Thom McKay

Thom McKay

Thom is a seasoned marketing and communications professional who created 148 Communications to help companies grow in health and stature. He’s a wildly creative and collaborative force who knows how to tell compelling stories, solve problems and get the absolute best out of people.

Six Reasons Your A/E/C Marketing Isn’t Working

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Not long ago a colleague handed me an A3-sized sheet of paper with a multi-colored, multi-layered organization chart printed on it. He had recently been charged with defining a new marketing structure for his company—a large, international architecture practice with offices around the world and solid positions in multiple markets—and he wanted my unvarnished opinion of what he had come up with. As he handed over the sheet, and asked that I sign an NDA, he proclaimed, “We’re a matrixed organization that needs to transition from a structure based on core lines of business to one focused more on regions or geographies.”

This insight, presumably, came from his new CEO (18 months into the gig) who was going to spark massive change in the company and re-ignite a fire for new, disruptive business, innovation and (in his words) fit-for-purpose, strategically aligned value propositions. I didn’t know what any of that meant, but my friend assured me that it all starts with marketing and that he and the CEO were totally in sync on this so get out of the way he was on a mission goddammit and I was just slowing him down. And so he set off on a ten-week tour of the company (and the world) to ask senior people what they wanted from marketing. The chart was the fruit of that diligence.

I should say right now that I am second to no one in my love for corporate organization charts. Colors. Boxes. So many boxes. Russian nesting dolls of boxes. Solid lines. Dotted lines. Vanishing lines. I love them all. And my friend’s chart was truly a thing of beauty. It resembled, if anything could, the wiring diagram of a 1958 Hoover vacuum cleaner. Sure, there may have been some inner order to it that eluded the untrained eye, but the complexity and detail were so deliciously obtuse that I pretended to understand it. And, as a departmental structure, it nearly doubled the staff count that was currently in place. So, of course, I nodded my head and said that it looked like he really nailed it. What else could I do?

He would spend the next hour explaining it to me, but that ship came unmoored early on when I suggested a graphic such as this should really speak for itself, shouldn’t it? Our conversation never recovered but onward we sailed for a full 60 minutes, out to some distant island of meaning. Dear reader, we never arrived. I continued to nod knowingly, as one does in these situations, and grunted what I hoped were grunts of approval. I will cherish that chart forever.

I bring all this up because I’ve been wondering lately why companies, especially A/E/C ones, get marketing so wrong so often. It shouldn’t be difficult, but it almost always is, and that difficulty is usually a function of the complexity we apply to structure rather than any intrinsic complexity of the function. Hence, the wiring diagram. Yes, yes, my friend’s campaign was flawed from the beginning, asking what leadership wanted rather than what it needed…but that is another story for another time. 

Marketing Goes Pear-shaped. Again.

In most medium to large practices, the broad function of Marketing comprises three over-lapping pursuits:

Business Development, which is about sales and focused on identifying and harvesting opportunities and, ultimately, securing revenue;

Marketing, which tends to be tactical and responds to RFP’s, general enquiries and awards as well as handles company systems (CRM, project data base, etc.);

Communications, which tends to be strategic and focused on brand or the broader voice of the company, either in the market and/or media, internally and externally.

Of course every company defines and deploys these functions differently—which is perfectly righteous—and they almost always exist in a Venn diagram of overlapping roles and responsibilities. Also, nothing is cut and dry these days. We can layer on top of these the proclivities of culture and politics and the need for new or disruptive thinking, but these tend to be the warp and woof of it. And here are six reasons why the wheels come off.

1.  You’re Missing One of the Functions.

All three of these functions must be resident somewhere in the organization and, ideally, all should be firing with equal gusto. When it comes to securing new business, some practices rely on a closer/doer or account representative model; some rely on a traditional sales model; and some use hybrids or combinations. Sometimes these functions are centralized and sometimes they are decentralized. Sometimes there’s a CMO overseeing everything, and sometimes there are regional managers. Suffice to say the lines are blurry and there’s no single way of doing it…but it all must be done.

If one function is missing or under-performing, or, conversely, if one is all-dominant, then Marketing does not work. Examine your resources and ask whether these core functions are being addressed somewhere (anywhere) in the company, and whether they have the appropriate support and resources.

2. Your Marketing Structure Doesn’t Reflect Corporate Structure.

Marketing exists to support the strategic and financial goals of the organization. Simple. In thirty years of doing this I have yet to see a successful marketing structure that is not a direct reflection of its corporate structure. If the company is organized around regions, then so, too, should its marketing. Based on core lines of business, then that’s where the marketing is—in those business lines. Sure, there may be centralized corporate functions for various reasons (consistency, top-line messaging), but marketing should be driving revenue. Find where the P&L resides, where strategic decisions are made, and that is where you focus marketing; everything else will flow from there.

