Marketing has always had a dubious relationship with architecture, engineering, construction (AEC) and environmental firms. Marketing is greatly misunderstood, and far too often firms relegate their professional marketers to the role of “proposal jockey” – that is, one who spends their time in reactive mode, responding to RFPs and pulling together “quals packages.”

Marketing, this is not.

I’ve experienced this firsthand over my almost three decades in the industry, and heard countless stories reinforcing the fact that marketing is widely underappreciated and misaligned at design, construction, and related firms. Sometimes the stories are downright silly, like the construction firm CEO who regularly asked his VP of Business Development to “Pull together a big book – make sure it’s thick” in order to baffle the prospects with BS. Other times it is downright sad, like the design firm executive that would only allow his marketing team to post on company social media on their personal time.

Marketing is defined many different ways, but perhaps the best definition comes from the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), which defines marketing as:

“The process of creating firm awareness; building and differentiating the brand; driving business development activities; and identifying, anticipating, and satisfying client objectives to achieve profitable business goals.”

(In full transparency, I served on the board of directors of SMPS when this definition was adopted, so I’m a bit biased!)

Note that in no way can you equate this definition to that of proposal jockey or paper pusher. 

Marketing is proactive. Marketing lets your prospective clients know that you exist and reminds your current clients that you can solve their problems. Marketing defines who your firm is, and why you are different than every other firm. Marketing drives business development and selling – more than it ever has in the past. Marketing understands your prospects and clients, shines a light on their unique challenges, and figures out how to help them. And finally, marketing is all about revenue and profit. If you are chasing the wrong clients or operating in the wrong industries, your profits will suffer.

You’re probably familiar with retail magnate and marketing pioneer John Wanamaker’s famous quote, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Although he said this more than a century ago, the issue he was addressing then is something that continues to haunt AEC marketers today. How do you determine ROI on branding and awareness-generating initiatives? If executives can’t see a direct correlation on the bottom line, they far too often just skip these marketing activities as being a waste of time and money. (Here’s some ideas for tracking ROI from Ida Cheinman of Substance151.) 

And that’s a damn shame, because they are inadvertently handcuffing their business development activities. How often have you heard business developers or seller-doers lament that “The prospect has never heard of us” or “We’re just not well-known in this market”? 

This is Marketing’s Moment

But now we’re experiencing economy in a freefall. Remote work became the norm with the arrival of a global pandemic, and even as firms re-open physical locations, the rules have changed. In-person meetings are few and far between. Trade shows and conferences are viewed as potential super-spreading events, and subject to limited numbers of attendees. The “drop in without an appointment” visit is a thing of the past as companies and organizations have strict controls on who can – and cannot – enter their premises. The plethora of professional society meetings and client organization programs that were the bread and butter of business development have gone virtual or been indefinitely suspended.

The traditional tools of business development are simply not available to us right now. Time will tell when they return – and to what extent. We all need to be aware of new behaviors that may become permanent changes.

So what is an AEC firm to do? How can you develop business and create relationships when you can’t be there in-person?

Enter marketing.

If we can refrain from viewing marketing as a reactive activity that is subservient to business development (pulling together a brochure for an appointment or responding to an RFP/RFQ request), we can see a world of opportunity in front of us.

In some of my recent webinars, I’ve referred to this remote working / social distancing period as The Great Pause. RFP activity has declined significantly, but this is no reason to jettison the marketing staff at our firms. In fact, the opposite is true: we need to embrace their talents, and elevate our marketing activities.

If you take the traditional business development tools off the table for the short term, how can we get and remain in front of our prospects and former clients?

To answer that question, just look at what you are doing right now. You are probably working from home – perhaps fulltime, or at least part-time. If you are at “the office,” you’re probably hunkered down and getting work done. Not meeting with vendors or suppliers, not going on the “business lunch,” and not attending group settings like society programs or business networking events. It is probably difficult to reach you on your work phone because you’re often not there, or you have a lot to get done in a short period so you’re not taking outside calls.

But what you are doing is monitoring your email. You may be more active on social media. (For instance, I’ve noticed more engagement with my new video blog over the past few months, and my website traffic has increased.)

Speaking of websites, you may be taking more time to search out content on the web. Not just any content, mind you, but content that specifically relates to your current challenges. You are looking for ideas and even solutions, aren’t you?

Guess what? So are your clients.

This creates perhaps the single greatest opportunity in the history of your firm – or at least since your company was founded – to embrace and enhance marketing. Don’t let it pass you by or your firm might go bye-bye. 

Tough times call for creative solutions. Marketing.

Let this be your call to action. Turn your marketing program from reactive to proactive. Become a Marketing Machine to position your company for a vibrant future. Take advantage of The Great Pause to do what you should have been doing all along. Here’s your to-do list:


What is your corporate brand? Your reputation in the markets you serve? The promise of what it would be like to work with you? A brand is the perception of your firm, and branding is a proactive attempt to build and control that perception. But in order to do that, you need to understand who you are, and whether this brand is attractive and relevant in the markets you serve. 

Furthermore, does your identity line up with the brand? Think “look and feel,” like logo, fonts, colors. I recently saw an AEC firm website that promoted the firm being modern and progressive. But their logo and font looked like something right out of the eighteenth century! An identify akin to a dude in a tricorn hat typing on a tablet creates confusion! Make sure your identity aligns with your brand, and audit all of your marketing materials to ensure they conform to your brand standards. 

