Marketing for the AEC Industry: A Q&A with Fractional CMO Sylvia Montgomery

by Debra Andrews | December 1, 2022

Marketri is thrilled to introduce the newest member of our fractional CMO team, Sylvia Montgomery, CPSM. Sylvia has led successful strategic marketing efforts for a number of Fortune 500/1000 brands and has significant experience working with AEC industry companies to establish and grow their marketing functions. Recently, Marketri’s President met with Sylvia to discuss her background, some of the challenges AEC firms often face in marketing, and tips for AEC firms looking to level up their marketing.

How did AEC industry marketing come to be an area of expertise for you?

I started my career in communications—specifically visual communications/design— then transitioned to the marketing side. As a student, there was an assignment that sparked my interest in the built environment. The assignment was to photograph a workplace, and I began photographing the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC as it was being constructed. At the time, it was the largest-scale construction project in the city. I was fascinated by the entire process of redying the site, the excavation depth, and the sheer footprint of the location so I began taking photographs to document its evolution from a massive hole into the building it is today.

What do you like about working with AEC companies on their marketing?

The AEC industry is fascinating because the built environment is critical to our daily life yet some of the professions that represent it are often not given enough credit for transforming our quality of life. My dad was an industrial artist, so I grew up with an appreciation for building things and how they can be both functional and visually appealing. I love the idea that you start with a concept, then overlay the functionality based on what the customer needs, and then the end result is an effective, beneficial built environment that plays a central role in the daily lives of individuals and society.

How is marketing for AEC services/firms different from marketing for other industries?

When you’re marketing for professional services, at the end of the day you’re selling people’s time and expertise. So while you expect the provider to have credentials and relevant experience, it’s really about the individual(s) and humanizing them within the context of their skillset and the expertise they bring to the table. That’s what you market—the personal connection you’re trying to make and how they are uniquely qualified to help you solve your problem.

When I’ve worked with other B2B clients, sometimes there is a product at hand and it is much easier to point to the features and benefits of the product. With professional services clients, demonstrating not only the capabilities of individuals but also their trustworthiness is essential.

And with AEC specifically, there’s an extra layer on top of that, because, in the built environment, projects take a long time. You have to help the audience understand what’s possible, because designs and projects can take years, even decades, from conception to completion. It becomes even more important to convey not only credentials, expertise, and knowledge, but also trustworthiness and other characteristics that will help the client and often community stakeholders feel comfortable working with the selected firm for an extended length of time.

What challenges do AEC firms typically face in their marketing?

I have been working in and with AEC firms for nearly 20 years and there are three themes that continue to surface year after year:

  1. Many AEC firms still pursue RFPs without investing the time and resources to truly understand the client’s needs, the problem that the client is trying to solve, and all of the politics associated with the relevant stakeholders. Repeatedly, you see firms chase an opportunity yet they’ve never had informational meetings with the prospect well before the opportunity comes up. Positioning for opportunities should happen months, if not years before the RFP hits the street. Again, it goes back to developing the relationship so that you are seen as not only capable and trustworthy but also as the provider that can solve their problem.
  2. A lot of AEC firms put the strategic component on the back burner and are more reactive in their marketing, often engaging in random acts of marketing. They may push out messages and information but haven’t taken the time to understand what’s really of interest to that audience and how to best reach them. The emphasis is on marketing activity without any true impact. Years ago, I worked for Newell Rubbermaid and as a product company, they placed a huge emphasis on research and development and thinking about customer needs and most recently I worked for a global research firm with B2B clients and research and understanding the Voice of the Customer were also foundational to sales. In both instances, client research was the difference between short-term marketing activity and long-term strategic impact.
  3. Another big challenge right now continues to be attracting and retaining talent, and living in the post-pandemic world has only made this more difficult. While relationships are the heart and soul of professional services, digital marketing, a firm’s brand, and its reputation also play critical roles in talent attraction and retention. If firms try to market for talent the way they 20 years ago, it’s not going to work and what was important to employees then, does not carry the same weight today. Aligning the efforts of marketing with human resources is essential.

When an AEC firm implements well-thought-out, strategic marketing, how does that transform their business?

Marketing the right way will open the door to attracting the right opportunities. Much like design in the built environment, marketing is iterative: You create a plan, implement, analyze the results, and refine. This enables not just growth, but intentional, strategic growth—the ability to attract the kinds of opportunities that are best for a business and their goals.

If an AEC firm is looking to level up their marketing, where should they start?

The first thing to understand is that marketing is highly complex, technical, and specialized; different aspects of marketing are needed at different times. Many legacy AEC firms were founded and grown when marketing consisted of taking someone out to lunch or playing golf. Fast forward, and marketing today is entirely different and so are the ways clients are nurtured and converted. It’s not about convincing a single individual but rather demonstrating to a varied group of stakeholders that your firm is the most capable and most suited provider.

A one-person marketing department isn’t going to be enough; marketing is an entire discipline, and each dimension is its own area of expertise. AEC firms need to be open to accepting that reality and willing to invest accordingly. One of the things that attracted me to Marketri is its proven model of providing fractional marketing services to its clients. All of a sudden, a small to mid-size AEC firm can deploy sophisticated marketing on par with a national or global competitor.

If you’re a marketer or leader in the AEC industry, we hope you found Sylvia’s insights valuable. Are you interested in learning more, including how fractional marketing can help AEC firms jump-start their marketing and their business growth? Reach out to Marketri and our team of marketing experts.

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