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Marketing The Seven C’s of marketing planning


Challenge The 1st C stands for Challenge - understanding the situation. It is often surprising how many businesses exist within a vacuum, without a real idea of where they are going or how to get there. This is especially so for architects where many may have started as a small bands of friends, won a few projects and have seen their businesses grow organically, quite nicely thank you. But the reactive method of getting jobs is becoming increasingly untenable. The world is changing and the profession has often failed to keep up. This is why market share is often stolen by Project Manager’s, multidisciplinary consultants and even contractors. Not only has our Economy taken a battering, the construction industry is one of the hardest hit and will be one of the slowest to recover. The Construction Products Association forecast that it will not return to 2007 levels of activity until 2021. The White Knight public sector is about to be knocked off of its horse and the commercial market will take between 5 and 7 years to return to pre-recession levels. So what does this mean for architects? Less work + more competition + lower fees. It also means that we could again suffer from a talent exodus as thousands of students and redundant qualified designers seek new careers. It means turnover will be hit hard and profit will be eroded. So how do you survive and ultimately rise out of the ashes?


Clarify The 2nd ‘C’ is ‘Clarify’. What is marketing? The production of promotional materials such brochure; website; business cards? Branding? Logo design; PR; Press liaison or advertising? Yes, of course it is, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg – the stuff that people see. Marketing shouldn’t be seen as the expensive resource in the corner that produces flashy websites and lovely brochure material delivered by costly agencies. Unfortunately though because so many practices have existed without defined resource and plans for marketing, it is felt more like something we should do because everyone else does and not as an essential part of business success. When I started out, I took over from a part time marketing assistant, who helped the Partner allotted the ‘marketing’ responsibility, with putting datasheets and powerpoints together. Now I play a key role in shaping and writing the business strategy, organisational structure, business development, international expansion, because I was lucky enough to land in a practice where I could prove there was more to this than meets the eye.


Clarify #2 Marketing is essentially the art of listening, understanding the market, now and in the future and responding to demand, not the ability to sell something to those who don’t want it, like the junk which comes through your door each morning. Don’t confuse marketing with advertising. Marketing plugs a gap in what someone needs or wants need by providing a product or service to fulfil that, leading to satisfaction and repeated use. By shaping what you can deliver to what the market wants, marketing shapes your business – who you work for, who you employ, what you do. Only once you have defined these, can you then concentrate on the tools to promote your activity and develop the materials. There’s no point in producing websites and brochures without consideration for who they are aimed at and what they should therefore contain. Every year I attend the Construction Forecasting Conference, which to my mind is the single most important event for anyone responsible for practice strategy, marketing and business development. Every year, I am one of only 2 or 3 architects – actually consultants in general - among a sea of contractors and suppliers.


Character So – 3rd C – Character – Who are you? What makes you get out of bed in the morning? “To design beautiful buildings and places that enhance the quality of human existence?” ...or to make money? How many of you approach your work as a pursuit rather than a business? The pursuit of architecture alone is not enough, because without success, you cannot build a reputation that will bring the exciting commissions and the financial reward relevant to supporting that pursuit. Your business needs to be an extension of your personality, so what makes you memorable? If you had 30 seconds in a lift with a potential client, how would you describe what you do and make them interested? What are your strengths, particular skills, sectors you experience of, who have you worked with/for before? Do you have defined brand values? These should encapsulate what it is that makes you come back day after day, what drives you and a business and why you get up and work. Many practices, and indeed construction related companies have similar stated values, because we’ve been shaped by the industry/clients/peers and buzzwords. Values must be pertinent to you as an organisation. They are not aspirational, but characteristic. You can sit around a table with 10 of your colleagues and each one may have a slightly different view about what sort of practice you are or want to be. Ask your clients, peers, friends what they think you project and you will see whether your intentions come across. I’ve overseen 3 full re-brands at two large practices over the last 10 years. Architects love to naval gaze and as a result your brand and drivers will adapt and evolve over a period of time and that will be reflected in the character you project, but your values should remain stable throughout. In terms of thinking on branding, the same rules apply – keep it simple, clean and memorable. Being creative’s, it’s easy for architects to get carried away with how they present themselves and a lot of effort can be taken up deciding how something should look. Much of this is lost on your audience because often you are doing it for you. There are some enlightened, design conscious clients out there, but most won’t get the subtle undertones, or appreciate the perfect layout of your brochure, but they will expect everything to look and feel right. If you’re marketing material is shoddy, what are your buildings like? If you haven’t yet built anything significant, you material has to work much harder. Most commercial and public sector clients can still be blown away by simple, clean walkthroughs and flythroughs, by 1 killer image, but it’s also a common architect’s trait to rely on the gloss, when the clever stuff comes in the plans and elevations, the concept sketch or technical detail, which many of us don’t use enough to demonstrate what we can do. If you are pitching for work overseas, the expectation is much higher, especially in the middle and far east where you are competing with mega-practices with large budgets. Consider what is special, don’t be afraid of white space and invest where it’s most impactful. A good project image is worth it’s marketing weight in gold – consider it as an investment.


