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AEC Ethics: Marketing, Advertising and the Changing Tide

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Design and manufacturing are built on relationships. These connections are built over time, and in turn, shape how we practice. Across the AEC industries, there has long been questions over marketing and advertising, including whether either are even legal. It’s important to understand the difference between marketing and advertising a firm’s services when building relationships, as well as the history of their evolution as ideas have changed over time.

Building relationships starts with understanding a market. Firms can look to the conditions for practice, including potential partners and organizations to connect with, as well as how to communicate a company’s values. In short, some of the greatest impact will come from marketing strategies; the ways by which you tell your story to influence relationships and connections based on the information shared and how it’s presented. 

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Exploring the difference between marketing and advertising in building relationships, the following article outlines the history of these terms within the AEC context and how practices today are taking advantage of new technologies and communication strategies. Part art and part science, these ideas go beyond cold calls and sales to look more deeply at how designers and manufacturers have positioned themselves within a changing tide of new markets. 

AEC Advertising: A Handful of History

Throughout history, the calling card of architects, engineers and builders was the product itself- architecture. The first step toward advertising as we know it today came with the development of printing in the 15th and 16th centuries. Then in the 17th century, weekly newspapers in London began to carry advertisements, and by the 19th century, advertising had been established as a major force in capitalist economies.

At first, architects and designers were strongly opposed. This was clearly reflected as the American Institute of Architecture wrote their 1909 Rules and Regulations, stating that “advertising tends to lower the dignity of the profession and is therefore condemned.” As a result, firms relied exclusively on word-of-mouth and reputation to gain clients, and were required to respond to jobs with the same price point. It wasn’t until the 1970s that they were finally able to distinguish themselves after an ethics review of organizations, including the AIA, by the US Department of Justice. 

The Department ruled that restriction of fee negotiations was a form of trade restraint and the AIA was required to rewrite their regulations. The AIA signed consent decrees and agreed that members should be allowed to submit competitive bids, price quotes discounts, or free work. Moving beyond the stigma of impropriety, firms found that services became a point of differentiation, and marketing strategies were slowly adopted.

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Marketing & Advertising, Defined

Marketing and advertising are terms that are often conflated, and this is due in part to their shared ideas. Marketing is the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research. Advertising, on the other hand, is the activity or profession of producing advertisements for commercial products or services. In other words, marketing usually involves looking at a business within a broader scope and context, while advertising is more generally the advertisements themselves and the activity of producing them.

Over time, advertising has grown rapidly with advancements like direct mail, radio, television, the internet and mobile devices. Today, successful branding and marketing focuses on a company’s ability to create success for their clients, and a deeper understanding of their needs. This is an important distinction from advertising, which looks more closely at presenting services, rather than operations, larger markets, and client relationships.

As the AEC industries have evolved, they have found many new ways to better market themselves. From knowledge management resources and thought leadership to branding and market research, designers and manufacturers are expanding their services by focusing on client success. This focus extends to ROI and tailoring a firm or company’s offerings to an engaged customer base.

Marketing Services in Today’s Market

Forefronting ethics, sustainability and shared values, AEC firms and manufacturers are utilizing marketing strategies that speak to contemporary culture and changing views on transparency and accountability. By building a brand while celebrating clients’ success, companies are moving to address design’s impact and influence. In turn, this move speaks to larger cultural ideas shaping daily life and consumer demands.

There are countless marketing strategies available today; the key is identifying what will work best for a given firm, as well as pulling select strategies together into a cohesive strategy. This is where investing in a marketing firm and outside partners is hugely beneficial. Not only can a design firm or product manufacturer better focus on production and R&D, but they can also tap into a depth of knowledge that’s already completed the sorting for them, vetting possible marketing options available and utilizing knowledge built off past successes. The result is a marketing strategy catered to designer and manufacturer needs.

Marketing strategies are needed now more than ever. If, as the Architect’s Journal notes, more than 60% of architects do not have a business plan, they are losing out in an increasingly competitive market. Advertising is one type of marketing, and one strategy that should be considered as part of a holistic, long-term approach. As AEC firms and manufacturers work to define their position, they should consider partnering with industry experts to create better engagement and recognition.

Whether working across lead generation, thought leadership, public relations, or networking, the AEC industries are finally making the move to promote people and ideas through content marketing over portfolios. In a consideration of ethical practice, marketing and advertising have found a renewed place. The result is more responsive relationship building centered on impact and sustainable growth for clients and firms alike.

If you’re considering how best to market your services, be sure to check out our solutions page and request a media kit bwloe.


Interview: Addressing the challenges with AEC marketing

Modern architectural building with greenery
Modern architectural building with greenery

The AEC industries face unique marketing and advertising challenges compared to other fields. What key factors for companies to consider when selecting a marketing agency?

“The inevitably long sales cycles within the AEC industry poses a unique challenge to business leaders. Finding an agency that is familiar with navigating the complex sales and marketing process, sometimes involving dozens of stakeholders over many years, is the first key for success. Agencies who are unfamiliar with the AEC industry often can’t relate to, or have the systems in place to support, engaging with a prospect through these long multi-channel sales cycles.”

What are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve seen clients face when trying to market their services?

“I often see companies with world class quality products or services being represented terribly through poor branding and promotional materials. They are pitching good quality work, but they get outbid by the “big guys” who pitched better. I wonder how much money is being left on the table due to poor presentation?”

How has Bizop been able to create a value-add for companies looking to rethink their marketing strategies?

“By providing a client-focused, forward-thinking, “bespoke” experience for each one of our clients, we are able to drive growth and build their brand awareness while acting as the marketing leader or vital support role within their firm.

Bizop’s unique technical expertise, design-focused staff, and AEC-specific knowledge help us position our clients better within their market vs typical marketing agencies.”

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As AEC marketing has changed dramatically over the last two decades, what are some of the major shifts you see happening in the field today?

“Over the last decade, we’ve seen a huge shift in AEC companies looking toward digital as the way to build interest and close sales. In the early days, there was a lack of measurable data from digital marketing efforts, and the stakeholders were wary to change.

Recently we’ve seen an embracement of digital channels such as website, social media, email, and more as business leaders have experienced the benefits of accessing prospects with pinpoint accuracy. 

Moving forward we see a greater shift towards digital, and specifically AI, as firms look to better track, qualify, and market to narrower audiences – all automatically. With the power of programming and big data management, firms can now segment, score, and engage prospects like never before – which allows sales teams to close more deals and waste less time on cold leads.”

Design and manufacturing companies are often hesitant to consult with marketing agencies; what advice would you give to a firm leader looking to partner with outside consultants?

“My #1 recommendation when choosing a consulting agency is to be clear about your firm’s root goals and challenges and find a trusted partner who has experience solving those issues and reaching those goals.

Too often agencies are just looking to just get paid and move on, or will work with for anyone, but a long term, industry-focused, and dedicated relationship must be built in order to see long term success.

Much like marriage, a relationship with an agency takes coordination, patience, and persistence to improve in order to reach its full potential.”

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Eric is a communications and PR specialist for the architecture & design industry. Featured in ArchDaily, Archinect, Architizer, and more.

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