Win, Lose, & Draw: A Rumination on Marketing and Client Development in the A&E Industry

Now to begin a series of radically honest articles about working the architecture, engineering, planning & interior design world.

As it happened, we began RACAIA with two employees in 2007 and in 2008 the economy collapsed. How we survived involved a fine mixture of grounded client relationships, immensely hard work organizing and following through with our marketing and business development efforts, and blind faith in dumb and completely unforeseen luck.

After the madness shook out, visitors could see right away that our 15-person architecture and interior design firm is noticeably divided into two camps. First, the Baby Boomer modernists who’ve effectively chosen not to retire after stellar careers at companies like Gensler, Richard Meier’s, SOM, and the like. Second, both early and late-wave Millennials, who are mostly highly-educated architectural designers, budding project managers and CAD/BIM document coordinators. I was once a statistician, once a marketer, and now in charge of all operations at our firm—which means that I’m scared all the time since nothing about how we execute projects is within my control. Though would I feel any better if it was? Probably not.

My own efforts at drumming up business began in networking groups, which have a spotty reputation given that there’s an implication right away that you don’t join a group to network unless you don’t have a client base that keeps your business afloat in the first place. I was lucky in that our Boomer staff had long-standing relationships with clients and friends for over 15 or more years. So although I didn’t feel it, the pressure was off. Any work I brought in would be considered a nice bonus.
To prep, I built a reasonable marketing plan (presuming that I’d be the only person actually working it) that involved a mix of well-designed and sharply-written flyers/project cut sheets, a website that cut to the chase of what our brand stood for, and a minimal but manageable social media presence. I even was offered a position writing and editing articles on architecture and urban planning for an affordable housing/living website, funded by one of our non-profit housing developer clients. I convinced myself that it would “grow the brand,” but really it just ate up the rest of whatever free time I let myself steal during any day.

Going out into the world and talking to strangers about getting work felt as scary as stumbling my way through into the darkest caves of Mordor. The Boomers kept saying not to put too much pressure on myself, but that just isn’t the kind of person I am. Instead, I dedicated every day of my week to a different task and pushed at the limits of my hours every day: Monday was invoicing, Tuesday was marketing, Wednesday was cold-emailing, Thursday was meetings and business development, Friday was operations and accounting. And of course the tasks each day were always interrupted by tasks I planned to do other days (though that’s also just the nature of working in a small business). One or two days a week, I’d be out at networking events, groups or other meeting, shaking hands, exchanging cards, chatting, moving on, and generally struggling to build out a small network I could call my own. I say struggling because I was maybe 25 when I started and naturally made no advancement in getting Fortune 500 companies to consider trusting million-dollar projects to our boutique firm.

Of course two hard years passed and I couldn’t bring in a single project. I would sit in meetings with the Boomers and seem to be able to ramble comfortably enough, drawing in work with their help, or at least submit statements of work/marketing materials to potential clients. Out of nothing less than fear itself, I built a gigantic CRM full of names and rows of contact information. I kept calling and emailing and pushing, hard, against the sense that I was failing—and wasting our firm’s money in the process. Singularly bankrupting us with what felt like flighty, misdirected “best practices.”

The first real chance at getting work amongst us early-wave Millennials came from one of our Project Managers, and I remember that the client interview involved myself at 30 years old, our Project Manager and another early-wave Senior Designer arriving to discover that the potential clients we all about our ages as well. The fearless impression that we were all building our own empires was palpable, and we got a quick response that our team was favored by all of the client’s team members hands-down.

Two months later, the Senior Designer and I sat in a meeting with the same client and his boss, a man we hadn’t met before even higher on the client’s organizational totem pole. Five minutes in and he was ripping us apart for appearing inexperienced, and as far as I was blind-sized and lost my ability to answer his questions right away, his intuition probably seemed correct.
Of course I later blamed myself. I had the opportunity all along to bring our Boomer generation big-guns with us, but I had been dazzled by our ability to charm them during that first meeting, and frankly I was an in a kind of muddy-minded euphoria—dizzy from the sense that our generation did it ourselves—to think plainly about what most clients actually want from their architects: people they can trust to manage a lot of money at once. Not to put too fine a point on it, but young people are seen as reckless but dynamic super-creatives while older folks are more often seen as wise and wizardly project leaders. Funny that we’ve since brought on two employees in their 40s, and that seems to me now like a magical age where you’re viewed as someone who can seamlessly do both things at once (I’m only 33, though, so this may be a gratuitous psychological projection on my part).

In response to this miscalculation, I recoiled from business development/going-out-and-meeting-potential-clients for a few months out of a newly-awakened self-doubt that roared alive within me every morning. I joined in a few client meetings here and there, put together targeted marketing material for lots of new projects, and generally just tried to keep things stable despite volatility. We finished and photographed new projects, updated our marketing materials, and kept our CRM rolling too. Now, though I sometimes still feel like an abject failure, our firm is doing better than ever and we employ some of the more amazing people I could ever expect to know in this lifetime.

But how was that even possible? For the last few months in particular I’ve been lost for an answer, despite it probably being a lot plainer than even day is.

The steadiness (and faith) of setting up a clear marketing plan helped tremendously, and I knew it would when I was in a steady mental and emotional space. Hiring people who actually love to design, fight for better design quality, and (despite headaches on my end) spend way more hours than internally-allocated to improve each project has kept the momentum moving forward and the energy in our office dynamic and positive. Actually meeting with longstanding friend-clients has been enlightening as well. Because they understand our personalities intimately, they know we are people they can trust when seas get stormy. They know we’ll push for their interests while also outlining their options clearly. In short, we’re on their side—and we still would’ve been whether we were an architecture firm, a public relations agency, a cloud-computing company, or a Dunder Mufflin-style product provider.

At the risk of sounding completely daft, I knew this stuff all already and saw these answers plainly while working on other freelance and contract projects for small companies, non-profits and NGOs. So why did it take me this long to see them in my own company? I knew that planning and goal-setting would clear a lot of problems up and give us a steady vision forward, at least somewhere in the back of my mind. And yet I felt panic anyway. I scare easily and would be a billionaire now if my job was solely to manage my anxiety. I love being social and think am generally easy to talk to, but the idea of cold-networking brings on waves of existential dread linked to even older fears of being a less-capable, less-professional, less-worthy person. And being less daring meant being less willing to treat myself well, so I’d comfortably slip into the process of beating myself up for every contact I didn’t get, every project I couldn’t land, and every networking opportunity that didn’t end with a conversation about potential work.

Was I putting too much pressure on myself solely? Obviously. And (in the end) supportive marketing efforts and business development coaching has led to lots of work among everyone in the office—and lots of kinds of work too.

I guess that the actual lesson here—one I still don’t feel like I’ve fully learned despite writing all this out—is that getting/winning work is never on just one person. Like executing projects, there are lots of roles and phases specific to lots of people in the company, and work can come from anywhere at anytime. Maybe the architects were used to this kind of chaos (since nothing goes completely right on any job), but it’s a process that I had to face in my own way.

Ten years later and I don’t have to do all of those jobs any longer. We’ve hired a controller and an accountant. We all share in the business development effort. And I’m only now learning to be easy on myself, and trust myself as much as I trust that fortune will play out any way it chooses.

In the meantime, it’s smartest to remember that making mistakes in business doesn’t mean you’re making a mistake by running a business. Instead, just plan to be nimble and then stick to your plans. Not much for new advice, I know, but hey… what’s tried and been true has worked for us so far. I’m certain it will work for you too.