Marketing for Architectural Firms - Lessons from the worlds best managed architectural firms

It’s the stuff of night sweats. You’ve grown from one to 25 employees in the last 15 years without even a brochure. You do good work, but few beyond your peers have ever heard of you. Regular clients bring the firm steady assignments, but what if you lost one active job? There are no prospects in sight. You’d have to lay off five loyal people who helped build the business and depend on it to support their families. You’re far too busy to hang out at the
golf course, hoping to turn up new work. But isn’t that where new clients come from? You have no stomach for schmoozing. What you really want to do is design buildings. Should you expand your marketing effort? Find a PR consultant?

Develop a marketing plan, hire a designer for your Web site or a business development director? Do you invest a substantial chunk of money into this? If so, where do you find the best candidates, and what exactly should you expect of them? How soon can you expect results? How can you develop a strategy that will take your firm where you want it to go? Prospects used to land on the doorstep. Now you have to spend half your time developing them. Where do you turn? The evolution of architectural practice—from an anti-competitive,
“may-the-best-man-win” culture to one in which firms have to go out and win new projects, promote their designs, and also market their firms—was one of the most important changes in our profession during the 20th century. But many architects still do not completely acknowledge that they need marketing, although in this new century, marketing will continue to be more fully adopted by practitioners of architecture, and a plethora of marketing activities will be conducted over the Web. Unfortunately, little in the education of most architects ever gave them even the most basic understanding of how to sell what they do.

In this first of three articles on marketing architectural services, we will examine why architects are relative newcomers to the field of marketing, look at the cultural clash between architects and marketing people, and explore the gender issues that have emerged during the evolution of this discipline—a little discussed but important factor. The
second article will focus on the various ways in which firms can organize their marketing efforts, discuss the components of a complete marketing program, and examine innovative
practices used by some of the best-managed firms. The third article will look to the future of marketing. It will examine the views of young practitioners, look at where education is headed, and assess the techniques architects are using to take marketing to the Internet.

The origins of our humble, self-deprecating nature

Historically, marketing was not only looked down upon, it was forbidden. The first Principles of Practice adopted by the American Institute of Architects in 1909 barred architects from using even the simplest forms of marketing. They could not advertise—defined as paid publicity—or even put their names on a sign in front of one of their buildings during construction. They could not offer free services, such as proposals or sketches. They could not take part in any competition unless it was conducted under the AIA’s guidelines.
While an architect could advertise by paying for a line in the Yellow Pages, any “exaggerated or self-laudatory language” in brochures or press releases was against the rules—and that discouraged most architects from hiring public-relations staff. Press releases of today would have been grounds for censure by the standards of 50 years ago.
Prior to 1970, the greatest impediment to competition between firms, and therefore the greatest deterrent to marketing, was the rule that prohibited a firm from knowingly competing with another by offering to charge less for the same work. This rule was reinforced by the requirement that fee schedules, promulgated by the AIA, were to be used to determine what firms could charge for work. Every architect was supposed to charge the same percentage of construction cost—the assumption being that if one architect charged less than another, the underbidder would also produce a building of lesser quality.

During the 1960s the U.S. Justice Department began to investigate the ethics of many professions on the grounds that rules against fee negotiations, such as those established by the AIA, were a form of trade restraint. As a result, the AIA signed a pair of consent decrees. In 1972 it agreed not to restrict members from submitting price quotes for services. In the 1990 decree, which has since lapsed, the AIA promised to refrain from adopting policies or bylaws that restrained members from submitting competitive bids, price quotations, discounts, or free work. Meanwhile, it asked its chapters to discontinue using fee schedules.
The effect of the consent decrees on both fees and marketing cannot be overstated. Because architects, like doctors and lawyers, have a fiduciary duty to their clients, they adopted ethical standards similar to the ones in place for those professions. They decided, as doctors and lawyers did, that they could not compete with one another on the basis of price and could not advertise their services. In the case of architects, it was as if Starbucks were forced to charge the same amount as Folgers but could not state why their brand was unique. But when the consent decrees allowed firms to compete with one another for work, the AIA’s position changed. Architects could openly compete and were allowed to market their services. Yet, freed from the strictures of the ethics codes in the 1970s, many architects still didn’t overcome their reluctance to sell themselves. Shortages of work during the recessions of the late 1970s, late ’80s, and early ’90s, combined with significant changes in client culture, forced architects to take marketing seriously. According to Cynthia Kracauer, principal at Archimuse  in New York City, “There was a sea change in the manner in which architects


