By Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM

This article was originally published by the AIA Central Pennsylvania in the Summer 2011 issue of Architext.

If there is a word Frank Gehry hates, it is “starchitect.” As he told The Independent in 2009, “I am not a ‘starchitect,’ I am an ar-chitect…” But don’t tell that to the industry media. A simple Google search on “Starchitect” and “Frank Gehry” returned 37,000 hits. The term, which is based upon a combination of “star” and “architect,” is usually limited to a handful of architects who have become celebrities; Gehry is probably the most famous of those architects currently practicing, though the term has been applied retroactively to such icons as Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M Pei.

The one thing these so-called starchitects have in common is that they’ve each built a powerful, unique personal brand. And while the odds of any architect rising to this level of fame are extremely limited, the concept of personal branding is something that every architect should embrace.

Whether you are a sole proprietor or part of a large, multi-discipline practice, your future success will largely depend upon the reputation you are able to build. Clients don’t work with firms; rather, they work with people. Many Requests for Proposals reflect this, increasingly using the capabilities and experience of project team members as an indicator of how a firm will perform. Sophisticated owners understand that a firm can have an extensive resume of similar project experience, yet no longer employ the professionals who designed those projects. If you have ever completed a Federal Standard Form 330, you’ve see this in action: the form includes a staff experience matrix, requiring you to state whether or not your proposed team members worked on the representative projects you submit.

Your education, project experience, licenses, and certifications all make up part of your personal brand. So do your lectures and speaking engagements, articles published and blog posts, professional association involvement, volunteer activities, and much more. In today’s competitive environment, owners often view A/E firms as equally qualified, so they look for differentiators. Some firms are able to differentiate themselves by using price; others use technology. However, there always seems to be a firm that will do it cheaper than you, or a company that has more advanced technology capabilities than you, reinforcing the need to have a distinct way to differentiate yourself or your firm from the competition.

Legendary AEC consultant Ford Harding has been aware of this for years. His landmark book, “Rain Making,” taught professionals about the various approaches to developing new business – including writing and speaking, organizational involvement, networking, publicity, direct mail, and yes, even the dreaded cold calling. This second edition of the book, published in 2008, goes a step further by offering advice about how to become a “star.” To Harding, “stars” are self-marketing experts who have successfully built their own brands. He suggests that professionals complete a Personal Evaluation Form.

To do this, list your area of expertise (Harding’s case study is a laboratory architect), the target market for this expertise, proof that you have that you are an expert, what specialized knowledge you have gained along the way, the project experience that reinforces your expertise, and any unique skills that you can provide. Ultimately, this is an exercise in personal branding.

In recent years, social media like LinkedIn and Twitter have allowed professionals to build and promote their brands online. Writing blogs, posting informative Twitter updates or links to interesting articles, and creating a detailed LinkedIn profile are ways that you can build your brand as an expert at providing a certain kind of service or working in a specific market. There are many industry examples of blog posts or social media activities that have led to articles in national publications or speaking opportunities at local, regional, and national conferences.

My favorite example, one that I first learned about at a conference of the Society for Marketing Professional Services, is about a transportation engineer that loved to read about new ways of doing things. He became quite enamored with an innovative approach to intersection design that was built in France. As he further researched the concept, he gained a greater understanding of the design approach, and wrote a short article about it for his company’s blog. A link to the blog was Tweeted by a co-worker, and soon representatives from professional organizations and industry publications were checking out the blog and asking for more information. The engineer prepared a 3D animation of how the intersection functioned, posted it on YouTube, and before long he was leading Webinars on the topic and being interviewed by industry media. On the back-end, several existing clients asked for proposals to study how to use this innovative approach at existing intersections. This engineer was able to build his brand as a national expert on the topic without ever having designed a project using the technique!

You don’t need to think big. Start local. If you want to build a specific brand, find an organization that is related to the brand, and join it. Attend meetings and build your network. Write an article for their chapter newsletter. Leverage that article into a presentation at a chapter meeting. Share the article with other surrounding chapters and present to them. While you seek to meet new people along the way, one of your goals is to have people want to meet you, or even seek you out. That is the power of a brand.

Corporate branding is an important component of any marketing program, but so is personal branding. Every staff member has a role to play, so it is important to think about how their expertise, skills, experience, network, and reputation can help your company. A personal brand can help bring new clients to your firm, enhance your network, elevate your reputation, and yes, even help you find a new job if the need arises.

During a company meeting a few weeks ago, I asked my co-workers if they knew who the most important employee was when it came to marketing the company. My answer: “The one that is sitting in your chair.” So who is the most important person when it comes to the success of your future and your company’s future? That’s right: the person sitting in your chair.

Questions? Drop me an email at [email protected]. I’d be happy to share some additional resources that will get you well on your way to building a powerful personal brand. Good luck!


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