Why Procurement Sucks And What You Can Do About It

Reading time ~10 minutes

ACME Corp. procurement officer.

ACME Corp. procurement officer.

Procurement sucks. Having to bend over backwards in order to jump through hoops on fire over a trap lined with spikes while being chased by a hungry tiger is no cakewalk. Yet, many creative professionals put up with it as it is culturally accepted that, working for free and giving away intellectual property is a small price to pay in order to get work. And in certain cases, it may make sense. But in most of them it doesn’t and more often than not both parties end up worse off as a result of doing business in that fashion.

People in charge of procurement with public dollars have to do what they can, to ensure that the money is well-spent and that there is a high level of accountability within public institutions, for taxpayers to be able to transparently see how their money is spent. Whether this is what actually happens in the real world is another touchy debate that I won’t delve into here.

If one is procuring commodities, traditional procurement makes sense. Whether the Toronto police gets their cars from one dealer or another, they’ll basically get the same product. The main thing being negotiated is price, but the cars come from the same factory. Same for stationery, whether your paper pads come from Staples or Grand & Toy, any difference in quality will be too insignificant to notice and even if somehow you ended up with a subpar paper pad, you’ll probably survive the ordeal.

The problem is when professional services are being treated like commodities. If you listen to one of my past podcasts, Toon Dreessen talks about the absurdity of some situations he’s found himself in. One story that stuck with me is the conversation he had with a stationery procurement officer who did not understand why an architect was required for this project and treated it like she treated paper.

As providers of professional services in the design field, architects know very well that a solution cannot be prescribed in good conscience before a proper diagnostic of the client’s challenges has been made. A doctor practicing that way would be stripped of his credentials and likely sent to jail, yet, procurement processes expect architects to do exactly that. This is a maddening proposition that makes no sense and can actually be harmful.

It really begs the question: why are procurement departments acting so shortsightedly? I genuinely don’t have a clear answer so far, but if we look at how they are incentivized, perhaps we can find the beginning of an explanation. Procurement’s job is to procure something at the lowest cost, as their mandate is to save their employer’s money. Which makes sense if we’re talking about stationery. But when it comes to design services, it has been well established by now, that the cost of designing a building has little to do with its total cost over a lifetime both in terms of capital costs (construction) and operational costs (life-cycle and maintenance), as the design cost is a fraction of the capital cost, which can be itself a fraction of the operational cost.

If a building is designed to save 50% in operational costs over its lifetime, isn’t that worth a higher design fee? And the architect who can confidently deliver on that promise should naturally command a higher price, as his services are more valuable than that of the architect whose designs will cost more operationally. Yet, when procuring these services, these facts are often ignored and the lowest bidder wins. I’m not even going to go into how some firms bid at a loss to “stay busy” and keep their employees on the payroll, while counting on charging for extras, a.k.a. playing the “gotcha” game to stay profitable.

Due to their very mandate, keeping costs low at all cost - pun intended - procurement people are not your friends, as they are by nature asked to undermine you and the value of your services at every turn. Put yourself in their shoes, what would you do in their place?

Your mission as a designer is to solve problems and the more complex those problems are, the more you ought to be paid for it, as this is inherently valuable to your clients, until their procurement departments get involved…

What’s the solution? In the case of public money, I’m not sure there is a solution short of legislating on the matter in order to make the procurement process holistic, and incidentally the topic of an upcoming Single Serves podcast, also with Dreessen. As far as the private sector is concerned, this is where I see a great opportunity to break away from the uncompensated pitch, were we too often give ideas away for free in the hope of getting our pittance.

On one hand, professional service providers have to grow a pair and stop grovelling to their clients’ every whim and tell them when they’re being unreasonable with their demands of a 578-page proposal including a fully resolved building design, construction documents, their staff’s full employment history, including their immigration status - as applicable - as well as their grandmother’s birth certificate and their kids weekly school menu, and I’m barely exaggerating. If what they’re asking for has no relevance to the provision of the service, you are perfectly within your right to tell them off, politely but firmly as you now know they’re just dicking you around.

Imagine if you went on a first date with someone and they keep rescheduling, changing the venue, until you finally get to meet them in person after 10 reschedules and then they spend the entire date fucking with you, keeping you guessing and asking a lot of very deep and personal questions without revealing anything about themselve, wouldn’t you walk away? You would, because you intuitively know that it’s not gonna get better over time. The same goes for your clients. If they metaphorically fuck with you by being unreasonable, chances are they won’t suddenly change if they ever hire you and you’re better off leaving them to your competition.

On the other hand, private companies who feel like they “have to” go through a complex and byzantine procurement process to hire professional service providers, really ought to ask themselves how that’s gonna serve them in the long term. This is where there is a shift that needs to happen, from the cost of the service to the value.

A big part of demonstrating that value is, I’m afraid, your responsibility. It’s a tough job, but not impossible, it merely requires a concerted effort and the development of a long term view of your business’ growth. In this age of crazed and insanely fast (too much so in my opinion) startup funding, venture capital and IPOs, in the vein of the “break things and move fast” credo of Facebook, one really has to sit back and ask “What am I really trying to accomplish here?” Maybe “slowing down and mending things” isn’t such a bad idea after all.

