Some smaller architecture studios that I’ve dealt with feel that they are at a deep disadvantage when it comes to bringing in new clients or recruiting talented candidates. Bigger firms, they argue, just have more name recognition, better resources, and better benefits to offer their employees. While that may be technically true, problems with marketing and recruiting often go hand-in-hand, and they often have little to do with things like access to resources.

The real issue over here is one of messaging. If you have difficulty explaining why your firm is best suited for a particular project, other than “we’re great, hire us,” then chances are you’ll have an equally difficult time explaining to potential candidates why they should come and work for you, other than “we’re great, work for us.” Many bigger architecture firms in particular still don’t seem to understand that they cannot rely on their reputations alone to communicate critical messages about their areas of expertise, the quality of their work, their culture and ethics. Previous projects won’t always speak for themselves and word of mouth will only get a firm so far.

This prevalent attitude creates a big opening for smaller studios to make some serious in-roads in the market, since good marketing isn’t just about press releases, paid advertisements, or slick copy writing. The way a firm promotes itself is closely tied to a whole bunch of intangibles, such as its culture, mission, and values. The benefit to being a smaller operation is that the architects who run these studios as well as their employees are generally more invested and connected to the business and more naturally express the culture and values guiding their work.

Smaller architecture firms also typically have small budgets to match. While this can be a challenge, in certain respects it’s a blessing because it puts more pressure on principals and their employees to get their name out to potential clients as well as talented candidates in a clear, compelling, and focused way.

Where Smaller Studios Have a Leg Up in Marketing

That said, there are several strategies that successful smaller architecture firms typically do better to make themselves stand out from the pack of their bigger competitors. Here are five of the most influential ones:

  1. They know who they are. The architects and supporting staff at smaller firms tend to be more in touch with the things that make their operation different, such as what they distinctively have to offer clients and employees, what they stand for, and what they hope to accomplish with their work. In other words, they know what they are good at.
  2. They are good at telling their story. Smaller firms tend to have more personal stories behind them, and that tale about who they are and where they come from affects how they do business. This becomes an important part of their brand that gives the studio a distinct culture and vibe.
  3. They form strategic alliances. One of the biggest trends affecting the architecture industry today is that a growing number of clients prefer one-stop-shopping rather than having to work with several contractors to get a project done. This saves the client time, money, and energy. The most successful small architecture firms are deliberately partnering up with other, compatible companies in order to offer their clients a boutique of complementary services.
  4. They get involved in community outreach. Community outreach can take on many different forms. Exhibitions, lectures, articles and research for design publications, pro-bono work, and even participating in strategic competitions, can all help to get a firm’s name out there.
  5. They dare to specialise. Being a generalist isn’t a real marketing strategy- especially for a smaller firm. Instead, it’s a subconscious a fear of making a commitment. Doing everything for everyone may seem like a good marketing strategy, but by not targeting a particular market segment not only is messaging unclear, it confuses potential clients and leaves them wondering what the firm is truly an expert at.

Successful small firms actively target the clients that make the most sense for them and turn away the ones who don’t. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they never, ever accept work outside of their targeted market segments, they just don’t put precious resources into pursuing these kinds of projects in the first place.

Bottom line, the architecture industry today is broad and deep enough to accommodate architecture studios of all sizes and flavors. How successful a firm is often has little to do with how many employees or offices it supports. Instead of just trying to beat their bigger competitors at their own game, smaller firms should be busy re-writing the rules to their advantage.