The quirky Seinfeld character, George Costanza, once catapulted his career and his life when he committed himself to “do the opposite” of all his typical instincts and inclinations. Warren Buffett has essentially built his financial empire on the simple belief that he should be operating counter to conventional wisdom — in fact, when he spoke at the Middle Market Summit last Fall at Ohio State, he mentioned that he was interested in investing in newspapers — talk about doing the opposite!
But, how can we apply this thinking to an A/E firm? Well, over the last few weeks, I’ve had two really interesting conversations with business leaders that, unexpectedly, provided really useful insights into how I think A/E firms should be looking at their marketing models.
#1 – A/E Firms Are Afraid of Focus
The first conversation was with Chris Parsons, Founder of Knowledge Architecture. If you’re not familiar with KA, you should be. Chris and his team have built a really compelling social intranet, Synthesis, that is a great tool for A/E firms that are committed to knowledge management and knowledge sharing within their practice.
Anyway, I was asking Chris about his career path and he described to me an experience he had as CIO at an architecture firm 8-10 years ago. The firm, a mid-sized practice, was engaged in a strategic planning process that involved 8-10 firm leaders. Chris was pushing for the firm to get more focused in its marketing efforts — to pick no more than 4 markets in which to operate. He felt, rightly so, that this would enable the firm to build deeper expertise, develop more relevant client insights, and create more impactful thought leadership. Unfortunately, his advice was not adopted. In the end, the firm selected 9 markets in which to focus and the 9th was literally labeled, “Other.”
This anecdotal comment was so powerful to me because it aligned with all of my past research on the topic. In fact, when I was collecting the data for our 85 firm web study, I personally looked at the websites of 50 middle market A/E firms (those with revenue ranging from $100M – $250M). One of things I noticed in that work was that very few firms had established a narrow focus on the markets they serve. 8-10 markets is the norm. Less than 4 is the rare exception.
#2 – Generating Growth by Doing the Opposite
Later that same week, I spoke with Mike Harris, Founder and CEO of Patina Solutions, a staffing firm he started in 2008 that already has 8 offices and over $10M in revenue. Mike, a serial entrepreneur who has built similar businesses and sold them for significant gains, believes he can grow the business to $100M in the next 5 years.
We talked at reasonable length about what has facilitated the firm’s growth. Speaking quite plainly, he offered a very simple answer — hiring experienced, “A” caliber sales talent and letting them build relationships within their local market. The firm produces little to no thought leadership and hasn’t really bought into the hype around content marketing. It’s relied heavily on relationship marketing and has had tremendous success with this effort given the level of talent it’s able to acquire. When I asked him his thoughts on thought leadership marketing, Mike replied, that he tends to believe in “doing the opposite.” If that’s what everyone’s doing (and, again, I can say honestly that for consulting and staffing firms it is) then he sees merit in just cutting against the grain and going a different path. And, for now, it’s working quite well for his firm.
Applying the “Opposite” to A/E Firm Marketing Strategy
As I reflected on these two conversations, they really distilled in my mind how I think any A/E firm that wants to grow should be thinking about its marketing strategy. Ultimately, I think this means doing two things:
- Getting Focused — In general, I think most firm leaders are just scared of focus. They feel like serving fewer markets is going to constrain opportunity. They see their skills as transferable. But, clients don’t tend to agree. They want to hire specialists that have unique insight into solving their specific design challenges.
- Using Content — In my review of 50 firms I found that very few firms are good at developing and sustaining thought leadership initiatives. The majority of firms offer little to no content that is meaningfully aligned against clients’ pressing business issues. And, those that do aren’t doing it anywhere near as well as they should be.
So, if you’re looking to grow an A/E firm, I think there may be a very simple recipe — get serious about narrowing your focus, then get committed to building meaningful knowledge that can be expressed as thought leadership to your ideal clients. I promise you, if you do these two things, you will be one of a very small set of firms that are doing something meaningfully and valuably different.