Marketing is about more than proposals

Oct 30, 2022

Challenge your marketing team to think beyond proposals and begin to work to strategically impact the entire client experience.

As defined by the American Marketing Association, “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

Alternatively, as defined by a former boss, “Marketing is really just proposals.”

Marketing is not just proposals. Take this opportunity to realign and redefine marketing for your firm. Let’s lean into the AMA definition where marketing guides the communication and delivery strategy for our professional services. If we are to stay relevant to our clients and competitive in a talent war with other sophisticated industries (i.e. tech), we must move our industry beyond a proposal-centric, project-pursuit only approach to AEC marketing.

As architects, engineers, and builders, we are responsible for the spaces and places that people interact and engage with each and every day. We have an immense responsibility, and also a tremendous opportunity, to influence the built environment – to shape the lives and experiences of so many people. The same way the iPhone influenced the way we connect with one another, the built environment impacts our experiences at school, work, and home. Why don’t we consider, talk about, and value that more? In today’s incredibly competitive labor market, we need to inspire the next generation to eagerly want to work for our firms.

Let’s take a few steps back in history. In the early 20th century, marketing one’s professional practice was actually forbidden by the AIA. Concerned that underbidders would produce something of a lesser quality, the first Principles of Practice adopted in 1909 by the association barred architects from marketing themselves. Advertising in any form, even proposals and sketches, was prohibited by the professional organization, and it wasn’t until 1972 that the AIA finally agreed to allow members to market their services.

As a result, marketing became an increasingly vital part of design firms; helping bring in new clients, adding value to the brand, and helping to attract and retain top talent. But sometimes I personally feel like we’re stuck 50 years in the past where just doing “good work” will get you more work, and where owners and firm leaders de-value the strategic marketing suggestions and efforts of the professionals they’ve hired. They place talented, creative non-technical individuals in proposal burnout factories and wonder why their hit rates aren’t improving. They value the creativity and innovation of the designer, but not the marketer. And they place technical professionals at the top of the marketing team to lead these non-technical professionals.

It’s time we give it its due. Let’s celebrate our marketers, let’s listen to their creative ideas to make our brands modern and relevant (perhaps a logo redesign?), let’s implement their strategic communications, and give them responsibilities more than just proposals. Marketers can help differentiate and position our firms to be more profitable and use less resources to win projects.

Here are five questions to ask your marketing team:

  1. Who is our ideal client and how do we best reach clients matching that profile?
  2. What is our ideal project and how do we align our services to meet that need?
  3. What’s our value proposition and how can we communicate that value better?
  4. What are our competitors doing?
  5. How are we tracking, measuring, and reporting KPIs?

Let’s work smarter, together – technical and non-technical. Start aligning marketing goals to your business goals. Challenge your marketers to think beyond proposals and begin to work to strategically impact the entire client experience. You’ll have happier clients and more profitable projects.  

Malory Atkinson, CPSM is a co-founder and managing partner of Shear Structural. She is the non-technical business partner, leading the firm’s marketing, finance, and strategic planning efforts. The firm has been named a Hot New Venture and Best Firm to Work For by Zweig Group. She can be reached at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.