The Value of Good Communication
UK-based communications professional Celeste Bolte argues that architects need to become better storytellers, to engage the public, and assert their relevance through simple and meaningful communication.
Good communication plays a vital role in architecture, but many studios get it wrong by investing time and money into marketing activities without understanding what it is they need to communicate, and to whom they are communicating.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has driven many architecture practices to close their studio doors and set up their staff remotely. But in an economic downturn or recession, there’s a trend that seems to reappear again and again in architecture; marketing and communications suffer the first cuts, despite communications being a studio’s lifeline in difficult times.
Practices reduced their marketing teams to skeleton operations in 2008 when the Global Financial Crisis hit and these cuts produced opportunities for savvy practices who built their brand awareness in a quieter market. Clever practices understand that consistency is key and it’s essential to keep communicating, even in a crisis.
I’ve worked as a communications manager for a large practice, as a consultant, and with many small-to-medium sized studios in my work with BowerBird. The common problem all studios face? Understanding the value of good communications.
What is good communication?
Good communication shares the knowledge, processes and ethos of a practice with their intended audience. In architecture, ‘marketing and communications’ encompasses internal news, external press, social media, awards, events, photography, bids, branding and websites; it’s how you present your practice to the world. Most importantly, good communication isn’t limited to large studios with big budgets. Technology has democratised architectural media; practices have greater access to publishing, and a greater awareness of the value of marketing.
Historically speaking, architecture and communications have had a contentious relationship. Architects have typically been reluctant to pursue communications as it can be difficult to quantify a return on investment, or they simply don’t know where to start.
“The RIBA’s chartership clause banning architects from advertising their services – a clause that wasn’t removed from their chartership until the late 1980s – certainly didn’t help either,” explains Jestico + Whiles Director, James Dilley.
“This old, gentlemanly attitude and the RIBA restriction supported the outdated idea that architecture was a ‘capital P profession’ where the buildings sold themselves and no more was needed.”
Thankfully, architects now have a better grasp of the positive impacts of building a good brand, and the clear return on investment. As millennials move into leadership roles or start their own practices, these digital natives – those with an innate understanding of social media and the benefits of sharing work – are making marketing and communications a part of their practice process from the outset.
“Architecture has evolved, and as typologies have changed, so have the stories told around them,” says Diane Hutchinson, a freelance communications consultant with a professional history as a Director both in-house at architectural practices, and at media agencies in London over the past 25 years.
“There are more architectural photographers, more agencies, more freelance press consultants, and more design-focused publications because there are more architectural specialisms to share with people both in and outside of the profession.”
More accessible design news and stories
The public is increasingly hungry for design news and stories, because design has become more accessible.
Digital platforms like Instagram – not to mention ArchDaily, Dezeen, designboom, and Dwell.com – share very visual architectural stories with large audiences, many of whom aren’t necessarily design literate, but can appreciate the beauty of a space or building. These platforms open architecture up to the public, and amplify the voices of architects who want to share their work outside traditional trade publications.
Good marketing wins studios work, and communities benefit from stronger connections to their built environment through a greater understanding of how buildings impact their daily lives. As more people become interested in architecture, architects need to improve their marketing functions to connect to these new audiences, because the impact good communication has on the profession is felt both at a practice level, and a societal level.
“In the noughties, public-facing programs like the London Festival of Architecture and Open House did a huge amount to build the public’s interest in architecture and practice,” says Caz Facey, Director at ING Media.
The Open House Worldwide Network events draw hundreds of thousands of visitors into buildings across the world each year. Architects can use events and festivals to share the value of design with more people, but it’s crucial to understand your audience and keep the messages simple.
“Everyone can name a painter, musician, or fashion designer. So, why can’t most people name a famous architect?”, says Facey. “One of the big issues is that the language of architecture doesn’t transfer to the mainstream very well.”
Archispeak a barrier
Archispeak is the language barrier between architects and their wider audiences.
Words like ‘joy’, ‘experience’ and ‘delight’ are increasingly being applied to the architect’s vocabulary as architectural conversations evolve, but ‘archispeak’ still alienates architects from connecting with audiences that aren’t technically trained. Archispeak, for the uninitiated, is the use of overly technical language, and ‘big words’. It usually starts with wanting to sound as smart as possible, but ends in you communicating nothing at all.
“Archispeak hinders architects from effectively communicating what they’re doing. It’s instilled in us during our design education, but needs to be abandoned when students enter the workforce,” says Alex Gordon, Director at Jestico + Whiles in London.
The inability of architects to communicate clearly and in simple terms has seen larger studios employ staff, agencies, or consultants to finesse their media, copywriting, graphics, bids and press since the 1980s. However, firms have generally been slow to truly understand the value their marketing staff bring to the practice.
