The Marketing Component of an Architecture Firm Transition Plan

Architecture firms undergoing a leadership transition are faced with a number of issues they need to work through, from governance to finance. One of the most important components of any firm’s transition plan, though, is often the most overlooked: marketing.

“No, no,” you’re thinking. “We’re getting new business cards. We’re all set.” While new business cards can be exciting, assuming that’s the sum total of what you need to do is sort of like declaring your 10-course dinner is ready because you bought a bag of croutons.

Leadership transitions impact your clients, colleagues, external partners, and internal team. In this post, we’ll walk you through the things you need to consider to make your firm transition successful.

Big-Picture Considerations

In marketing, these are things that tend to fall under “mission,” “brand,” and “voice.” These are also the things that tend to get glossed over because of the wrong assumption that everyone involved agrees about everything that isn’t being talked about. Decisions around compensation and ownership structure can easily overshadow questions about what the firm will be in the post-transition world.

The transition is an opportunity to redefine the types of work the firm focuses on and the firm’s core values. However, those choices have to be able to be articulated.

These are big-picture questions that an architecture firm undergoing a transition must be able to answer:

What’s changing? A quick answer to this might be, “Our name,” or “Richard is retiring.” The real answers are probably more nuanced and rooted in process and culture: the kind of work the firm plans to pursue, how it approaches that work, its recruitment efforts, where its offices are located, and even how those offices look and function.

  • Ex: “Richard’s retiring, which makes it the ideal time for us to step away from hospital projects and focus more on passive house work. We’ll be promoting some associates, so we’ll have to hire more designers, and within three years we’ll probably have outgrown our space so we need to start planning for that now. And since Richard was the last hold-out on using BIM, that’s going to be a central part of our process now.”
  • Ex: “Our name is changing, because we want to be recognized as serving a national market and not only a local one. We’re going to start taking on more national projects and competing for work that we previously self-selected out of because of our perceived regional focus.”
  • Ex: “Now that we’ve merged with __ Firm, we’re going back to enclosed offices for architects and no more hot desks. Some open space areas will be retained but most will be repurposed for two-person offices.”

What’s staying the same? Firms often issue statements like, “We’ll still deliver the same great work and client service you’ve come to expect,” etc. We recommend diving a little deeper to enumerate the things that will remain unchanged. These aren’t for circulation, but they will help the firm more clearly communicate the transition externally and internally. They will also make it so that when someone does ask a question, the same answer is given no matter who answers.

Here are some hypothetical examples:

  • “We will still focus on designing innovative education spaces.”
  • “We will still encourage associates and partners to pursue opportunities as panelists and judges.”
  • “Compensation will be unchanged.”
  • “We’re not changing the WFH policy now but we’re going to revisit it in six months.”

Why Transitions Make Clients and Employees Anxious

It’s not the change itself that causes people anxiety. It’s the uncertainty of how their lives will be impacted by the change and the perceived loss of control over future outcomes.

Clients may ask themselves:

  • Is the firm in financial trouble?
  • Is there something else that they’re not telling me?
  • Is my project going to be delayed or canceled?
  • Will this impact project fees?
  • Who will be my point of contact?

Staff will likely ask some of the same questions:

  • Is the firm in financial trouble?
  • Is there something else that they’re not telling me?
  • Is my job safe?
  • Is my salary going to be impacted?
  • Are other people going to leave?
  • How will the firm culture change?

By messaging the transition correctly from the beginning, you can put everyone’s minds at ease. It’s not about sending an email after the transition has been announced: “By the way, everyone’s job is safe.” People don’t tend to trust those kinds of messages because they come across as an afterthought done for the sole purpose of pacifying people until the real consequences hit.

Thoughtful, proactive messaging is both kinder and more effective.

How to Use Marketing to Support Your Firm’s Transition

No one wants their positive firm development to be drowned out by the whispers of concerned clients and lamentations of worried staff. Marketing strategy and marketing tools can help you avoid getting sideways on the roll-out of your transition:

  • Decide if it’s the same firm or a different firm. Referring to the big-picture questions above, leadership needs to decide whether this version of the firm will operate as a new creation or if it is the same as before but with a minor change. When leaders don’t agree on this, or when the position isn’t communicated consistently to staff and clients, tensions flare and people develop expectations that won’t be met. This can lead to client and staff departures.
  • Clearly identify who is now in charge of the firm. We have seen many firms remain silent on this point, instead posting a fun-yet-serious group portrait on social media as proof that everyone likes each other and the firm values collaboration. That’s nice, but clients and prospects like to know who is ultimately making the decisions and who’s responsible for the work.
  • Don’t think of the announcement as a light switch. “Yesterday we were X, but today we’re Y” can leave clients – and employees – feeling confused and left out. If possible, span the transition out over a period of time, ramping up the messaging as the “launch day” approaches.
  • Tell people why this is a good thing. Those involved in shaping and approving the transition know all of the reasons why this decision is beneficial, but people outside those conversations are likely to be uncertain about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Tell them. Explain why this decision is good for clients, for employees, for the community.
  • Use all of your channels. Don’t limit your announcement to one LinkedIn post, or a website banner. Create a campaign for each channel, including your website, social media channels, and e-newsletters.
  • Take it out of context. Architects are gifted at thinking about things in context, but in this instance that can create unforeseen issues. Consider all aspects of your messaging as if the only information you had was what was in front of you at that moment. Is the wording clear, accurate, and comprehensible? Is it obvious to the other person that your firm is undergoing a transition?
  • Don’t make your announcement on April 1. There are other days you’ll want to avoid, but more than one client has initially selected this as Announcement Day without thinking that it will make the announcement look like a joke – or worse, that you didn’t realize it might be taken that way.

Your Good News Shouldn’t Be a Bad Thing

Architecture firm transitions require a lot of planning. By including a role for marketing, you can ensure that you not only retain clients and talent, but that you attract even more.

Patience Jones