New Year, New Marketing Strategy?

I spent much of 2013 talking about change in the workforce and the latest industry trends. As much as I—and my architecture colleagues—enjoy pondering what’s next, many of us in the field are reluctant to take a dose of our own medicine.

 Let’s face it: change isn’t always easy.

A perfect example of the need to embrace change is the use of marketing in architecture. From the 1900s on through the 1960s, marketing your services was not only unheard of, but also against the law. Codes of ethics governed how architects operated, and they were only allowed to mark up their fees a certain percentage based on total construction costs. Advertising was also out of the question—and forget about public relations! Who knew who from the country club mattered more, and your reputation based on previous work performed was what helped you win projects. When everyone had the same price, the playing field was leveled. It was a case of “may the best man win.” Clients chose what style of design they liked best, and if you produced good work, you simply assumed that others would hear about it via word of mouth. Perhaps this is why until recently architecture programs at universities had a curriculum based on art, practice and theories and was devoid of the business skills that are so very necessary today.

Then, in 1972, the U.S. Department of Justice ruled that several business types, architecture firms included, could actively market their services and compete in a free marketplace. Without trade restraint, the field was wide open. The American Institute of Architects encouraged businesses to submit price quotes and competitive bids, and sometimes even offered discounted or free work in the form of sketches or proposals. These marketing materials could be wrapped into the price and included in a separate budget line.

However, that’s not to say all architecture firms happily hopped on board. Some refused to compete (many of them are no longer in business and here to talk about it). Others were reluctant to sell themselves and their services. On the flip side, others thrived, realizing that the shift meant they were in a service-related industry and one in which relationships were at the core of projects. They were not simply designing structures, but reacting to those who would live, work and play in them. Understanding the motivation behind designs was what uncovered the underlying story, or branding, of architecture and helped architects do their jobs even better.

Arriving at this point was just the beginning of a profound change. By the 1990s, the landscape evolved again. A work shortage meant that New York was full of partially completed projects and unoccupied real estate. Many architecture firms began looking abroad for work. In pursuit of new projects in these new markets, they had to create unique brands that distinguish them from other U.S. firms. That meant rudimentary marketing to define the company, who it served, what kind of services it offered and where and why it offered them. To widen the opportunities, architects also started talking about the future and envisioning what it would look like as culture and society changed, rather than resting upon a portfolio of what they had previously done.

Fast-forward to 2014. One chief concern among architecture firms is how to attract and retain top talent, particularly as millennials become a larger share of the work force (I touched upon this early last month). Millennials tend to seek out authentic and engaging brands, placing increasing focus on marketing, branding and the use of public relations as important business tools.

Another change is the need to acquire new clients in an industry where repeat business typically constitutes the lion’s share of a firm’s work. Social media is altering the way we market our services, allowing us to directly engage with end users and forge closer connections with clients than we ever could before. We can easily remain in contact with others in the industry, share visuals of projects and chat about how our culture and environment differ from other firms. Basically, this is our chance to make our business come alive and show that architecture is truly about community, not simply bricks and mortar.

Many firms see marketing as a budget “extra,” something that is disposable when it’s time to trim the budget. But that’s hardly the case. A new world, a new vision, most certainly calls for a new approach—and perhaps a bit of marketing. Here’s to all of the changes the New Year brings and to looking eagerly toward the future!

Scott E. Spector, AIA, is a principal at Spector Group, one of New York’s premier architecture and interior design firms and a leader in corporate tenant and building owner-based design. The award-winning company has affiliate offices nationally and internationally. To date, it has completed more than 1,500 projects.

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