In many firms, the marketing function is like a revolving door: a new director comes in; the coordinator resigns; the director stays for six months only to leave the AE industry. Two coordinators later, a new director is hired, doesn’t work well with the market sector leaders, and is asked to leave the firm. Pick up any “People on the Move” section in your local Business Times and there will inevitably be the smiling face of a new Marketing Manager or Director for some design firm in your town.
Why does the marketing role experience such a high churn rate in design firms?
Over the past three decades, the marketing departments of many firms have been simmering away in maintenance mode based on some unsound thinking:
Begrudging acceptance of an unclear concept: In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, principals slowly …and often begrudgingly …bought into the idea that design firms needed marketing specialists. (My favorite aphorism on this subject is this: most designers regard marketing as the price they have to pay for not being famous). Once they realized that they could benefit from greater exposure and that a big load would be taken off their technical professionals, most firms over 20 people recognized that they needed help. But they didn’t know exactly what they needed. Was it publicity? Lead identification? Proposal preparation? Client development and maintenance? Strategy? Collateral material preparation? All of the above? Fitting the job to the person: Because they were unfamiliar with exactly what marketing could do for their firm, many principals let the strengths and the interests of the individuals they hired dictate the direction of the marketing function. If the Marketing Manager wanted to represent the firm at events, that became the focus of marketing for that firm. If the person didn’t like cold calling, then prospecting focused on publicly-announced project opportunities or the person’s own established network. Often other important functions like public relations, database management, or presentation training received limited attention. Accepting enthusiasm as a substitute for competence: The combination of an uncertain job description and relief that some odious tasks were removed from the shoulders of technical professionals caused many principals to think that an outgoing personality and a perky attitude nicely complemented the firm’s other staff. Satisfied that they their marketing needs were covered, design firm principals allowed their firms to evolve organically (rather than in response to a clear vision), looking to the marketing person to be the firm’s external voice.
This sequence is all the more interesting because there was so much promise in the ‘80s when the profession began to embrace marketing. Nationally recognized marketing leaders like Sandy D’Elia, Margaret Spaulding, Laurin McCracken and others paved the way for marketing to become an integral part of the practice of architecture. They were serious professionals, offering well organized, strategic and business-based ideas for creatively building the bridge between design professionals and a receptive client population. But the promise of a cadre of smart, tough, creative business people helping to drive the direction of the business never quite materialized for most firms.
Meanwhile, businesses other than professional services increasingly depended on their marketing departments to position their brand in the minds of potential customers. They expected their sales departments to introduce their products and services to their customers in a compelling manner resulting in an advantageous financial exchange. Working in tandem, marketing and sales departments with significant budgets demonstrated that they could be instrumental in building a valuable enterprise. But in many design firms, the slim group of people known as “the marketing department” was expected to do it all.
To varying degrees, principals looked to their marketing groups to identify projects, create publicity, win awards, monitor client satisfaction, prepare proposals, develop new approaches to saturated markets, get speaking engagements, assemble teams of consultants, and know, somehow, exactly what the firm needed to do, be, and say to win each project as it surfaced. In design firms, the distinction between marketing and sales, two very different activities requiring different competencies, was never made clear.
To this confusion between marketing and sales, add very tight budgets and the nearly impossible task of learning multiple market sectors and the relentless pressure of recurring deadlines. And, to be honest, many firms still begrudgingly accept marketing, can’t diagnose and specify exactly what they need and rely on enthusiasm to carry them forward. As a result, many firms set up the marketing department to fail.
There are two ways to look at it.
In the eyes of the technical professionals, marketing people are chronic underperformers. They don’t bring in enough work, can’t seem to get the firm on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, never quite capture the essence of the firm in collateral, can’t provide the right images when they’re needed, always seem harried and, regardless of what their budgets are, to them, it is never enough.
But viewing the complex set of responsibilities from the inside captures a different picture. Many marketing people feel unsupported and undervalued. They often feel that they were hired to do something they didn’t sign up for or that is outside their realm of expertise. They know that their marketing colleagues outside professional services make more money, are relied on as vital members of their enterprise, and have sizable budgets to work with.
What happened in the last couple of decades among marketing professionals has been a process of slow demoralization, disintegration and defection of the people who take marketing seriously from the industry. The initial awakening of many firms to the promise of a well-executed marketing strategy and marketing participation in firm-wide direction has not materialized. There are some wonderful exceptions: anyone who has worked at HOK in the past 15 years can tell you that the firm “gets” marketing and incorporates it into the fabric of the firm. Other good news is that many technical professionals got the message (or innately understood the need) and focused their efforts on client development. Today, many firms are flourishing under the leadership of design-trained executives who have happily embraced the sales side of the business as one of their responsibilities. John Atkins, Chairman and CEO of O’Brien Atkins; Scott Kelsey, Managing Principal at CO Architects; and Gerdo Aquino, President of SWA all lead their firms and have established superior examples of Marketing leadership … along with all of their other responsibilities.
This is a good thing, but it is not sufficient.
Firms need marketing leadership outside of the CEO’s office … the kind of energy and focused leadership provided by serious, executive-level marketing professionals like Allison Held at Perkins + Will who knits the various parts of a complex and thriving large firm together as CMO; Amy Aponte, Principal with Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas who has helped lead the firm from a regional player to a nationally-recognized specialist in higher education ; or David Koren, shepherding Perkins Eastman’s marketing activities globally. These are senior contributors who are depended-on by their firms for the facet of marketing they do best. They are excellent industry beacons integral to their firm’s futures.
Moral of the story?
As a steward of your firm, you need to dig deeper into that gap between what your marketing professionals should be and what they actually are doing today. It may be that you don’t have the resources of Perkins + Will or Perkins Eastman: maybe your firm is a 50-person practice with a Marketing Director and a Coordinator. By knowing what your firm needs, clarifying that for all involved, hiring right, and then developing an ongoing process that expects the highest level of leadership from those who perform these functions, you’ll see a substantial return on your investment. Don’t hamper them by marginalizing them. If you’re embarrassed to bring them to the management table, you’ve succumbed to the “personality” school of marketing. Hire substantive, smart people to represent you, strategize with them about your firm, and then trust them enough to let them succeed.
Mary Breuer is the Principal of the Breuer Consulting Group in San Francisco. With more than 30 years of experience working with firms like HOK, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and Perkins + Will, Breuer is now the blogger behind the Dogpatch Dispatch: Notes on Design Firm Leadership.