Clients Okay – so we’ve established why you get up/why you are here and what your strengths are. So – who cares? C #4. Who they are your clients, both existing & potential? What do they want? Who else do they employ and why? Why do they employ you? The key objective for a marketeer and ultimately for any business is to make yourself indispensable to your clients - remove the competition, but ensure you continue to deliver. Also, the clients you work for will shape what you do, how you do it and ultimately who you are. How in control of your client base are you? I regularly hear architects commenting that “..80% of our work comes from repeat commissions..” Firstly most just use the phrase and couldn’t measure that if they tried. Secondly all it says is that they haven’t worked hard enough at generating business from new clients. We’ve already established that in this market clients have less ability to create work – they don’t have the cash or the staff in many cases, and there is increasingly greater competition, so repeat business is an unreliable workstream. What other work givers are out there? Not all of them are commissioning end-users or developers. 60% of our client base are probably contractors. An increasing amount, especially internationally are large engineering firms or other architects. Do you have key clients (those that generate 15%+ of your fees)? If so do you treat them differently to other clients? Do you engage with them outside of a project discussion. Do you keep them informed of your activities. Ask most clients why they chose their last practice, it will either be because they know and like them, or they were the last name they came into contact with. What do they want? Do you have client managers who manage the relationship over and above performance on a job? I mentioned earlier that architects often naval gaze, but how many of you ask your clients what they seek? Have you considered running client surveys? You can do them online, it’s free and gives invaluable feedback to how you should promote and conduct yourselves in future. Do you get post-project feedback at the end of every job? This is the time both you and a client start thinking about new projects, but often we think about those we are doing for others and not what we could be doing for them. Many practices are trying to break into new sectors as many struggle following the recession. Public sector clients are driven by different needs to commercial clients: accountability and cost over efficiency and programme. End-users want comfort, personalised spaces and strong environmental features. You need to be aware of these changes before stepping into the room.


Competitors C #5 – Competitors No marketing plan is complete without some consideration of who you competitors are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, who they are working for and how they perform. In this challenging market, not only are new competitors moving into your patch as they seek new work streams, but clients will be more prone to shopping around for better deals and so number 1 priority is serve your existing clients as best as you possibly can. Don’t drop the ball – there will be others there to pick it up. However, if you are not doing exactly that and using this as an opportunity to get new work, you’ll be going backwards. Unfortunately competitive tendering for projects is becoming the norm for everything in a cost conscious society where quality and value are misconstrued as expensive and extravagant in a cash strapped client’s eyes. Buying work is a dangerous game. I’m sure most of you work to pretty tight margins and your only real assets are your staff. Keeping bums on seats with low profit work to keep cash flow moving may be a reasonable strategy when times are tough, but you can end up devaluing yourselves and once a client can get away with paying you a 2% fee, how will you convince them to raise it again when you need more staff or higher grades? It’s also not always possible to manage that element of bids either. Working on behalf of contractors who put in ridiculously low bids will have a knock on effect for you and the quality of work you are able to provide, so beware of who you partner with. However, dog fights aside, competitors are a fact of life and not always there to be avoided or wary of. I’m often amused by the closed nature of the architecture profession and lack of openness between a group of very similar, like-minded people, all struggling to find solutions to the same problems. Part of the reason I wrote this is because I’m a strong believer in working together to share ideas. We can learn from each other. If I was worried about giving away our crown jewels, I wouldn’t be speaking here now, but my philosophy on building networks that deliver, is about openness and support – what goes around, comes around so don’t always treat your peers like enemies…


