Budgeting for architects’ declining role

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote fifteen years ago.
I'm working on my marketing budget. The importance of architects to building product sales appears to have decreased during recent years. If my perception is valid, can I afford to reduce my allotment for architectural marketing? - R.K., president

Many building product marketers share your observation about the declining importance of architects. This perception, along with business downsizing pressures, has made it relatively easy for building product firms to justify cutting architectural marketing budgets. But the level of marketing you direct toward architects should be based more on your specific situation and opportunities than on the overall market.

Much of the perceived decline in the architect's impact on sales stems from reality's stark contrast with the stereotype of the architect as a hero who wrests form from chaos and by whose word the fate of a building product is cast. While this image may have a basis in the historical role of architect as master builder - think of Frank Lloyd Wright - it has little to do with how we build now.
Many building product reps and sales and marketing managers often overestimate the importance of their clients. Sales reps can become disillusioned when they realize that the greatest heroism of a typical architect is perseverance in the face of rejection, economic cycles, and other business challenges. When a sales rep realizes an architect's actual role in building product specifying, he may attribute it to a changing marketing environment, rather than admit his own perception has sharpened.

Besides this perception issue, several trends are reducing the significance of architects to building product sales.

Architects have never had a monopoly on building design, and the limited estate they can claim is shrinking. Many buildings--including single family homes, agricultural buildings, industrial processing facilities, and remodeling - do not require an architect's seal in most states. In recent decades, the growing use of pre-engineered industrial buildings has decreased the need for architectural services, and other design  professionals have steadily made inroads onto the architect's turf. Interior designers and professional engineers, for example, have expanded their jurisdiction.

As construction becomes complex, architects must increasingly rely on teams of consultants to design the structural, mechanical, electrical, and special systems that go into contemporary buildings. As a result, for more than half of the construction budget, the architect's control has become coordination and not specification. Further exacerbating this trend, many large construction projects now use construction managers to make crucial product decisions, leaving architects with responsibility for only aesthetic and functional design, not product selection.

Building owners have also changed. Many corporations, especially those with large building programs, have in-house facility management departments that take an active role in specifying products to be used in their buildings.

Liability issues have reduced architects' roles, too. The typical contract between an architect and his client used to give the architect authority to stop work on a construction site if it was not proceeding to the architect's satisfaction. A series of court rulings determined that if architects had authority to stop the work, they also had responsibility to do so if the work created a hazard or was faulty.

Rather than accept liability for construction errors, the American Institute of Architects led the profession into retreat. More recent editions of the AIA's standard form for owner-architect contracts now require the architect to provide only observations of the work's progress. While interpretation of this remains an evolving area of law, it has amounted to an abdication of professional responsibility that extends to how architects write and enforce specifications, including their readiness to accept substitutions.

Demographic data also reveal why marketing to architects may be having less impact. According to "Are There Too Many Architects?" by R. Gregory Turner in the October 1995 issue of Architectural Record, current demand for services on a per-architect basis is about half what it was 20 years ago. There are about 150,000 architects in the country, nearly three times as many in the mid 1970s. But construction activity during this same period has been fairly stagnant. Translated into building product marketing terms, today you have to make three times as many contracts to reach the same proportion of architectural prospects, yet each architect only specifies half as much work.

Marketing response
Confronted by these trends, many building product firms have simply walked away from proactive architectural marketing, focused instead on contractors, dealers, owners, and even end users. Still, for many products, strong arguments can be made in favor of staying engaged in the architectural arena.

But because their role is declining, you must improve the cost effectiveness of your marketing to architects. You can do this by increasing your sales per contact, which can be accomplished by selling products through your architectural sales force, and by improving the impact of your advertising and public relations.

Another approach is to decrease your cost per contact. Common ways of doing this include using telemarketing instead of personal sales calls and selecting more narrowly targeted advertising media. Computerized media, for example, may eventually offer lower costs per marketing contact.

Before abandoning the architectural market, review your approach to it. Can you sharpen the definition of your architectural niche? Are you offering the right product mix? Are you staying in touch with architects who have used your product before to make sure they specify it again?

As architects rely more on a design team approach, you may need to shift your focus from just architectural firms to architects and specifiers, wherever they may be -- in consulting firms, in-house corporate construction departments, or design-build firms. Furthermore, you may be able to restructure your sales approach to become a product consultant, thereby becoming part of the design team yourself.

Finally, remember that every trend creates its own counter-trend. With fewer manufacturers supporting architects as rigorously as they once did, those building product makers that are left have the pond to themselves. When large and powerful PPG Industries decided in the early 1980s to stop promoting curtainwalls and storefronts through architects, it created a void eagerly filled by EFCO Corp., an aggressive competitor that saw that marketing to architects could be a profitable way to build market share.

Have a question you'd like us to answer?
Send an email to michaelchusid@chusid.com 

By Michael Chusid Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, © 1996