At Middle of Six, we're not typically in the business of making predictions. That said, through our work across the AEC industry, with everyone from large international builders to burgeoning micro firms, we are in a unique position to share trends we’re seeing that might impact the strategic marketing efforts of AEC firms.
For data-driven year-end insights, check out Rider Levett Bucknall’s Insights, the Architectural Billings Index, and Engineering News-Record indices
Our “data” is informed by conversations, inquiries, and solutions we’ve developed for clients to alleviate resource challenges and help them “level up” in an increasingly competitive market. Read on for a rundown of what we’ve seen in 2021 and inklings we have for 2022:
Continued Demand for In-house Marketing Talent
Structurally, this recession is quite different from the Great Recession of 2009. With today’s rapid inflation, construction costs are rising, and labor shortages are an omnipresent reality.
As AEC firms have—to varying degrees—sorted out their hybrid work models and have more clarity about their backlogs, we are witnessing a 20-30% shortage of AEC marketers in the workforce. When one marketing professional is promoted or moves to another firm, it leaves a hole that is becoming increasingly difficult to fill. Given the increased demand and shortage of experienced candidates, marketing salaries have increased.
Interested in finding out AEC marketing position salaries in your region? Check out SMPS’s annual salary survey
We’d like to believe the “doing more with less” myth has finally been dispelled (compounded by an already overburdened in-house resource), and that more value is being uncovered in the efforts of marketing and business development. We do know one thing is certain—this is uncharted territory for everyone, both within the AEC industry and far beyond it.
We applaud firms for continuing to invest in marketing and encourage companies to actively recruit outside of the AEC industry and at the college level to infuse our work with a fresh perspective and diverse marketing, communications, and design talent. Because let’s face it, almost no one goes to college with aspirations to become an AEC marketer—but maybe more should start.
(Begrudged) Reliance on Virtual Interviews
We’re titling this “begrudged” because we’ve heard from both the selection panels (owners) and interviewees (project teams) that the virtual format (Zoom/Teams) is more challenging and less desirable than an in-person format.
The main objective of an interview is to test the chemistry between the owner and the project team. Forging a genuine connection with a project team over a Zoom call presents its share of challenges. Stakes are high as the owner is tasked with selecting an aligned partner for the next six months or six years. Private developers have a bit more flexibility when it comes to the interview format, but public agencies have stricter rules to adhere to and, for equity and safety reasons, will continue to rely on the virtual format.
Firms are starting to realize there is a greater level of awareness to present as an extremely cohesive team on a virtual interview. Rehearsing is essential, as is a greater emphasis on storytelling, painting a picture more vividly and with more nuance. With the digital format, teams must bring more energy, smile more, and practice active listening throughout.
On the bright side, we are seeing teams think creatively about how to forge genuine connections during virtual interviews. And most have realized they are at a significant disadvantage if not well prepositioned going into the interview stage. Hence the next trend…
Doubling Down on Business Development Training
As much as we like to bask in the glow of a winning proposal or an award from a beautifully crafted qualifications package, marketers know that it is the long and less glamourous prepositioning effort that propels the team to a win. Throughout 2021, we worked with AEC firms to refocus their energy on business development (BD). From detailed strategic plans and new market diversification to revamping business development meeting agendas and investing in company-wide BD training, AEC firms are experiencing the tremendous impact that established relationships have on their win rate and backlog.
“In the last two years, people have come to terms with the fact that their counterparts on the other side of the table are human. I think this deepens our understanding of the true underpinnings of business development—that success occurs when you make true, meaningful connections with your clients.” Allison Tivnon, MOS Pursuit Strategist
A well-run business development strategy is not built overnight. It is embedded in company culture and can weaken without constant stewardship. The good news is that no matter the status of your firm’s business development plan, there are always simple, actionable items to help preposition your team for the win. With several uninterrupted hours of planning time, an Excel spreadsheet, and some focused research, you have the start of a business development strategy. Multiply that by the number of principals or project executives in your firm and you’re well on your way.
Your people are your most invaluable asset. Everyone in your firm can—and should be encouraged to—participate in your business development initiatives and outcomes.
Embracing Immersive, Interactive Proposals
Many firm leaders have wondered why AEC proposals are such bespoke creations. Most customer relationship management (CRM) platforms dangle the carrot of automating resumes and project cut sheets to increase marketing efficiency. AEC marketing has lagged as other industries leveraged technology and data with great success. The root stems from the simple premise that AEC business is developed through one-on-one and small team relationships. Who will “have my back” when the project gets challenging (which they almost always will)? It is a basic business-to-business marketing strategy that cannot be solved with an automated consumer marketing approach. But there is some hope that we won’t remain digital marketing Luddites forever.
Enter the immersive, interactive proposal. A bridge between our work-from-home, virtual pre-submittal meeting, online collaborative session and the real humans who are designing and building something in the physical world. Interactive PDFs with embedded videos, virtual reality simulations, and hyperlinks are nothing new. What is changing is the acceptance of these components in the highly formal and technically scored pursuit process. Fading away are the fears that “people won’t know to click on the link” or “we’ll be disqualified for going outside the 8.5" x 11" framework”.
Over the next few years, expect to see more proposals submitted as micro websites with video introductions by each proposed team member and interactive project approach scenarios. Apps like Sway and ESRI StoryMaps can be used to create memorable interview leave-behinds and eventually, a winning proposal. If you’re not already studying the SMPS Marketing Communication Awards to see the best of the best, put this on your annual to-do list.
During what many are calling “The Great Resignation,” people across industries are leaving their jobs in search of opportunities that better align with interests and preferences, among them better benefits, more flexibility, improved work-life balance, more meaningful connections to the work they do, and higher salaries.
Remote work is here to stay in some form. Many companies have and will continue to off-load underutilized commercial spaces, reducing their footprint, operating costs, and providing opportunities for industry professionals to reimagine the highest and best use of these assets. We look forward to seeing creative and multidisciplinary solutions to repurpose existing commercial office space into housing, public services, and other essential functions.