Architecture and Marketing Capital “M”.
Every architectural firm was founded for a reason. Industry peers or couples decide on a business partnership. The entrepreneurial architect decides to venture out on his own. The winning competition begins an unexpected journey.
In every startup scenario, vision, values and mission are present, and form the primary attributes of a brand or business reputation. Over time, each company will move through different stages of growth, facing successes and challenges.
This is where marketing can play an essential role. Marketing can help define a company’s positioning and security opportunities, ensuring that its value proposition is relevant, known, and purchased by customers. Marketing gains knowledge about customers, segments, opportunities and broader events that affect a company’s current business and prospects. This, called market research, underpins companies’ methods of serving market and customer needs. If marketing is done well, it builds trust, reduces risk, and informs business strategy.
While terms like “vision,” “values,” and “mission” may seem like aspirational terms, they are invaluable in aligning leadership and employees. For many architectural firms, this contributes to how people within the firm deliver services, manage client relationships, and support business development.
The 2023 Canadian Architectural Practices Benchmark Report provides insight into how Canadian firms currently approach marketing. While a uniform interpretation of terminology cannot be guaranteed across participants, the report provides a useful basis for comparison and reflection on your company’s goals and activities.
According to the survey results, more than three-quarters of companies engage in personal communication. The goals are often to initiate and build customer relationships, generate leads, and maintain a presence within customer communities. For this activity to produce results, companies need to be clear about the purpose of personal engagement: is it to be active in the industry, to engage in learning, or to take a more intentional approach to business or customer development?
Architectural companies are also involved in promotional activities. Although the goal varies widely between activities and channels, these are often related to initiating and maintaining brand awareness or attracting potential customers. Survey data shows that the most adopted practice is social media, followed by proposals, digital ads, flyers, print ads, and public relations. On average, architecture firms engage in three of these activities.
While many of the companies surveyed do not implement this, an additional useful tool can be maintaining a database of customer relationships. When established as part of a company’s marketing infrastructure, this can support lead nurturing, information capture, and customer relationship management.
Proposals are another way companies go about their business. For certain sectors and client organizations, these are labor intensive. Among companies with more than five employees, more than four in five responded to requests for proposals (RFPs) in the past three years. On average, each proposal required 51 hours to produce and input from two to three staff. The range of this indicator varies widely, with many companies indicating up to 70 or even 100 hours per display. The average win rate (successful bids over total bids submitted) for proposals among participants was 27 percent. This means that companies will have spent, on average, more than two hundred hours on proposals for each successful proposal. A go/no go decision matrix can support earlier decisions about which activities companies should invest in.
Many participants emphasized that RFP requirements and other procurement practices were prohibitive to them, and some firm leaders noted that RFPs do not always reflect a comprehensive understanding of architectural services. Clients’ prioritization of low fees – especially in the RFP process – is cited as a fundamental challenge for the profession. This contributes to the broader interest in the commodification and devaluation of architectural services. For certain types of RFPs, an approach that prioritizes selection based on quality has been proposed.
While the job search is often led by architectural firm leaders, as firms evolve, they eventually face the prospect of sharing or delegating marketing and business development responsibilities. When making these decisions, cost is often at the forefront of our minds. Data indicates that the average salary for entry-level marketing professionals is around $55,000. For senior marketing professionals, salaries can be two or three times this amount. This may seem burdensome for businesses, especially if marketing is viewed as a cost.
However, architecture firms are better off looking at marketing as an investment. When deployed wisely, marketing can build and sustain business and brand value, and support companies in staying relevant and connected to their customers and sectors. When one takes into consideration the amount of revenue lost from billable employees spending their time on marketing or presentations, a lack of marketing capabilities or staffing can become very costly. Marketing staff can enhance—rather than replace—architects’ input in proposals and other marketing activities.
One might assume that marketing and communications staff only work in larger companies, but about a quarter of companies with five to ten employees and more than half of companies with ten to 100 employees have employees.
Growth and success are not defined or pursued uniformly among architectural firms. While some companies may prefer projects, recognition, or trades, others may prefer revenue, headcount, and profits. A company may grow in headcount, but see profits decline. Or a company may increase the number of sectors in which it operates, but lose its competitive advantage.
Whatever the definition of success, whether the company is made up of one person or thousands of employees, there are opportunities for marketing to be a partner in achieving the company’s goals. Good business practice is to have a marketing strategy and plan, a brand and positioning statement, and well-resourced marketing and business development activities. For any company, it is important to define vision, values and mission, and understand how they align with client and project opportunities.
A discussion of marketing architecture in Canada would not be complete without acknowledging the historical restrictions imposed by regulatory bodies in Canada and other countries on whether and how architects can advertise and promote their services (B. Campbell, 2022). This may have led to the underdevelopment of the marketing system in the profession.
But today, marketing can be a powerful partner in addressing many of the challenges architects currently face. It can ensure that business systems are in place to measure, communicate and negotiate fees based on true cost and value. Taking a broader view, marketing has the potential to increase clients’ and the public’s knowledge of the depth of architects’ experience, skills, and potential to impact their organizations and lives. It can make the profession recognizable and attractive to people who are thinking about starting or changing their career.
From inception to succession, and at every stage of a business, marketing can be an invaluable asset. In its truest form of identifying and serving market needs, marketing is not only good for business, it is also an essential partner in serving the public interest. If marketing is done well, it can open opportunities for people, companies, and for architecture itself.
Russell Pollard (he/him), MBA, is the founder and principal of business consulting firm Framework Leadership. Email@frameworkleads.com