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Friday25 July 2014

Make marketing work for you

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The secret of good communication is being prepared to step into your listener’s shoes and ditching ’archispeak’.

Having worked in magazines and in the communications business for more than 40 years, I have been around long enough to have seen the full life cycle of architectural firms – to see them when they started up with just one or two jobs and then watch them develop into businesses of various sizes and varieties of success. I have seen them rise to the top of the pile, I have seen them fail, and it is quite clear to me that those who succeed are not only skilled architects, but excellent communicators too.

My first job in journalism was at Architectural Design in the 1960s. At that time the young architects knocking at our door were Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell and Nick Grimshaw, and they were well organised. These were the days before public relations consultants, but they made sure we had good photos taken by the best architectural photographers, they drew their drawings so that they would reproduce well when reduced in size (a lot of architects didn’t in the days of hand drawing), and they provided well-produced information with clearly written descriptions of the projects.

Before the RIBA relaxed its code of practice in 1977, books and magazines were significant because marketing was viewed as “touting” by the institute; you could be struck off if you sent an unsolicited brochure to a potential client. Since then, a whole range of skills and media have become available to practices, including press relations, brochures, websites, newsletters, e-shots, videos and social networking. Yet practices are often slow to take full advantage of the benefits they can bring to the business.

Monographs and books were crucial in the days when RIBA frowned on marketing.

Source: Photo: miguel santa clara

Monographs and books were crucial in the days when RIBA frowned on marketing.

Communications and marketing not only help you get work, they allow you to direct the future of the practice, the sort of work you want to do and the sort of people you want to work with, so they are important not just to your survival commercially, but to your satisfaction as an architect.

So how can improve your comms performance? Here are basic strategies that can help.

Know your audience. Almost every practice has a website, but few of them have considered who they want to communicate with. Architects too often address themselves to other architects, who, from a business point of view, should be your least important audience. This is exacerbated by too much “archispeak”. There is nothing wrong with a profession’s internal language – it is an essential tool. The trick that architects so often forget is knowing when to shift into a language that is comprehensible to a wider group.

I am continually astonished by the amateurishness of practices when I sit on judging panels

Architects’ websites are terrifyingly self-absorbed. The web is the most powerful medium for moving outside your known boundaries – it can be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world. Yet the majority of architects’ sites do nothing to try and understand why a visitor might be interested in working with this particular practice. I would recommend study of Foster & Partners’ and HOK’s opening pages as rarities that consider their audience and what they wish to learn from the site.

Improve your presentations. They are a key part of any practice’s armoury, yet I am continually astonished at the amateurishness and lack of preparation shown by practices when I sit on judging panels. Too many firms lose valuable time at the start of a competitive presentation while they fiddle about with their computers, get flustered and fail to do their work justice. Slides are shown that are unreadable, and boards are presented that are too small. Powerpoint presentations are too complex. For a rule of thumb stick to the 1.7.7 rule: one idea per slide; a maximum of seven lines of text and a maximum of seven words per line.

Understand what you are selling. I went to a fascinating lecture a few months ago at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School given by Frank Gehry. He admitted to the audience that he sells his practice to clients not by pushing his architectural approach but by saying that, with his own Gehry Technologies bim system, he is able to reduce building costs by 30%. This is a strategy that responds directly to the fears that many clients will have about hiring an adventurous architect. The potential client knows all about Gehry’s free-form architecture; the barrier to selection is worries about cost and schedule overruns. Gehry understands his audience: he knows why they are coming to him and why they might be put off working with him.

This is the sort of understanding that all practices need to bring to bear on their external relations. Foster, Rogers, Grimshaw, Farrell and Koolhaas are commercially and architecturally successful. They have teams of staff and consultants to help deliver their messages, but their success owes much to their innate understanding of the significance of a sound communications strategy.

Portland Place to Portland Oregon – an architectural odyssey

Peter Murray is offering free CPD lectures to practices on the subject of communi-cations for architects as part of a fundraising project that centres on a 4,500 mile sponsored bicycle ride. The ride, to take place during May and June 2013, aims to raise £500,000 for charity – divided equally between the Architects Benevolent Society and Article 25.

Portland Oregon has been selected as the final destination because it was voted America’s most livable city and has a strong cycling culture.

En route, the ride will visit buildings in New York, Chicago, Racine, Minneapolis, Taliesin East and Wisconsin. Local architects will be encouraged to join up for shorter legs of the ride. Murray hopes that some dozen riders will undertake the ride, cycling 80 miles a day at a fairly leisurely 12mph.

Anyone who would like to take part in this adventure, or wanting to find out more about the lectures, should contact peter.murray@wordsearch.co.uk

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