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May 14, 2014

Tweets or coffee? How do architects get new clients and projects today?

By LYNN PORTER
Journal Staff Reporter

Local architecture firms are marketing themselves in a variety of ways, from social media to pro bono design to relationship building.

The DJC talked to executives from several firms and to Ted Sive, an architecture, engineering and construction industry consultant, to get an overview.

Here's what they said:

Social media?

Sive, owner of Ted Sive Consulting in Seattle, said the fundamentals of marketing haven't changed. Relationships and specific knowledge of the client and the project are always the best tools.

Sive

Social media can be effective in public relations and brand building, he said, but generally it won't win you a job.

When you hear about social marketing winning a job, he said, it is likely someone fostering a relationship with another person that eventually led to a job, Sive said.

“You can have one-to-one communication over Twitter,” he said. “You can have one-to-one communication on Instagram. They're talking to each other in a public venue.”

Social media's greatest value is brand building, he said.

“It's no different than an architecture firm getting mentioned by (a newspaper). (But) the technology is wickedly different,” he said. “The speed, the venue — all that's different — but fundamentally it's the same thing.”

Sive said since the recession, clients expect consultants to deliver more to get the job.

“Technology definitely ups the ante in the amount of expertise that firms need to have to be competitive, and that clients expect,” he said. “And as a result of that factor, and as a result of increased competitiveness, I think you see firms go further into design solutions in the proposal process.”

Excellent service is now a given, so a firm's approach to design and design solutions largely determines who gets the work. “In some ways it's a return to the past,” Sive said.

For example, Sive said he recently did a survey for an engineering firm to determine how clients perceived it. One client told him the firm lost a particular project because, although it provides excellent service, the competition did more research and was better prepared.

The recession pushed down consultant fees, and some of that hangover still exists, he said.

“It's not as bad as it was in the depths of the recession, but it's more competitive than it was before the recession,” he said.

Firms that want to break into public work should go after smaller public jobs, Sive said. “That doesn't mean it's easy to get a job at the UW, absolutely, but they work with a heck of a lot firms.”

Keeping clients

Lauren Hamilton is director of business development with GGLO, a Seattle-based architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and planning firm. Its projects include Alley 111, a 12-story apartment project in Bellevue; Via6, a two-tower apartment complex in Seattle; and the entry gateways for Washington State University's Pullman campus.

Hamilton

She said the information age has made clients more knowledgable about design and what they can get from architects, with information coming from websites, social media, Internet “buzz” and peers.

So traditional get-to-know-us brochures and holiday gifts are out, she said.

“Our marketing now is so much more about keeping our clients and doing the advance work,” Hamilton said. “More and more once an RFP has been released, its already baked. (Potential clients) already have an idea of who they want.”

GGLO sells itself in a variety of ways.

Sometimes it does pro bono design, such as landscape architecture for Bertschi School's Living Building Science Wing on Capitol Hill. GGLO can use that to tout its cutting edge knowledge and experience, Hamilton said.

GGLO also advocates for policies it supports. For example, the People's Waterfront Coalition met at its office. The firm worked with Futurewise and Transportation Choices Coalition on a book about transit oriented development and holds brown bag lunch talks for Great City in its offices.

Hamilton said all this helps advance GGLO's goals, as well as those of its clients and the community.

As for social media, the design firm has about 1,000 Twitter followers and posts on LinkedIn as a recruitment tool. Its also posts on Facebook, but that hasn't been as effective as Twitter in getting people to talk about GGLO projects.

The firm only talks about its work on its website and blog, but uses other social media to promote things it doesn't have a specific connection to, such as events and articles.

GGLO also promotes staff projects it feels are good for the community. For instance, during Bike to Work Month, GGLO bought four bikes from Velo, the Via6 bike shop. GGLO sponsored an in-house contest to design bike bags and promoted the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan on social media.

Architects must up their game, Hamilton said, because more developers and investors have degrees in construction management and are familiar with building information modeling and Lean construction.

