Every architectural firm is founded for a reason. Industry peers or spouses decide to partner in business. An entrepreneurial architect decides to venture on their own. A won competition starts an unexpected journey.
In each start-up scenario, vision, values, and mission are present, forming the initial attributes of a business’s brand or reputation. Over time, each firm will move through various stages of growth, experiencing both successes and challenges.
This is where marketing can play an integral role. Marketing can help carve out a position for a firm and secure opportunities, ensuring its value proposition is relevant, known, and purchased by clients. Marketing gains knowledge about clients, sectors, opportunities, and broader happenings that impact a business’s current work and outlook. This, called market research, supports firms’ approaches to serving market and client needs. Done well, marketing builds trust, reduces risk, and informs business strategy.
While terms like “vision,” “values,” and “mission” may come off as aspirational jargon, they are invaluable to aligning leadership and staff. For many architectural firms, these contribute to how people within the firm provide services, manage client relationships, and support business development.
The 2023 Canadian Architectural Practices Benchmark Report provides insight into how Canadian firms are currently approaching marketing. While uniform interpretation of terms across respondents cannot be guaranteed, the report offers a helpful basis for comparison and reflection on your firm’s goals and activities.
According to the survey results, more than three quarters of firms engage in-person networking. Often the objectives of this are to initiate and build client relationships, generate leads, and maintain a presence within client communities. For this activity to yield results, firms should be clear about the purpose of the in-person engagement: is it to be active in the industry, to engage in learning, or a more intentional approach to business or client development?
Architectural firms are also engaged in promotional activities. Though the aim varies greatly between activities and channels, these often relate to initiating and maintaining brand awareness or generating leads. The survey data shows that the most adopted practice is social media, followed by proposals, digital advertising, publications, print advertising, and public relations. On average, architectural firms are engaged in three of these activities.
While not many of the surveyed firms have this in place, a useful additional tool can be maintaining a customer relationship database. When established as part of a firm’s marketing infrastructure, this can support the nurturing of leads, capturing of information, and client relationship management.
Proposals are another way firms pursue work. For certain sectors and client organizations, these are labour intensive. Of firms with over five employees, more than four out of five have responded to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) in the last three years. On average, each proposal required 51 hours to produce and contributions from two to three staff. The range of this indicator varies greatly, with many firms noting as high as 70 or even 100 hours per proposal. The average win-rate (successful bids over total submissions) for proposals among the respondents was 27 percent. This means that firms will have spent, on average, over two hundred hours on proposals for every successful bid. A go/no-go decision matrix can support earlier decisions on which pursuits firms should invest in.
Many respondents shared that RFP requirements and other procurement practices are prohibitive for them, and some firm leaders noted that RFPs do not always reflect a comprehensive understanding of architectural services. Clients’ omnipresent prioritization of low fees—particularly in the RFP process—is noted as a core challenge of the profession. This contributes to a broader concern of the commoditization and devaluation of architectural services. For certain types of RFPs, an approach that prioritizes quality-based selection was suggested.
While seeking work is often spearheaded by leaders of architectural firms, as firms develop, they are eventually faced with the prospect of sharing or delegating marketing and business development responsibilities. When making these decisions, cost is often top of mind. The data offers that the average salary for junior marketing professionals is about $55,000. For more senior marketing professionals, salaries can be two or three times this amount. This may appear onerous for firms, especially if marketing is viewed as a cost.
Architecture firms would do well, however, to view marketing as an investment. When deployed judiciously, marketing can build and sustain business and brand value, and support firms in maintaining relevancy with, and connection to, their clients and sectors. When one considers the amount of revenue lost from billable employees spending their time on marketing or proposals, a lack of marketing capabilities or personnel can become quite costly. Marketing personnel can optimize—rather than replace—architects’ input into proposals and other marketing activities.
One might assume that marketing and communications personnel are for only the largest firms, but about one quarter of firms with between five and ten employees and more than half of firms with between ten and 100 employees have them.
Growth and success are not uniformly defined, or pursued, between architectural firms. While some firms may favour projects, recognition, or craft, others may favour revenue, staff count, and profit. A firm may grow in employee count, but see reductions in profit. Or a firm may increase how many sectors it works in, but lose its competitive advantage.
However success is defined, and whether a firm is comprised of one person or thousands of employees, there are opportunities for marketing to be a partner in achieving a firm’s goals. Good business practice is to have a marketing strategy and plan, brand and positioning statement, and resourced marketing and business development activities. For any firm, it is valuable to define a vision, values, and mission, and to understand how these align with client and project opportunities.
Discussion of marketing architecture in Canada would be incomplete without acknowledging historic restrictions imposed by regulatory bodies in Canada and other countries as to whether and how architects could advertise and promote their services (B. Campbell, 2022). This may have resulted in the discipline of marketing being underdeveloped in the profession.
But in the present day, marketing can serve as a powerful partner in addressing many of the challenges currently faced by architects. It can ensure 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 client and public knowledge of the depth of architects’ expertise, skills, and potential to impact their organizations and lives. It can make the profession known and attractive to people considering a career start or change.
From start-up to succession, and at every stage of business between, marketing can serve as an invaluable asset. In its truest form of identifying and serving market needs, marketing is not only good for business—it is also an integral partner in service of public interest. Done well, marketing can unlock opportunities for people and business, and for architecture itself.