History and Future of Marketing for Architecture Firms

Mark Busse – One Comment

As a company that specializes in working with AEC firms, we’ve worked with many architectural firms and have come to notice a general theme with regards to their outlook on branding and marketing. There is a long tradition of naming their firms after founding partners and pointing to past accomplishments as marketing. They are typically apprehensive to try anything new as it relates to brand identity. Perhaps it’s a matter of tradition and fear of change, perhaps it’s the unknown, perhaps it’s both. People only have a certain amount of time each day to accomplish tasks and it’s natural to avoid the tasks that we know the least about.

What we soon realized is that many architectural firms are relative newcomers to pure marketing, let alone the notion of brand identity. Not long ago (and still today for some), marketing for an architectural firm consisted of RFPs, golf games, dinners at country clubs, and a whole lot of schmoozing. The mindset was “may the best man win”, to put it simply. Personal relationships were everything and firms were named after partners because that was precisely who clients dealt with.

But things have changed – the industry has evolved and the entire outlook on the future of this industry is changing. Firms have had to play catch up by actively searching for new opportunities, having to promote their designs and marketing themselves to win new projects. And the issue of attracting and retaining skilled talent has become more challenging with an ever younger workforce with entirely different mindsets, values, and ideals.

It wasn’t always like this and the apprehension we face with our clients likely stems from a long-standing history of standards and reluctance within the industry. It is easier to understand and be empathetic to AEC clients when we take a moment to look at the factors that played a significant role in the history of marketing in architecture.

Sell yourself? Blasphemy.

In the early 20th century, marketing was actually forbidden by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The first Principles of Practice adopted in 1909 actually barred architects from marketing themselves in even the most basic form. No advertising, no names on the doors. Things like proposals and sketches that seem so commonplace to architects today couldn’t even be offered. As such, “marketing” was entirely based on reputation and word-of-mouth – if you produced good work, people would see it or hear about it from other people.

One of our clients recently told us “Before marketing, our brand was our work, our reputation, and we just waited for the phone to ring and for jobs to walk in the door. The business side of architectural practice was never mentioned in school, let alone the word brand.” But, operating a successful firm these days requires more marketing than ever and a firm’s brand positioning is ascending to a central role.

Fee negotiations and ethical standards

Architects viewed themselves as having “a fiduciary duty to their clients” and adopted ethical standards that were similar to the ones adopted by doctors and lawyers – they would not compete on price and would not advertise their services. Until the 1970s, the AIA had established a rule that “prohibited a firm from knowingly competing with another by offering to charge less for the same work” on the basis that an underbidder may produce something of lesser quality. As such, every architect had to charge the same percentage of construction cost.

For many architects, this was frustrating. McGraw-Hill Construction describes this situation perfectly: “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.”

US Justice Department steps in

In the 1960s, the US Justice Department began investigating the ethics of many professions, including the AIA, on the grounds that rules against fee negotiations were a form of trade restraint. After an investigation, in 1972, the AIA signed consent decrees and agreed to allow members to submit price quotes, competitive bids, discounts, or free work (proposals, sketches, etc.).

This was a significant shift in the industry as firms were suddenly allowed to compete with one another for work. Even with this change, many architects still did not overcome their reluctance to sell themselves. At its core, architecture is a service industry, providing for society and people, yet architects struggle to put relationships at the root of their naming, branding and marketing strategies. Instead, they focus on past accomplishments and completed projects when they should be focusing on those who live, work, and play in them. There is a profound need to move beyond messages focused merely on tangible products and a need to express the underlying motivation and brand identity behind them.

Work shortages forces change

Shortages of work during recessions in the late ’70s, late ’80s, and early ’90s forced architects to take marketing seriously. An article in the New York Times from 1990 paints the picture of desperation that many architects faced: lay offs, fee cuts, diversifying of practices, and a global search for work defined the majority of firms during this period. According to the article, many architects had to strengthen their interior design, planning, and renovation practices in addition to accepting more modest commissions. Modest commissions also meant lower pay and many employees (if they were lucky enough to have a job) were expected to work very hard for very little. Additionally, the lack of work locally (within the United States) forced many firms to expand their search globally.

These factors reveal very telling points with regards to the industry. Firstly, with lower wages, employees likely looked to non-monetary benefits within the company. Corporate identity (values, visions, beliefs, etc.) suddenly played a much more significant role. Secondly, with the lack of local work, firms looking to expand their search globally needed to improve their marketing initiatives as word-of-mouth and nice dinners just wouldn’t cut it – how would a client in Europe or Asia find out about your work? Firms could no longer rely on reputation alone to communicate key messages about their skill, quality of work, style, identity, and values.

Where we are today

Time and time again we’ve stressed the importance of marketing and branding for an architecture firm. Whether it’s for attracting and retaining top talent or for acquiring new clients, traditional methods of marketing just won’t be as effective anymore. Companies need to adapt.

The reluctance to change that defined the architectural industry in the pre-21st century still holds true for much of the industry today and is creating a major barrier to marketing success. Several barriers to success are outlined in this McGraw-Hill report and have been witnessed by us through work with our clients.

Architects see themselves as artists whose projects accomplish specific creative, technical, and functional goals, whereas marketers are likely to use their skills in a variety of different industries or settings to achieve a wide range of goals. As such, McGraw-Hill points out that many architects “have a difficult time accepting the contributions of others to their art.” There’s a general distrust towards those whose educations were less formal or who don’t know as much about the firm or philosophy and an overall sense of “we’re better than you, Marketers.”

The architecture industry is undergoing a generational transformation – both customers and employees of architecture firms are increasingly members of Generation Y (also known as Millennials), who have different views, perspectives, priorities, needs, and career aspirations than their predecessors. Studies reveal that Millennials mistrust big business and traditional marketing, seeking instead more ideological and philosophical alignment from companies they do business with or work for. These young professionals seek out authentic brands that engage them in a meaningful way. In terms of attracting and recruiting new talent, the brand identity and positioning statement has never been more important in showcasing your firm’s goals, values, and beliefs and aligning it with those of your employees and potential clients.

It’s about time architects get off their high horse and break down these barriers. We don’t know what all the solutions are to your problems, but we can definitely help you find those solutions through a brand audit and branding process. As marketers, we aren’t the deal-closers, but we’ll provide the tools and strategies to place your firm in front of a potential client’s eyes so that you, the architect, can secure work based on having shown the client your unique approach, as well as personal and technical skills. Trust that we, as marketers, are experts in our field the same way that we trust that you, as architects, are experts in yours.

Quotes taken from McGraw-Hill Report “Marketing: Lesson’s from America’s best-managed architectural firms”