The unsung heroine of successful architectural practice were selected for major commercial projects. In the past, selection was the purview of the company owner, CEO, or chairman—a component of the old boy network. Today, the facilities professionals select architects. This has made the formal, professional marketing effort crucial for success. But there still is an inherent distaste for this turn of events among the more traditional practitioners.” Today architects are actively engaged in marketing and are spending money on it. According to the AIA’s recently published Firm Survey 2000-2003, in 1999 architects spent on average 7.5 percent of their expenses on marketing. This figure holds steady in 2003, with small firms (under 50 employees) spending from 6.5-8% and large firms (over 50 employees) spending an average of 7% on total marketing (staff and direct expenditures). That is an impressive sum, considering that larger firms report three-quarters of their billings are from repeat work, and smaller firms report two-thirds. While larger firms tend to get more repeat work than smaller firms, they are also far more likely to get new work through the more formal
“request for proposal/request for qualification” method than smaller firms, which tend to rely more on referrals.

Since marketing as a mainstream function of architecture is relatively new to the profession, the differences among its distinct elements can be quite foggy to architects. It’s no wonder. In the best case, marketing is still only touched on in the professional practice courses offered at architectural schools. According to Barry Alan Yoakum of PSMJ (Professional Services Marketing Journal) Resources, “Virtually 100 percent of architects’ training focuses on doing projects. Their number one strength— solving project problems—creates their number one weakness—not equating clients with ‘relationships’ and failing to understand clients’ businesses.” These relationships don’t grow on trees; they have to be cultivated—and this is the purview of marketing. By definition, the marketing of architectural services includes all the activities required to create a “brand” for the firm and then to position the firm to attract the clients and projects it needs to achieve its practice goals. Branding means
establishing a firm’s identity and remaining true to it in as many ways as possible. As Craig Park wrote in his article “Brand Equity,” published in the June 1999 SMPS Marketer, “The brand of a firm is the sum of all its measurable and visceral characteristics—the ideas, values, philosophy, features, and history that make it unique. The firm’s brand image represents all internal and external assets—the name, iconography, literature, signs, vehicles, and culture of a firm.” Richard Staub, a marketing consultant in New York, explains that positioning can then “take the brand and make it suitable for a particular market.” Ironically, architects are in the business of creating brands for their clients—they design spaces geared toward communicating the client’s specific message to the world. In fact, there is a trend today among architects like Rem Koolhaas to emphasize the architect’s role as a branding guru who takes the raison d’etre of clients and shapes it into tangible forms and messages. Given that architects have this skill, it would seem they would grasp the importance of successfully communicating their own image to their clients and to the public. But often they don’t, or their reluctance to do so makes them resist examining what
makes their firm different. In any case, the value of understanding and reinforcing the
firm’s brand cannot be overstated. “Being able to clearly show how a client will derive
greater value from your services than from those of your competition is fundamental,
and yet most firms do not understand how to explain what makes them unique,” says
Richard Burns of PSMJ Resources

Good intentions, mixed results

Although most firms have attempted to develop marketing to some extent, the results are often disappointing. In the worst-case scenario, architects often simply don’t understand why they need marketing. “They think that if they put out a quality product, the world will beat a path to their door,” says Mark Zweig, Vice Chairman of ZweigWhite, a management consulting firm serving the design professions. He points out that a commercial may run hundreds of times during the course of a television ad campaign. Zweig isn’t suggesting that architects market their services the way Madison Avenue markets soap. He is simply noting that m any architects don’t understand that they cannot rely on their reputations alone to
communicate all-important messages about their skills and the quality of their work. Sometimes architects expect instant results and will often prematurely blame the marketing professional when they don’t occur. When it comes to new prospects, a long lead time—sometimes years—elapses between the initial contact and a tangible result. Hugh Hochberg, president of the Coxe Group, a management consulting group for architects, believes these efforts sometimes fail because architects expect marketers to be the deal-closers between the firm and the client. But, as he sees it, marketers mostly serve to position the firm, providing the support required to put the architects exactly where they need to be in order to convince a client to hire them. Then the architects step forward and complete the dialogue using their personal and technical skills, thereby “closing” the deal. Not all firms follow this model, but such fundamental misunderstandings about who does what is a sure sign that a marketing effort is in trouble. There are also cases where architects hire people to set up marketing departments and then turn their backs on them. “The principals of a firm define the direction and goals for the marketing and business development effort. If the principal does not own this effort, everybody fails,” says Joy Fedden-Habian, herself an architect and a PR consultant in New York. Yet many architects are ill-equipped to establish these goals without receiving plenty of input from seasoned marketing professionals.

