Mark C. Zweig is best known as the leading expert in management for the architecture, engineering, planning, and environmental industry. With more than three decades as a student of the industry, he knows architecture, engineering, and environmental consulting firms inside and out. Mark started his career in a management consulting firm that specialized in the construction and development industries, and then worked as a principal and manager in two A/E and environmental firms. He founded Mark Zweig & Associates in 1988, which later became ZweigWhite in 1994 (three times listed as an Inc. 500/5000 fastest-growing privately-held firm) and Zweig Group in 2014. Mark has worked with AEC firms of virtually all sizes and types throughout the U.S. and abroad, and helped them solve just about every problem—from strategic business planning, to turnarounds, to partner separations, to organizational restructuring, to mergers and acquisitions, to reenergizing marketing, to dealing with cash flow crises, solving tricky ownership transition scenarios, and more. A widely published author on AEC firm management, Mark has written 12 books, although he may be best known for his weekly editorials in The Zweig Letter. His accomplishments go far beyond the limited space we have here, but you can learn more at https://zweiggroup.com/consulting/mark-zweig.php.
A/E Guru Mark Zweig Talks Branding, Marketing, and More
FRALEY. Mark, you’ve helped A/E firms with virtually every management problem imaginable for more than three decades at ZweigWhite and some of your other ventures. You even served as a principal and manager within A/E and environmental firms, which gives you a unique and well-rounded perspective. What do you see as the biggest issue faced by A/E firms today?
ZWEIG. Yep—I’ve been doing this a long time and am probably working harder today than ever. And I still have some ownership in A/E firms outside of my own companies. The biggest issue I see is firms who still don’t understand that you can have a “brand” as a professional services company. As a result, they don’t invest in marketing activities that support that idea. They are afraid of social media, e-marketing, working visibility (such as painting all vehicles in a wild color that is immediately recognized), and so much more. They often don’t even operate with one company name and logo that they use consistently. They have no marketing database so they can’t get any marketing material out. And when they do, it is sent with 1/20th of the frequency it really needs to go out on to have an impact. Engineers and architects REALLY don’t believe in the power of marketing.
Of course, they have a whole host of other problems. Dysfunctional people are tolerated forever, their organization structures too often don’t work, they don’t have good accounting and don’t share their numbers with their people — I
could go on and on…
FRALEY. Is there a “Holy Grail” for A/E firms when it comes to achieving growth? If so, what is it?
A. Invest in a brand. Spend more money—probably 50-100 percent more on marketing than your peer firms do. You also need to invest in recruiting. That’s another area that is typically unfunded. And finally, invest in technology so you can communicate and work across multiple offices and have good marketing and not lose track of your information. These three things are critical—all of them.
FRALEY. The A/E industry is known for being slow to embrace marketing. Why do you think that is? Apathy, lack of understanding, or some other factor?
ZWEIG. There are several reasons for this reality. First, they don’t believe marketing actually works. They have all been trained to think “overhead is bad.” Can you imagine if the managers of Coca-Cola felt that way and cut their marketing budgets? Secondly, they think marketing is inherently sleazy or unethical in some way. Heck—it was prohibited in most professionals’ code of ethics until the mid- to late-70s, and a lot of those people who were around back then are the ones who own these firms today. They need lots of training—and retraining—and convincing that marketing really works and it is NOT all just about who you know right now and relationships that determines their success.
FRALEY. How do you think this anti-marketing mindset affects them? Can you cite any specific examples?
ZWEIG. It affects how they spend their money and their time. They look to industry norms for marketing budgets (not a day goes by someone doesn’t ask me this) and target doing what other mediocre-performing firms spend. The lack of marketing also greatly affects their ability to hire good people, get higher fees, and dump clients who are slow pay. Practically every problem they have stems from NOT having a situation where demand for what they do exceeds their ability to supply it. Once they can get on the other side of that equation they can build a good business that grows, makes money, can hire good people, and sustain itself, as well as do work they are truly proud of (always important!)
FRALEY. It seems like there has been increased activity in strategic partnerships in recent years. Do you consider that a trend? If so, what’s driving it?
ZWEIG. I don’t know. I am always suspect of any of these “standing” relationships. Seems like someone always puts more into it than the other guy does and that leads to hard feelings.
FRALEY. What would you consider the three most important factors for a partnership to be successful?
ZWEIG. I would say they are 1.) Mutual benefit, 2.) Trust, and 3.) Commitment from both sides to make it work. If any of these aren’t there it is doomed to failure.
FRALEY. What are the biggest threats A/E firms face in the future?
ZWEIG. The biggest single threat is the attitude toward risk that As and Es have, i.e., the goal is always to minimize it. We have relegated ourselves to smaller and smaller roles in the construction process and contractors are taking over. Most A/E firms do a horrible job on at-risk design/build jobs and yet that is how many clients want to buy their construction. As a result, contractors are eating our lunch and getting more and more work that used to be the domain of design firms.
I also think that the attitude many people still have today – that you cannot make any “real” money in this business—really hurts it overall. I know a few people in A/E firms today who are making $5 million, $10 million, even $20 million a year—personally! Yet I also know a lot of people who truly think it would immoral if they worked 60 hours a week and made over $200K a year. It’s sad.
FRALEY. So how can A/E firms address those threats to remain sustainable?
ZWEIG. Hire some people out of the contracting world and dip a toe in at-risk design build projects. Get some outsiders on their BODs who are really successful business people from both client organizations and other entrepreneurial companies who can help “show them the way” to be more successful.
FRALEY. If you could leave our readers with a single piece of advice to be successful in the future, what would it be?
ZWEIG. Get a good handle on your marketing budget. Commit to increase it. And spend money on the areas you are most successful in already versus propping up those that aren’t doing well. It is counter-intuitive but it works—throw gasoline on the fires that are already burning.
FRALEY. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with The AEC Straight Talker Blog, Mark. It’s an honor to have you.