Michelle Galindez

The impact of the recession on marketing departments within the A/E/C industry has been profound. A bad economy is the time when marketing your firm is more important than ever—yet, as an overhead department, it’s one of the first in a firm to face budget cuts and staff layoffs. This is the worst thing a firm can do in a bad economy, and the successful firms avoid it.

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Beyond budgets, firms have adopted a broad range of strategies for how to market through a recession. Some departments have made wrong turns, while others are deftly navigating through these troubled waters.

During a downturn, we see firms pursuing every project, regardless of whether or not they have the experience (a dormitory is like a hotel, right?). This is a waste of a firm’s valuable time and resources. Successful firms form strategic new alliances and team up with other firms to pursue projects outside of their area of expertise to build their portfolios. There’s nothing wrong with diversifying in a downturn. Firms should make the strategic decision for long-term investment and dedicate resources to attend events, trade shows and conferences to build necessary relationships.

Recessions tend to bring out the “anyone can do marketing” mentality. I’ve seen firms let go of some of their most seasoned marketing veterans—who are also well-respected leaders in the industry—because the principals think they can do it themselves with the help of less experienced (and lower salaried) administrative staff. Not only do veteran marketers have direct relationships with clients, but we know the pulse of the industry. We’re out there every day at events, speaking with our peers and competitors about what’s going on.

Firms abort their go/no-go process, whether it’s out of a lack of organization or a result of fear setting in. Firms with principals who held strong to their go/no-go process, and made marketing an integral part of it, found the highest win percentage. This is no coincidence—marketers know the firm’s experience (and the client) better than anyone else, and we know how to craft a convincing argument to the client. Marketing also knows its workload, and in a time when resources are stretched thin, efforts need to be focused on pursuing opportunities with the greatest chance for success.

One of the most exciting trends I’ve seen take hold during the recession is the use of social media to create a competitive edge. Now that we know it’s not going away, successful firms embrace a fully integrated social media plan. Through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Architizer, we can research leads, promote our firms and form strategic relationships like never before. To those who say that they’ll never win any work this way, I argue that social media gets you a seat at the table. You can’t win a project if you’re not part of the discussion.

In a time when many firms are cutting their rates to ridiculous levels to win new work, it’s been refreshing to see some take the route of differentiating themselves from the competition. Cutting rates is never a positive situation for an industry that relies solely on design expertise as its bread and butter. If we don’t value what we do, then why should the clients? The success stories come from those who sought out opportunities to set themselves apart from their competition so they didn’t have to cut their rates in order to win the project.

We’ve also seen the emergence of the role of the chief marketing officer. More and more firms have announced the appointment of a CMO in the last couple of years. In my opinion, these are the firms that view marketing as an integral part of their mentality. CMOs have a strategic plan in place and do extensive research to position their firms before a recession hits. They are leaders in their firms and utilize all resources, from relationships with clients to internal databases, to win new work and make their firms successful.

As we begin to come out of this recession, it’s become more obvious to me that things will never go back to the way they used to be; this recession has forever changed the way we market. As old projects come back to life and new RFPs come through the door, it’s an exciting time in marketing to embrace this new reality and begin to take the first steps toward a positive economy.