Just the opposite can also be true. Some architects have a difficult time accepting the contributions of others to their “art.” In many cases they founded their firm and defined its philosophy. They find it hard to believe that anyone could promote it better than they. They may feel that marketers are less professional, their credentials less quantifiable, their skills more vague. A high percentage of marketing professionals worked their way up from being administrative assistants or took other, more circuitous career routes than architects. “Many architects, whose path to their position was more direct, have a level of distrust toward those whose education was less formal,” says Maxine Leighton, a marketing principal at Beyer Blinder Belle Architects. The marketing professional is probably less senior, more
focused on the business aspects of the firm, and perhaps less tuned to the subtleties of design. But both can wield considerable power over the firm’s destiny.

No amount of marketing will fix poor-quality services, however. An architect may be a brilliant designer, but if he or she is unable to retain clients due to an inability to bring projects in on time, to stay within the budget, or to get along with clients, marketing efforts will be in vain. AIA’s Firm Survey 2003, in 2003 firms reported 59 percent of project billings from repeat clients. There is no underestimating the value of cultivating positive relationships with existing clients. A firm’s failure to secure repeat business is often due, not to the fault of the marketing department, but to the firm’s inability to live up to its own promises.
There are distinct differences between marketing and business development, or “sales staff,” and if the architect is not aware of them, he or she may hire the wrong person for the wrong job. “I perceive the greatest downfall of firms to be the continual insistence upon lumping everything having to do with promotion, sales, marketing, presentations, and communications into one department—often one person—called ‘marketing,’” says Joy Fedden-Habian. “The person who assists with proposals and presentations, keeps the slide library together, writes press releases, and organizes the firm’s holiday party is simply not going to be able to steer an effective business development program as well.”

The sign of a successful marketing effort is that your firm is getting profitable, desirable new work. To create that kind of success, firms must set themselves apart and gain recognition from clients. It sounds simple, but is it? Maybe your firm has a good track record for getting shortlisted, but you fail to get selected over and over again. Why? Or, you seem to be the last one to find out about exciting new work—you should have been positioning yourself with the client far before the word hit the streets—how did you miss it? Or, you’re tired of spending a fortune getting projects professionally photographed, submitting them for publicity and awards with pitiful results. How can you ever make the jump to professional-looking proposals like the competition’s with the technology you have? Everyone is talking about the joys of using digital libraries to sort and access their images, and you hardly have a slide library. In terms of human resources, infrastructure, and expense, the idea of improving your marketing is frightening, yet you must move forward.

Most firms share these laments. But there is no single solution, since no two architectural offices are alike and the services they offer vary, as do the talents, interests, and personalities of their people. Nevertheless, certain characteristics are common to all successful marketing efforts. In this second part of our series, we focus on fundamentals: the strategic planning that stands behind a marketing program and how this informs the entire marketing process. We touch on public relations, technology for marketing uses, successful strategies to win work, and various forms of organization. Today, practically every large-and medium-sized firm has full-time marketing staff. According to the AIA’s Firm
Survey 2003, 87 percent of firms with 50 or more employees have a marketing person on staff, and 71 percent of these have two or more. Over half the firms with 20 to 49 employees have someone engaged in marketing, with 20 percent reporting two or more. It is notable that 5 percent of total staff added at firms in 1999 was marketing staff, a higher proportion than was hired in subsequent years. This may suggest that firms anticipated that the recent economic boom was leveling off and were preparing to enhance their future marketing efforts.

