communications) in 2013 and became a partner in public affairs firm VA Government in 2017. He specialises in corporate reputation, brand improvement, public affairs and crisis communication. 

During his career, he has provided advice to companies like BP Amoco, Swedbank, the accession of Latvia to the EU, Latvia Finance Association, Uber, RB Rail (construction of the high-speed railway line Rail Baltica) and others. 

In 2022, Vilands Associates became part of European PR and public affairs agency Rud Pedersen. The latter now holds a 20% stake in the business.

How do you position Vīlands Associates? What business are you in? 

We consider ourselves a strategic communications agency group. Today we consist of two separate agencies: VA Communications and VA Government. 

The latter is oriented to public affairs and lobbying. VA Communications is following the general trend – constantly evolving and expanding its scope. For instance, we now have both digital and creative under our roof. 

What started as a strategic communications group has gradually evolved into a strategic communications / creative group. 

The three Baltic Rud Pedersen agencies enjoy a nice collaboration

Does that mean you are competing with traditional advertising agencies? 

It was a natural instinct on our part. Strategic and in depth understanding of our client’s business makes us a better advisor on the creative part as well. I don’t want to overestimate our capabilities as we are still in the early phase, but we are certainly trying. 

For example, we were helping a client with the legislation in Latvia and later also helped them put together the standards for advertising agencies. By the end of it, we were fully emerged in their business and could also advise them on the creative. 

Looking at Rud Pedersen in the Baltics and beyond, you bear more similarity to the Lithuanian office (Fabula Rud Pedersen Group) who similarly offer a wider scope of services. Do you think this trend of communication agencies morphing into integrated comms powerhouses will continue? 

Well it also works the other way around – advertising agencies are stepping on our territory and taking part in PR tenders. All in all, I think integrated communications agencies could compete for clients that are looking for a multichannel approach. 

Business-to-business stayed hidden because classical advertising agencies didn’t respect them as clients.

A similar divide runs between B2B and B2C, your agency works with both. Do you see traditional B2B companies becoming more active in communications as well? 

Business-to-business stayed hidden because classical advertising agencies didn’t respect them as clients. But they have always been comms clients due to the nature of the business, which resembles public affairs and requires specific targeting and tailormade messages. 

What has driven the cooperation between advertising agencies and B2B companies in recent years is the need for employer branding. Everyone is hunting for talent and even though our markets are experiencing some difficulties at the moment, I think we will soon get back on track. 

Our economies are small, but vivid – it’s easy to suck out the talent. Last year, Roche opened their operations in Latvia along with the marketing back office for Europe. Roche divided their office in Budapest into two offices and the second one is now located in Riga. That move took nearly 250 experienced creative minds off the market.  

What are the biggest challenges for B2B companies (and governmental bodies) when it comes to communications? What are they struggling with? 

They are sometimes missing a holistic approach in their strategic comms. 

Size wise they are the same or bigger than B2C companies, but there’s a certain clumsiness in how they operate, like an elephant in the porcelain store trying its best not to break anything. They may have difficulties thinking about all indirect stakeholders, not just the direct. 

And this is something they could learn from multinational B2C companies. Learn to consider all moving parts of the business. 

In 2022, Vilands Associates became part of European PR and public affairs agency Rud Pedersen

It’s getting more complicated by the minute. You have an agency for marketing automations, agency for LinkedIn, agency for email marketing – a nightmare for a CMO. 

Smaller agencies are working mostly with startups. The big ones expect as few partners as possible to save time and get proper execution. They are willing to pay more in order to have this convenience and holistic approach.  

Then again, you see more agencies becoming independent and leaving the big networks they were once part of. You moved in the opposite direction and joined a Nordic network – why? 

It stems from the 1990s when big holding companies were entering our market. We were uneducated compared to them as we had little to none resources to learn from. Gradually, we started to speak differently, adopt new jargon and structure our work. It was very useful. 

Nowadays, it’s not necessary. The big multiregional budgets have also become a thing of the past. Marketing budgets have become very fragmented, decisions are made locally. 

Going back to your question, in the public affairs business, a lot of decisions are still made in Nordic capitals or London or Paris. We work with energy companies, chemistry companies, etc where the budgets for public affairs are sometimes coming directly from the headquarters. It’s not fragmented. 

How closely are you cooperating with your colleagues in Tallinn and Vilnius? 

Quite closely. We have six to seven parallel projects that we’re working on (mainly in public affairs). 

And how do you determine who gets the biggest share of the budget? 

In discussions. It’s not much of an issue at the moment. Clients come directly from the headquarters and we deal with them proportionally after running the budget estimates. 

Vīlands Associates is a B2B company. How do you market yourself? 

We are well connected through the Rud Pedersen Group who in turn is well connected in bigger capitals. The network provides us with a strong grasp on CEE and the Nordics. 

We are also members of relevant local chambers like AmCham Latvia and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VA Government). We try to be active participants in their events as it’s quite effective for business development. 

LinkedIn is a good tool. We have five partners, each their own circles – making up a sizable network. 

And then there’s content in the form of articles or our think tank doing research on relations of businesses and society in Latvia. We present the findings to influential clients or prospective clients. 

What about more aggressive or active sales?

No cold pitches, but sometimes hot pitches. 

Some of our referral points might actually surprise you. The work very seldom comes from advertising agencies.

We follow closely the legislation in Latvia. What will be the food safety issues? What is a Latvian national strategy? How much alternative energy resources will we need? And so on… We see changes happening in sectors where we are missing a client. Then we contact them with this information and offer help. 

Some of our referral points might actually surprise you. The work very seldom comes from advertising agencies, law firms are much more important for us. Our first contact usually happens during a vulnerable period for a company, changes in regulation for instance. They first contact law firms and we are the immediate second. 

So you are complementing each other. 

Exactly. Law firms are responsible for specific changes in articles, we are responsible for explaining and preparing policy documents. 

You mentioned content as a tool. These days content marketing includes so many aspects to consider or prioritise. The amount of mediocre or poor content that is thrown out there is also growing with the widespread use of AI. And then you have the ever changing algorithms… How do you navigate this? 

Post less frequently, focus on quality. Otherwise, it becomes a swamp. 

LinkedIn is a point of reference for someone interested in your company or finding reliable content. I don’t believe in spamming and actively exclude it from my personal breakfast reads. 

As a radio journalist, I remember the times of impactful mass media. Now, I might do an interview with the President and nobody will notice. Is mass media losing its power? 

I think it is losing, but not as much to social media as democratically produced content as a whole. 

The quality of content has since suffered quite a bit. There is little difference between professional and amateur media. Therefore introducing paywalls for professional media seems to be the only solution. 

From a communications perspective, we need to participate everywhere, including social media and influencers. We ran our latest campaign with the help of two influencers and it was a success. It ran purely on social, with no professional media partners. 

Interviewed by Hando

Penned by Ann-Kristin


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