Value Proposition

This is an extension of your brand. Why are you different than the firm down the street? What do you offer that they don’t? This is not about your service offerings, it is about those tangibles and intangibles that make your firm unique in the marketplace. 

Note that this isn’t a once-and-done exercise; every marketing initiative, every project pursuit, should have specific value messages tailored to your audience. One size only fits one size! Think through your value messages for each of your markets. Talk with your clients – what do they perceive your value to be? Capture these messages and share within your organization so everyone is speaking the same language to the appropriate audience.

CRM System and Process

Every firm needs to have a vibrant Customer Relationship Management program, and CRM is best enhanced through technology. Tools like Deltek Vision or Vantagepoint, Cosential, Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, Insightly, and Hubspot, among others, can greatly help. But Excel spreadsheets can be effective, as well. 

Yet your databases are out of date, you’re not capturing the right information (or any data), and you have no processes. Now is the time to get real about CRM. What is the most important data to track? And why – what is the purpose for having that information? How will you track it? Who is responsible for collecting and inputting the data? What are your standard workflows to capture this information? The CRM is a foundational tool for marketing campaigns, business development, client experience, and newer marketing approaches like Account-Based Marketing and Personalized Marketing. 


When did you last update your website? A website in 2020 needs to be a lead-generating tool. It needs to enhance your brand, not detract from it. It must have high SEO optimization around the most important keywords. It should be about your clients and prospects, not a testament to how great you are. If you merely have a list of services and a bunch of generic project descriptions with no stories of value, you’re missing the boat. 

Furthermore, your website needs to be the hub for all your online activities – blogs, videos, social media, etc. In this era, up to two-thirds of the buying process is completed before you ever hear from a prospect or even an existing client. You are being checked out, and it often begins with your website. (This holds true for potential employees as well.) Are you offering value, ideas, and education on your website – or simply bragging and patting yourself on the back?

Social Media 

With regard to social media, are you effectively using LinkedIn and YouTube? Do your staff members understand the real value of being active on LinkedIn? Are you posting content and videos of interest to your social media channels? Are you showcasing company culture on Facebook? Does your firm have active Twitter and Instagram accounts? 

Today’s decision-makers are increasingly researching you and your firm on social media. A few years ago we used to say that Millennials were driving this, but all generations have incorporated this behavior, from digital natives to the most senior generations in the workforce. The lack of an active presence on these platforms says something about your company. And unless your brand centers around terms like “archaic” or “dinosaur,” perhaps it’s time to up your game. But remember – it’s not about you; it’s about your clients and prospects. Post content of value to them. They don’t give a damn that you think you’re awesome. 

Thought Leadership

Recent research from the Society for Marketing Professional Services has found that within the next two years, 85% of AEC firms will devote at least half of their marketing activities to education-based marketing. This is when you provide information of value to clients and prospective clients, as opposed to boring, self-laudatory promotion. Education-based marketing constitutes a massive change in AEC marketing, and requires firms to rethink their approaches and even the required staffing to deliver this content. For instance, some firms have already hired editors and videographers as part of their marketing team. Do you have these skills in-house? Do you have a plan for outsourcing? 

Thought leadership comes in many shapes and sizes – blogs, video blogs (vlogs), infographics, research, white papers, ebooks, case studies, podcasts, social media posts, etc. I often equate thought leadership to a “free sample” of what it would be like to work with your firm. Of course, thought leadership must address the needs of your target audience, and what is important to a university prospect may not be important to a manufacturing client. So align your content with your audiences. If you are not pushing out thought leadership, you are already behind. Time to catch up!

Client Experience 

Over the past few years, AEC firms have slowly begun to understand the value of focusing on the experience a client has with their organization. This is not customer service – it is so much more. 

Activities like journey mapping allow you to understand every single touchpoint a client has with your company, from the very first time they become aware of you, through the marketing and business development stages, negotiation and contract, project delivery, close-out, and beyond. What is driving their decision-making? What are the underlying issues they are really dealing with? How are they interacting with you? How can you increase your value to each and every touch? 

Client Experience promotes empathy. It is about having a thorough understanding of your clients and your client’s clients. What is happening in their industry? How can you anticipate their needs? What service offerings can you evolve to address these ever-changing needs? If you can’t answer these questions for your existing clients, you’re falling behind because your competition is already thinking about these things.

In this post I identified seven marketing-driving activities that your firm should be focusing on:

  • Brand
  • Value Proposition
  • CRM System and Processes
  • Website
  • Social Media
  • Thought Leadership
  • Client Experience

It is by no means an all-inclusive list, but it does lay out critical marketing elements that a firm must be addressing to remain competitive in today’s environment as well as in the near future. 

No one knows what the next 18-24 months will look like. We’re on a rollercoaster ride in a dimly-lit amusement park (or house of horrors?), and the scary thing is that we have no idea how long this ride will be. 

Our business development efforts are somewhat handcuffed because we are unable to use our traditional tactics. Buyer behaviors are changing, necessitating new approaches. 

But these unknowns and challenges reinforce the need to have robust marketing right now. Prioritize your marketing activities. Which will have the greatest impact in the short term? Start there.

Take advantage of The Great Pause to catch up your marketing program to where it should have been all along, and then go beyond. 

Understand that marketing needs to be cultural – your dedicated marketing team cannot do this alone. They need subject matter experts (like discipline leaders) and client-facing staff (like project executives and managers) to contribute. Rally your troops to secure your firm’s future.

This is marketing’s moment. Will you embrace it – or let a great opportunity pass you by? 

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