Marketing: Building your firm’s incredible marketing

Strategic planning

How do you get started? Strategic planning forms the basis of any marketing effort and is necessary to successfully brand and position the firm. The firm’s principals and managers must take a long, hard look at where the firm really is—assessing the current mix of work and forecasting the viability of these markets for the future. Is the firm client-driven or market-driven? What are the firm’s past successes and failures, and what goals realistically capitalize on its strengths while remaining honest about its weaknesses? A planning  rocess will typically occur annually, reviewing the previous year’s plans to see if the firm is on track, and devising a strategy for the coming year. Sometimes serious planning will be reserved for a management retreat, with a specialized consultant overseeing the process.
“When firms do not understand what makes them different, they have a difficult time creating a competitive edge,” says Richard Burns, a consultant with PSMJ (Professional Services Marketing Journal) Resources. “Architecture, one might argue, is a parity product. Any number of firms can provide the service. Being able to clearly identify how a client will derive greater value by using your services than those offered by your competitors is fundamental. However, most firms can’t quantify these attributes when it comes to describing their own practices.” Once a sense of identity and direction has been agreed upon, a firm will engage in branding to express the benefits you offer your clients while instilling those values in the firm internally. Branding spreads into all of the firm’s public relations and informs the positioning activities of business development and marketing.

CAVEAT: Strategic planning doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes firms attempt implementation without assessment, which is time- consuming and can reveal serious shortcomings that firms wish to ignore. In other cases, assessment takes place, plans and budgets are developed only to be shelved, because the firm’s principals aren’t committed to them and because more imminent deadlines became an excuse for brushing them aside.

Sales and business development

Once a marketing plan has been established as a foundation, it should inform the business development or sales activities, which involve prospecting for opportunities. Prospecting includes market research and networking, which ultimately leads to contact with potential clients, and it often results in valuable information that can lead to advantageous teaming
arrangements in pursuing new work. Many firm principals choose to undertake these activities themselves and others abhor the task, leaving it to the marketing staff. “While these functions are crucial, not every principal or associate will be comfortable performing them. Principals should be sure that they have people who enjoy doing it as part of the
core management team and then support them,” says Richard Staub, a New York City-based marketing consultant.
Business development professionals obtain leads from other consultants, existing clients, or influential contacts. They also use references such as the local, state, and federal registers, which list requests for proposal/qualifications (RFP/RFQ) as well as McGraw-Hill Construction’s Dodge Project Data, Construction Marketing Data’s (CMD) Early Planning leads, local construction trade newspapers, and other publications (the AIA’s Web site is a great source). Participation in industry activities and trade organizations is also important.
Some firms attend conferences sponsored by associations serving a variety of clients such as museums, historic buildings, libraries, higher and lower education, facility managers for a number of industries, the federal government, and the developer community. Here, they reaffirm existing client relationships and aspire to cultivate new ones. Most of these conferences offer the additional opportunity of the trade show. Some firms are now committing part of their marketing budgets to cover the cost of having booths at trade shows that serve their market sectors.
One effective way to get recognition at a conference is to present a paper or give a lecture. According to Christa Mahar, marketing director at Graham Gund Associates, in Cambridge, Mass., “Giving a presentation with a client about an innovative practice you’ve developed together or a case study can be extremely beneficial. This activity gives your principals and senior staff the opportunity to contribute their time and expertise to show how the firm has worked with and supported its current clients.”

CAVEAT: Trade shows may draw attention better than a pretty face can. Some architects think that they can get new work by hiring a persuasive, charismatic, or attractive salesperson to woo their clients. This can backfire and undercut the firm’s integrity.
Lest we forget, prospective clients are often rookies in understanding architecture and the building process and are relying on the architect to educate them. Or they may be sophisticated enough to know when someone is trying to snow them. This is not to say that compelling people should never be hired in marketing positions. Persuasive power
must be accompanied by an understanding of the client’s needs and of your firm’s services and by the ability to articulate that understanding.

Marketing infrastructure

This includes project and client databases, electronic image databases, slide libraries, photo collections, and equipment for color output and binding. These tools support the rapid creation of in-house marketing-communications materials and proposals. The database requirements of design firms are surprisingly large and complex. Marketers will want to track and sort past projects, store boilerplate text for staff and consultants’ capabilities, previous proposals, and manage images while also tracking contacts, “hit rates” for making short lists and winning jobs, leads, and more. In larger firms the complexity is compounded.