Of course the associative property applies here. If your corporate structure is dysfunctional, marketing will also be dysfunctional. Too often a sluggish marketing program is blamed for a sclerotic corporate structure. And this was at the core of my friend’s problem: his corporate structure defied logic and his marketing structure, as hard as he tried, could not save it.

3. You’re not Using Data

Because every breath we take, every click we make is recorded, today’s marketers have access to huge amounts of information; and this data are invaluable to sharpening focus and effectiveness. Even us paleo-marketers from the Dark Ages know that the use of data, analytics and algorithms to personalize marketing boosts hit rates and drives value. Beta testing new ideas and concepts, and then adjusting content to zero in on a target is just common sense. But how best to get to the data, analyze it and make it work for the purpose of righteousness is the big, big question.

If you are not monitoring analytics, relying on some type of CRM system (however rudimentary), or tapping into the services of some type of data specialist, you should re-assess your professional priorities. At the very least, form an alliance with IT to understand the systems that are available. Push your webmaster to harvest and review analytics on all your digital channels. Even basic EDM applications and social media platforms are a treasure trove of data to help you elevate your marketing game.

4.  Relevancy

It has always been fashionable to define marketing and brand in terms of “telling stories,” and that idea remains valid. The challenge for most architecture practices, however, is telling stories that are relevant and meaningful to the target audience. Many architects suffer from what I like to call “architects architecting for other architects,” meaning they speak in jargon about issues that only architects care about. Now, everyone cares about design, but clients mostly care about their solving problems or advancing their business, so that’s where your stories need to focus

Stop speaking about yourself and talk about your client—or better: your client’s clients—and show them that you speak their language, care about what they care about and know how to solve their problems.

5.  The Interconnectedness of Things

It’s time to stop thinking about your marketing department as, well, a department. Instead, think of it as an orchestra of talented, like-minded professionals playing different instruments tuned to the same key. Or, in current B-school speak, a flexible eco-system of talent focused on moving the company in the right direction. Very few things—or people—in today’s marketing universe (eco-system) can exist on their own. Content (i.e., stories) needs story tellers…and that could be a writer, a UI/UX designer, a social media manager, a proposal coordinator and a programmer. Or, more likely, all of these people working together, repurposing the content across multiple channels and platforms. They are all different—but aligned—skill sets that depend on one another to succeed.

Taking this idea to the next logical stage, tomorrow’s successful marketing teams will need a broader, more diverse talent base; and the A/E/C world will need to work hard to attract tech-savvy, data-literate story tellers. In a recent piece on marketing, even the good people at McKinsey noted that, “even though they are a rare species, technology experts are no longer ‘nice to haves’ but are, arguably, necessities to successful marketing functions when looking forward. In this war for talent, traditional HR processes often cannot keep up with the shifting needs of the business….” (McKinsey, Six Governing Considerations to Modernize Marketing, June 2019). So, yeah, let’s blame it on HR.

6. People

You can have the industry’s most banging org chart but if you don’t have the right people, you’re an untethered ship in a sea of trouble. Because of the complexities of today’s (eco)systems, and the growing specialization of the necessary talents, making it all hum is no small feat. Even the best writers need editors; even the best designers need art direction; even the best symphony needs a conductor. By and large, the marketing function in the A/E/C world grew up as an administrative function (essentially getting proposals out the door), and that mindset needs to change. Marketing is strategy and strategy is marketing. Go out and hire smart, talented people and feed them a full, nutritious meal of responsibility and challenges. Consider career trajectories that expand and evolve as skills expand and requirements evolve. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

As I write the above paragraph I realize it should probably be number one on my list, and that it applies to all aspects of your company. So, to state the obvious (a particular specialty of mine): hire the best people you can. Challenge them to do great things and give them the tools and training they need. Pick them up when they stumble but, generally, move out of the way.

So, what happened to my colleague with the chart? Well, he got promoted, of course, which suggests the fault lies not in our charts but in ourselves.

More to Explore

Death of the Architecture Firm: Part Two

This is the second of a two-part exploration of how today’s architecture practices must transform to survive. Part One (in the 1Q 2019 issue of DesignIntelligence Quarterly) touched on many of the external factors impacting the industry and the need for developing new organizational models.

Death of the Architecture Firm: Part One

Read the first part of Thom’s two-part exploration of how today’s architecture practices must transform to survive. Part Two, which will be available shortly, focuses on issues related to people and culture.

Everyday Tech: The Resistance and the Fanatics

Technology is moving at the speed of light, but are consumers starting to push back? Claire Propsting explores the latest research and what it means for brands trying to engage on digital channels.

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