ARCCA Archives, Specialist|

[Originally published 2nd quarter 2011, in arcCA 11.2, “The Business of Architecture.”] __________ arcCA 11.2, AIACC, AIA California Council, arcCA Journal

Julie D. Taylor, Hon. AIA/LA, is founder and principal of Taylor & Company, a Los Angeles-based public relations and marketing services firm. She is active in AIA/LA and CanstructionLA and is the Editor of SAH/SCC News for the Society of Architectural Historians/Southern California Chapter.

When Brad Pitt lusts for blueprints, and Frank Gehry “stars” on “The Simpsons,” and the term architect is used to aggrandize every other activity, one might think the profession is better understood than ever. Perhaps so. But can anyone outside the profession name five living architects? Could your clients?

Besides a few stars, it is common still for architects to bear blame but not glory, to be eclipsed by clients, and to be relegated backstage at grand openings and groundbreakings. There may be nobility in being an unsung hero, but it doesn’t generate new business. The answer to unwanted anonymity is more consistent communication. Marketing is the nexus between communication and sales. And sometimes, I’m afraid to say, architects can be their own worst enemies when it comes to verbal expression. You must communicate to potential clients and allies in a way that promotes your business as well as the ethos of the profession. The economy seems to be inching its way back. Yet competition among architects for each commission remains fierce. More than ever before, architects need to understand—and more important, aggressively partake in—marketing and public relations. Myth #1: Marketing is a 4-Letter Word You did not spend all those years in school and all that time in licensing exams to be a marketing expert, right? However, without a notion of what marketing is, you won’t have the chance to put all that great talent and time to use. The real four-letter word for marketing is W-O-R-K. It takes work and it leads to work. Marketing is not for other people; it’s for you. Marketing is the overall term that pertains to the process of getting work. Under that rubric fall business development, marketing communications, and public relations. A few definitions:
  • Business Development: The direct means of securing clients through lead development, networking, RFQ, RFP, committee membership, interviews, design competitions.
  • Marketing Communications: Relaying messages about your practice through website, corporate identity, newsletters.
  • Public Relations: Partaking in activities giving you greater exposure to the public realm, such as awards programs, speaking engagements, exhibitions, and media relations.
Within all of these areas, a consistent, well-crafted message about the practice and the work is the necessary first step. Put your practice through analysis to drill down to your message, your “brand,” to define the practice. There is a natural antipathy in nearly every professional to having a complex, nuanced, and earnest practice marketed as a brand or easily-digested set of ideas. But remember, the world is a large and crowded stage—your message can be elegant, but must be concise and understandable. Enlist help from a marketing consultant, mentor, coach, or colleague to get an outside view and discover if the message is getting through. Myth #2: Marketing Is Only Needed When Business Is Down The best time for marketing is always. When business is good (remember those days?), you still need to keep your name out there and cultivate new leads and jobs for the times when business is slow. Because each job is going to end eventually, and too many are on stop-and start schedules, you want always to be marketing. The best way is to integrate marketing activities into your practice and impart that everyone in your organization is part of marketing. Understand that it’s in everything you do and present: company name (a string of last names, a bunch of initials, or a word); identity (business cards, graphics); website (message and usability); digital communication (emails, e-newsletters, blogs, Facebook, Twitter). Even how the phones are answered makes an impact (human or machine?). Look at every seemingly minor element of the business and make sure it corresponds with the message of your practice. Myth #3: If I Build It, They Will Come If you don’t let anyone know about what you do, how will they know to hire you? An architect once told me he thought he never got published because the work just wasn’t good enough. No, he never got published because he wasn’t pro-active enough about it. Getting your work and message to the media introduces you to new audiences and bolsters your existing image among clients and peers. In a media-saturated world, it’s even more important to be represented. Right or wrong, that’s the landscape now. Although it seems our print vehicles are getting fewer and fewer (R.I.P. Metropolitan Home, Progressive Architecture, I.D., etc.), there are still great venues in print—particularly in business-to-business trade publications. Moreover, the web has been exploding with architecture and real estate related venues—see Architizer, ArchDaily, Curbed, Globe Street, or Bisnow. In many cases, the blogs and websites are leading the news. In addition to eight-page glossy magazine stories, there are myriad ways to get your story told. The trade publications often take bylined articles, which allow you to put forth your expertise on school design, healthcare architecture, or any number of disciplines. These publications may not be as sexy as those on the newsstand, but they do reach a very targeted audience of decision makers. You can also state your case in newspaper and online op-eds, blogs, and public comment areas. Oh, and about those glossy spreads—pursue them when you have the right project and great photography. Myth #4: I Don’t Need To Pay For It I can count the instance of a reporter knocking on an architect’s door and asking to publish her house on one finger. Being “discovered” takes work, which you can do by yourself, or you can hire a professional. There’s no shame in paying for help in marketing your firm. There’s no mystique in pretending you did it all yourself. I’ve never understood the architects who insist they’ve never had help, when they have a public relations firm working behind the scenes. However, others are happy to introduce you to their publicist, proving that they have “arrived.” Some architects I know are naturals in marketing and public relations. Some love it, and others hate it. Just know that you will pay for it either way—in time or in fees. If you don’t already have an in-house marketing department or dedicated professional in your firm, then assess your current team for marketing ability. Is someone really good at personal networking, and another at writing? Allocate the non-billable hours wisely to take advantage of these other skills. Or, hire a professional. A professional can lend an outside view and broader knowledge of the marketplace to develop business plan, marketing strategy, branding, and public relations. Myth #5: Everything Has Changed Because the Internet and social media are now integral parts of our lives doesn’t mean everything has changed. Some things have changed, but most standards of business marketing remain true. That’s because, at least as of now, we’re still doing business with other human beings. Business is fundamentally about relationships. So, it’s not a matter of replacing your old marketing tools, but adding to them. Take advantage of the proliferation of outlets on the web to create profiles (Facebook, Architizer, Architype Source, etc.). Keep your website up to date. Respond to blog posts and newsletters. No matter what the delivery system, a story is still a story, and you need a consistent, cohesive, and comprehensible message to deliver to the audience. The bottom line in all of this is more than the bottom line. For any type of marketing action, it’s imperative that you are both true to who you are and what your practice represents, in addition to being flexible and adaptable to the business climate. This should really be natural for architects, who by their nature deftly balance time and budget, art and science, public and private, and other seeming contradictions.

AIA California
AIA California
Celebrating over 75 years of service, the AIA California actively promotes the value of design and advocates for the architectural profession. AIA CA is an association of 11,000 dedicated and passionate members who share a commitment to design excellence and livability in California’s natural and built environments.

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