Collaboration #6 – Your competitors can also be partners. Most of you are mid-sized practices – between 20-50 staff. Commercial clients like BAA, or large public tender contracts like BSF can often seem out of your reach. Demonstrating track record or adequate PI cover can be frustrating reasons not to bid for something you’d be well placed to win. Teaming up with similar practices can double your skills & capabilities, resource capacity and credentials. It can also add the spice that makes a client stop and think about what the product of this collaboration may produce for them. Take the opportunity to find out how people around you are dealing with operating in the recession – what their interests are and how you might be able to work together. Often larger commercial practices, despite their design capability, team up with other practices, often smaller one’s that have greater recognition for smaller, exciting projects people remember, giving the bigger guys an edge to their pitch and them the strength and depth of a large organisation, processes etc. The RIBA runs regular speed dating event as part of it’s Small Practice support. It’s your chance to meet other practices with whom you can collaborate. Remember work more often doesn’t come in as direct client commissions now. Consider the other consultants you work with and how you can work with them to create better opportunities. International markets often favour the engineers first, who will bring a designer along with them and Project Managers and Agents have the client’s ear now before architects often do– it’s no longer a one way conversation. We also work closely with other design professionals – urbanists, educationalists, interior designers – all of who we can build reciprocal work winning relationships with.


Communication Finally Communication. One of my many sayings is that “communication is a two way street.” We’ve established that we need to be able to listen to the market, to our clients and to each other, and we already know that a significant part of marketing is communicating what we are doing to the outside world. In my opinion, PR is the one area where many architects fall over, spending larger than necessary amounts on advertising, sponsorship and exhibition opportunities. Seeing your name in print is always rewarding and great for increasing your profile, but its very difficult to establish how effective it is as an activity. If you try to live by the adage that every £ spent on marketing should return £10 spent in revenue, then it might help curtail the flippant, knee-jerk reactions to opportunities to promote yourself in certain magazines or trade journals or sponsor some serviettes at an annual awards dinner. If it’s not in your plan, don’t spend it. I always gauge whether £100 spent on promotional activity would be better off spent taking a good client out to lunch and I don’t think I’ve managed to disagree with myself yet. But a decent press manager – someone who can write good copy, has contacts with the main trade and client focused journals and can get you column inches is worth their weight in gold. Again you can use agencies and I’ve worked with some excellent ones in the past, but due to our closed nature that I mentioned earlier, I’m a believer that it really takes someone to be embedded within the organisation to understand your strengths, the highlights of a particular project and make it readable and interesting. Another vital element of communication that is often overlooked is internal communication. I expect that most of you reading this are senior managers and some dedicated marketing professionals. If you don’t communicate what you learn today, feed it in to your marketing plans that I hope you will all go away and write if you haven’t done so already and let your colleagues know – how useful will today be for your business? Think of every member of your staff as a brand ambassadors – those on the front line. Most of you will spend the majority of your days in meetings, tackling administrative and managerial tasks and restricting your client contact to certain high level relationships that are pretty well established. How many of you regularly engage new or target clients/attend networking functions etc? Your architects are the people with the daily contact with clients/contractors and other consultants. If they don’t understand or buy into your brand values, or know the key ‘elevator pitch’ messages they should be talking about, how can they market on the businesses behalf? Think about having a ‘Top 10 things everyone should know about us.’ card. Do you regularly communicate new project wins or developments? Have you got an internal intranet where new initiatives can be communicated? One thing smaller practices are generally better at is building a community. When you share the same space, internal communication is easier, but don’t leave it to the coffee machine chatter. Arm your staff to promote your business and they will feel empowered and included to perform. It also helps with succession issues or as you grow and develop to more offices/regions etc.


“Writing strategies is easy, implementing them is hard. Keep things simple and achievable and you’ll increase your chances of success.”

This publication is taken from the transcript of a presentation given by Graham Hickson-Smith, Head of Marketing & Business Development at 3DReid, for World Architecture News. Graham has been providing marketing support to architectural practices for 10 years and is contributing to the forthcoming 8th Edition of the RIBA Practice Management Handbook, writing the chapter on Marketing & Business Development. 3DReid is an award winning top 10 UK practice with 7 offices nationally and presence in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

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