GGLO designs affordable and market-rate multifamily housing, mostly rental. Hamilton said the affordable market has slowed.

The firm also does work for public agencies and designs housing for students and seniors, including projects in California and Utah, and designs hotels, a market that is picking up on the West Coast, she said.

GGLO hired a branding agency called Incite Partners. Hamilton said GGLO offers expertise, but it's gotten after-the-fact feedback that clients are not always aware of what it brings to the table. The agency is reviewing GGLO's operations, and talking to clients and others to find ways to improve.

“We have a lot of things we're good at, but we're all over the map in how we talk about those things, so we are not communicating that clearly,” Hamilton said.

Focus on quality

Sam Miller is a partner in the Seattle-based architecture firm LMN and president-elect of AIA Seattle.

He said LMN markets itself through the quality of its work.

Miller

“We believe the best story is a great project, and a happy client,” he said. “That will help us more than anything we can do. Marketing isn't sales and business development is telling a story about the work we do and the value we add. So really it all comes back to the work that we do.”

LMN does architecture, urban design and interior design. Most is public work, but at times the firm has a significant amount of private work too, Miller said.

Projects include convention centers, performing arts venues, higher education projects, transit, mixed-use and office.

Among its work is Stone34, a 129,000-square-foot building with four stories of office space above retail on Stone Way for Skanska USA; a high-rise hotel and conference center at Ninth and Stewart for R.C. Hedreen Co.; and a new building for Seattle Academy's middle school.

LMN meets with potential clients to learn about projects before they are announced, but sometimes it first hears about a project when it becomes public, Miller said.

Social media doesn't play a significant role in LMN's marketing.

“I would say our marketing is more relationship-based, personal one-on-one,” Miller said. “We have a website and other things that are tools in telling our story, but almost always it's oriented toward the success of the work we have completed.”

Competition for architectural jobs increased in the recession, he said, and some of that has remained.

During the depths of the downturn, an owner would issue an RFQ and get 25 responses, he said. Expectations were reset and that “hasn't completely gone away.”

In the downturn, LMN broadened the types and size of projects it pursued, Miller said, but architecture firms can be more selective now because they are busier.

LMN uses its LMN Tech Studio, which does research and develops cutting-edge architectural design tools, for its own projects and to market the firm. The tools include parametric modeling, visualization and environmental simulations.

“It brings significant capabilities (we did not) have before and that seem to be of interest to clients,” Miller said.

Word of mouth

Kate Cudney founded Seattle-based Hinge Studio in 2011. It is a two-person firm, but Cudney brings on contract workers when needed.

Cudney

Hinge does commercial renovations and tenant improvements, mostly for restaurants and retailers, along with house and condo renovations. It also works with nonprofits.

Projects include The Commons restaurant in Woodinville and Glass Vodka Distillery in Sodo, as well as designing a retail store, offices and classrooms for Bike Works in Columbia City.

“I get 100 percent of my jobs from word of mouth,” Cudney said.

Referrals come from contractors, construction managers, clients, friends, associates, neighborhood email groups and relationships Cudney built at her previous job at Owen Richards Architects.

Hinge Studio is on social media. Cudney, 43, said people her age have encouraged her to use it more to publicize the firm, but she's too busy for the constant updates required on Facebook and LinkedIn.

“My generation and younger think it's important to do those things,” she said. “I have not seen the actual benefit for my firm. What I spend my time on instead of updating my Facebook page is having coffee with people.”

Hinge Studio is renovating a conference center at Seattle Center Armory — a job it got because of connections Cudney made with Owen Richards on the Chilhuly Garden and Glass, and Seattle International Film Festival.

The small job did not require bidding, but chasing other public work would mean spending 20 to 40 hours putting together responses to RFPs, she said, and “I need that time to work.”

Cudney has consulted in Houston and San Francisco, jobs she got because of a business relationship she has with an art director who does “experience design” to promote corporations. Cudney comes up with conceptual designs for spaces that would help the companies extend their brands.


 


Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.


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