Under-resourced and under-valued
And so, communications professionals working in architecture are undervalued and under-resourced.
As Mary Breuer wrote for ArchDaily in her article Why Architecture’s Marketers Fail (And How to Fix It): “In the eyes of the technical professionals, marketing people are chronic underperformers. They don’t bring in enough work, can’t seem to get the firm on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.” Breuer contends that architecture marketing staff feel “unsupported and undervalued”, being asked to complete tasks that aren’t directly related to their expertise.
Marketing professionals in other sectors invariably make more money, are given more resources, and are more trusted to perform their specialist roles. This often results in a ‘brain drain’ of marketing and communications talent away from architecture. Those who stay do so because they are passionate about the built environment; however, their loyalty so often goes unrewarded.
Marketing is a highly-skilled and multifaceted profession in itself. We see the disconnect between architecture and press widen when architects don’t value communications and those who manage these vital functions. All too often, there’s little representation at leadership level, and communications professionals don’t have the resources or trust to do their jobs well.
“Marketing should really be split up into multiple roles like digital officer, social media coordinator, writer or editor, photographer, bid manager, graphics manager, administrator or office coordinator. The concept of the all-rounder is gone and practices need to acknowledge that,” says Hutchinson.
All over the world, architectural communications staff from competing firms have set up professional network groups that meet monthly to discuss their work and share knowledge on best practice. They also meet to collectively bang their heads against the wall, and support each other through the common pain points of working in marketing and communications at a large practice. I have been to these meetings. I have banged my head.
Thankfully, practices are becoming more interested in communications.
Bridging the gap
Like many others, London-based practice Acme is using CPD sessions to bridge the gap between marketing and design staff.
“Media is increasingly valued by practices who show their wider teams the fun that comes from communicating well,” says Acme’s Head of Communications, Eleonora Ussagi Princi. “Architects are collaborative by nature, and this allows them to enjoy helping source practice news or site photos when they know how it works and to what end.”
Practices that value communications from the outset, that hire smart and strategic staff and trust them to do their jobs, go on to do well; Foster + Partners is a testament to that. Katy Harris, Head of Communications, has been a core member of the practice since she joined in 1981. Katy was promoted to Partner in 2004 and Senior Partner in 2017.
“The work of the communications team has always been valued by the practice,” Katy remarks.
“We have a large coordinated communications team working on press, graphics, bids, marketing, photography, awards, and so on, supporting our teams as well as practice promotion. Everyone has ownership of their role, so there’s no confusion and no missed opportunities and this allows us to work collaboratively as a team.’
Of course, most studios don’t have resources on par with a renowned multinational practice but we can learn much from their approach, most importantly that marketing and communications should be viewed as integral to a practice, not an expendable function that sits on the periphery.
Defining your marketing mix
So, how can studios make the most of limited budgets, time, and resources?
Assess your communications efforts and define your own marketing mix. The marketing mix is made up of the activities you can do to promote your practice in different areas: publishing, social media, awards and events are common activities studios focus on, and don’t always come with great costs.
For smaller studios, there are plenty of outlets to share your stories. Before the digital era, architecture used to communicate in three stages – project concept, breaking ground, and completion – and it relied on the trade press to print a story. Now, we can share everything in between – the process of architecture – on our own channels, and we have access to more publications and journalists than ever before.
Press is an excellent foundation for any practice looking to improve their communications. Publishing your work helps you reach new audiences, and articles act as validation when prospective clients are researching your work.
Practices in the UK and abroad are increasingly turning to tools like BowerBird. BowerBird is an online media platform that allows architects to upload projects and submit their work directly to journalists. The platform optimises the press process for all scales of practice. Where budgets permit, freelance communications consultants or agencies are also a worthy investment in developing communications strategies and providing business development services.
Good communication depends on attitude, not scale
Marketing and Communications are essential functions of professional practice that architects should capitalise on to improve their own studios, and connect meaningfully with the public (your potential clients). Practices need to value communications and share their architecture with an increasingly interested public. Larger firms with in-house marketing staff need to better understand the practice needs, align these with the skillsets they have on hand, and equip their staff with the trust and resources to do their jobs properly. Smaller studios have unprecedented access to communications platforms and channels, proving that good communications is no longer restricted to firms with big budgets.
As we head into a new world where social, economic and workplace norms are being completely re-imagined, architects have a small window of opportunity to become better storytellers, to engage the public, and assert their relevance through simple and meaningful communication. Architects will only have a place in this new world if they invest time and money into communications; to make themselves heard, and connect on a human level.