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The Generalist Architecture Firm

Architects come to me looking for new ideas to help them attract better clients.

Often, they’re just seeking someone to give them an honest outsider’s perspective.

So what do I usually see?

Unfocused, undifferentiated generalists… and proud of it!

The problem with being a generalist is that you’re the same as every other generalist, so why should I pay you more or seek out your services?

We talk about what we focus on, like “making people happy”, or “making cities better places to live”, or “making fun, comfortable homes”.

These are focuses, sure, but they aren’t unique to you.

I wager that I could take the copy from your site, swap it with another firm’s, and whatever they said about their focus will also ring true for you.

Why is the architects generalist streak a problem? Because when, in a client’s eyes, you aren’t substantially different or unique to the other firms they are considering – the only thing they have to judge who they should work with is price.

Then it’s a race to the bottom.

But, everyone in our industry knows this. It isn’t news.

The real question is, why can’t we fix it? Why can’t we bring ourselves to specialise, and in doing so, become genuinely unique?

Why are we allergic to a prospect saying “I don’t think they’re the firm for me”, even though it means we miss out on the opportunity for a select few to say “I can’t believe an architect like this exists…they’re exactly what I need”.

Specialisation is feared when it is framed as a permanent change to your firm.

It isn’t. When we decide, at some point in the life of our firm, that we need to make a change: it’s time to focus on a niche.

Why? Because it means you can focus all of your energy on one group of people, one worldview, just a couple of relevant channels, and generate helpful insights for that niche.

Marketing shouldn’t be an architect’s part-time job, but when you decide that you need to target schools, and houses, and cafes, and hospitals… well, you aren’t doing yourself any favours.

I heard a great analogy: the point of focusing at the beginning is a lot like using a magnifying glass to start your campfire. It’s focusing the sunlight, concentrating the energy. Once the fire has started, you can put down the magnifying glass.

Focus, start the fire, then relax.

Let’s make up an example of terrific architecture firm positioning.

“We design houses for families who have young children with autism.”

That’s the kind of focus that I want to see – because these people have unique problems.

Because their problems are so common in their niche, they form groups, affiliations and attend events together. This makes it easier for the word to spread.

Parents of autistic children congregate around Facebook groups, Instagram accounts, blogs, forums, and events – so they’re easy to reach.

Say you designed four or five incredible houses for the parents of autistic children. So long as you used the work in that niche as an opportunity to write and share your insights, you’ll quickly be seen as an expert on the subject.

Now you are going to get the attention of autistic adults, schools with a large population of autistic students. Healthcare facilities. Libraries and other public buildings.

Vertical positioning is just the start. It’s lighting the fire that will often turn into horizontal positioning as the word spreads.

Architects fear being ‘pigeonholed’, but focusing your positioning is more like the wardrobe in The Chronicles Of Narnia – you think you’re stepping into a tiny box, but take another step and it will open up into a new world of opportunities.

Position your thinking, not your making.

The positioning example above had nothing to do with skills, process or service. It’s about thinking.

We position around thinking because there really isn’t anything substantially different about the way you, and your competitors, design and deliver buildings.

The implementation side of architecture, the countless skills you share with every other firm: the ability to draw up a building, submit a DA, negotiate with council, administer a contract – aren’t inherently ‘positionable’.

I run an architectural marketing agency. I position my thinking around architecture marketing. I don’t claim to do Facebook Ads differently to other marketing agencies. I don’t pretend I have some secret sauce when I run Instagram accounts for clients.

On the contrary, I happily tell clients I’m just as good at those things as any other agency. They can use me out of convenience, because we’re already working together developing their social media strategy, but they don’t have to – I’ll happily recommend other people in the industry.

I sell those ‘implementation’ services at the industry-standard rates.

But, my thinking. My advisory work. That’s different. That is positioned. I’m not interchangeable with anyone else in the marketing field, because I’m the only consultant who has studied architecture, worked in the industry, and advised hundreds of firms.

You can do this too. Your firm can pick and niche and accumulate truly unique ideas, research, skills and insights.

That’s the part we want to position and niche down around.

When we just focus on the built outcome, we’re not doctors who diagnose the problem. We don’t even write the prescription.

We’re just a pharmacy with a drive-thru. We take orders.