Organizing your marketing department

It is usually the size of a firm that determines if marketing activities will be conducted in-house or by outside consultants. For modestly sized firms with fewer than 20 employees, it is often not economically feasible to employ full-time, in-house staff, so using consultants makes sense. Outside consultants can do some things better than others: for example, public relations, strategic planning, marketing research, Web site design, database setup, or creation of copy for a brochure. However, the general task of producing proposals should usually be performed in-house. One novel approach that works for small architectural firms is used by the Marketing Partnership, a consultancy serving New York and New Jersey. Acting as interim
marketing directors, they supervise and train non-marketing staff assigned to marketing activities, as well as full-time or temporary marketing personnel. The Partnership does not focus on PR or business development for its clients, however, as it might pose a conflict of interest in their client mix. Hugh Hochberg, president of the Coxe Group, in Seattle, suggests an alternative: “Architects can work with a PR firm that aligns itself within a specific market sector, such as one that specializes in health care, which can represent many constituents within a field.” Most marketing professionals feel the business development function must remain part of in-house staff. “I have never seen a successful outcome from
involving consultants in business development, other than in a research capacity,” says Joy Fedden-Habian, a New York City PR consultant. Linda Eklund, a business development consultant who successfully performs this function for two to three noncompeting firms, shows another side to the argument. “My observation is that business development is better done by a consultant than by no one at all. And it is well practiced by a consultant who is dedicated to a long-term relationship with the architect.”
Larger firms should also consider whether their marketing might be best organized to parallel the firm’s organizational model. Given the niche nature of the market today, some firms find it best to divide into camps according to building typologies—education, retail,  ublic—with a principal heading up each. “Thus each principal becomes an expert in a field and can focus all marketing and business development efforts within this one area. Without the focus this model offers, it is virtually impossible to really dig one’s heels into a market and develop name recognition within the prospective client base,” says Joy Fedden-Habian.
Scott Smith says, “Sasaki’s 32 partners work with specific client types and develop a practice base within those areas. The marketing activities are organized around these client groups, which include public agencies, corporate entities, universities, and one international group.”

Your web site and internet resources

The reality today is that if your firm does not have a Web site, you don’t exist.
If a potential client knows your name, he or she is likely to look first on the Web
before contacting you. Cynthia Kracauer is a principal at Archimuse in New York
City, says, “Historically, architectural firms have had their work exposed most
publicly through specialty publications. The Internet creates a platform where even
a sole practitioner can gain worldwide exposure for his or her work.”
As a business investment, the establishment of a Web site is one of the
most cost-effective marketing tools available to a firm in terms of reach
and exposure to potential clients. It works 24 hours a day, seven days a week,
365 days a year. It allows others to learn about your firm at their leisure and is one
of the most polite, noninvasive forms of marketing today.
According to Elizabeth Geary-Archer, president of Out of the Box Marketing
Strategies in New York City
• “The perfect Web site will be easily updated in-house;
• It will contain a resource library of information that could include
• Discoveries,
• Case studies,
• New products, and/or creative solutions that are useful to your clients;
• Recent news about your firm; a recruitment page;
• A referral form for those who would like to receive information about you;
• A page for projects that will soon be bid;
• A portfolio of past and current work;
• A nd a password-protected portal to access an intranet/extranet site where clients can view the progress of their project, consultants can make updates, and projects are managed and documented.”

As a communications vehicle, the Internet is limited by its immense size and content. How does a firm grab an audience when the audience and competition are unfathomably huge? Geary-Archer suggests spending minimal time registering your site on search engines, focusing instead on listing your firm in directories, or placing links to your site in strategic locations on the Internet where your clients may look. Focus on building an informative Web site that clients will return to again and again.
Steve Goldberg, faia, partner at Mitchell/Giurgola Architects of New York City, says his firm’s Web site seeks to establish interactive Web relationships with clients and to employ the advantages of Web media. “By linking the projects on our Web site to the client’s Web site, we allow potential clients to better understand the context of the building. Similarly, a potential client searching our current clients’ Web sites will be linked to our site, where they will see further examples of our work.”

Finding and hiring marketing staff

Regardless of digital wonders, architecture is still a person-to-person business. But have you tried to hire any marketing staff lately? If the answer is no, you’re lucky. It’s not a jungle out there, it’s a desert: Finding a trained marketing professional in the field of architecture is a bleak prospect. And, it’s a very small desert to boot. Before you even officially have an opening, you can be sure the information has beaten you to the street—as fast as it takes to tap out an e-mail. Marketing professionals are already evaluating what they’ve heard about the relative pros and cons associated with working for your firm. One large, well-known national firm is quietly known among marketers as the firm that “eats” marketing directors—
and marketers generally give it a wide berth. So, what gives? Why is good staff so hard to find and why is turnover so high?
First, marketers are hard to find because there is no formal career track for them. Sure, organizations like SMPS, Professional Services Marketing Journal (PSMJ), ZweigWhite, and others offer training courses and books, and local consultants offer seminars for marketing coordinators. Recently SMPS even launched a professional certification program, which will help employers identify marketers who possess the required skills to excel in their positions. This certification also helps marketers maintain and increase their skills and subsequent value to the firm through continuing-education requirements. But it is difficult to find a single institution of higher education that offers a program in professional services
marketing. Second, many qualified marketers leave architecture for more money or for a work environment where they don’t face the obstacles traditionally associated with architectural offices
Another reason is suggested by Sharyn Yorio of the Marketing Partnership of New York and New Jersey. “My guess is that people who have stable situations with successful marketing efforts are staying put. Remember that whenever the economy slows, the marketing people are the first to be let go. Of course, getting rid of the marketing department can lead into a spiral of failure if there are no technical people ready to pick up the slack or if the economic slowdown becomes severe.” If you are in need of marketing staff, there are a few resources out there. SMPS and the AIA have national and local Web sites where you can advertise an opening, and other Web sites serving the design field, including this magazine’s, post job openings. Some firms advertise in the local classifieds, of course. Possibly the most successful method, though, is simply to get the word out that you’re looking. Employers and headhunters will obtain names of marketing directors or coordinators from the SMPS membership directory and call to see if they will respond to an offer. The marketers then evaluate its appeal and decide whether to respond to it themselves, pass it along, or simply dump it.

Educating young architects in marketing

These days, most architecture schools offer courses on professional practice, which encompasses the study of marketing. The AIA, NCARB, and NAAB do not have specific statistics about what these courses include, but we did uncover some eye-opening, though anecdotal, information from Dennis Astorino, aia, who chaired the steering committee for the Architecture Practice Analysis Study, conducted by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). In their 18-month investigation involving focus groups of 110 practitioners, including interns, newly registered architects, and educators, they discovered that architects are generally unable to communicate what they do for their clients, nor are they being taught to do so. Communication skills—an integral part of the marketing function—have become a sorely missing part of architectural practice. Clients sometimes have no idea what responsibilities their architects have taken on, even after they have been hired, which is a leading cause of malpractice litigation. Astorino says communication skills should receive more emphasis at architectural schools.
On the bright side, the new generation of architects is not being educated under the cultural stigmas of the past, when architects were first barred from marketing and later viewed it as detrimental to the integrity of the profession. These days, marketing is part and parcel of our young architects’ everyday thinking. They’ve grown up in a time when their lives are saturated with it. They know, for example, that no product appears in a movie unless it’s part of a merchandise tie-in. They know that the Nike Swoosh trademark doesn’t appear on college athletic teams’ uniforms because it is pretty but because they’ve been paid to wear it, so Nike can build its brand. Young architects have grown up in a time when only those who sell survive. We see they are much more accepting of the realities of marketing—and more savvy about it—than any generation before. The New York City firms Work and ARO (Architectural Research Office) illustrate the acceptance of marketing as a necessity in these terms. Both have full-time marketing staff even though they have fewer than 20 employees. Rachael Gray of Work says, “We place a high value on marketing and PR, not just so we can get projects but rather to hone in and seek culturally significant work that is meaningful to our staff.” Stephen Cassell, cofounder of ARO, says his firm wants its  innovative work to attract clients.” But even most creative work won’t bring clients in the door if people don’t know about it. Small firms must work especially hard to get the word out. “We spend time making sure every project is well documented,” he says, “for publications, lectures, and our portfolio—this is the best way to reflect the quality and type of work that we do.”

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