From there, it is possible that the answers will start coming to you and with a healthy dose of courage, one can dig oneself out of this hellhole that is procurement. The alternative is to remain a commodity who’s being mistreated at every turn by clients who are total dicks and are not even apologetic about it.

Which do you want to be?


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.

How To Find The Right Hire In A Seller's Market

Reading time ~14 minutes

accomplished-achievement-adults-1124065.jpg

Introduction

In the course of my work, I get to learn about particular aspects of our industry. I’ve recently had the opportunity spent a lot of time talking to people about hiring practices in the AEC industry as part of a research project. The overwhelming conclusion I’ve come to is that hiring is a very challenging process for employers. It takes a lot of time, costs money and there is never a guarantee that your newest employee is the right fit for your company. A lot of company founders and principals sing the same tune: the challenges they all face are all very similar. Every step of the process is a challenge, especially in a seller’s market where there is more jobs than candidates (more on that later). Don’t believe for a second that you are alone facing these issues.

Big or small, most firms go through the same process and employ very similar tactics to hire people. Bigger firms will tend to have more budget and being more willing to spend money to find the right employees, even when it comes to junior positions. By and large the way architecture and design firms hire are very similar across the board.

One distinction across all firms is the difference in hiring processes for Junior vs. Senior employees. More money and effort is understandably spent on filling more senior positions, as these employees have a greater impact on the health of the company.


The Challenges:

Finding the right people: from finding the right fit for your company’s culture, to simply finding people who actually have the qualifications they claim to have, recruiters have to do an incredible amount of legwork when it comes to doing their due diligence. This is not helped by the fact that we are currently in a seller’s market, where there is more job offers than qualified candidates. This makes the search for that unicorn, the candidate with the trifecta of qualifications, cultural fit and availability, all the more complex. It is not rare for recruiters to receive applications from people who do not have the desired qualifications, whether it be from a skillset perspective (juniors claiming to have more experience than they do) or even things like the lack of immigration status (people applying from overseas). Most recruiters waste a lot of time sorting the good from the bad.

Then there is the budget issue. How much money should one allocate to recruiting efforts? How much of that budget do you allocate to different tools and resources? Things like job boards, the interview process and legal fees all cost money, but how do you know how to allocate proper resources to each item? Do you not spend any money at all and dedicate only time (which is also costly by the way)?

Recruiters are expensive but also effective as they put their money where their mouth is, because they don’t get paid if you don’t hire their candidates. Therefore, they have an incentive to do a good job. Since they cost about 20% of your hire’s first year salary, it can be a tough pill to swallow, but they tend to make more sense for more senior positions.  

Job boards are great and free (or very cheap), but the main challenge is that they advertise your opening to the world, attracting all kinds of poor fits and forcing you to go through a long and painful curating process. The problem with job boards is that the a large portion of candidates are the bottom of the barrel. Most good employees never have to look for a job and more often than not they get recruited through their network and therefore never peruse the classifieds.

In his classic book, “What Color Is Your Parachute”, Richard Bolles claims that most companies recruit internally or within their network, only using more public means of advertising a position when they have no other option left. That’s because we tend to trust people in our networks much more than strangers so it makes sense that we tap into familiarity before we look for employees more widely.

If a colleague you know and trust recommended someone warmly, would you not make them your primary candidates? I know I would. When I look for people to work with, I always tend to naturally reach out to my network before advertising and when I do advertise it’s with very specific resources. There is a local college that I particularly like because they are known to produced skilled grads, namely people who have skills in demand in the marketplace. Every year I reach out to them to get a co-op student for summer, keeping in mind that these co-op students will eventually look for a job. When they do, we will be in each other’s network and will naturally tend to gravitate towards one another.

I never advertise on standard job boards, because I don’t want the aggravation of dealing with substandard candidates who don’t even take the time to research the company they are applying to and send generic cover letters. I once received an unsolicited application from an overseas candidate who CC’d about a hundred other people on his generic - gasp! - cover letter letter. Needless to say I had a little fun replying to that one, as I took inspiration from these guys to write a spirited response.

Industry-specific job board tend to be a little better than general recruiting sites (Monster and the like), as they attract a smaller subset of candidates, usually of higher quality than generalist boards.

One of the most common complaint is that people really struggle to find a good fit in terms of skill set but even more importantly, from a cultural standpoint. The most qualified of employees will not be comfortable working for a firm espousing values too different from their own. Worse yet, working for a firm who has no established values. In my opinion too many firms spend too much time focusing on skills and experience, as opposed to ensuring that a candidate will fit right into the office culture. Skills can be learned, knowledge can be acquired, but the right attitude, mindset and work ethic is a given we all have to work with. Better find the right candidate with respect to those soft social skills.


Opportunities to do things differently

Now that we’ve laid out some of the biggest challenges recruiters face, I’m going to expand on some ideas that will give you an edge when looking for employees.


Find juniors before they get out of school and keep your network alive:

Since we’ve already established that networks play a huge part in recruiting effort, it pays off in the long term to maintain and expand that network on an ongoing basis. Keep tabs on current and future cohorts of new grads and identify the best of them as much as you can. By the same token, an ongoing internal internship program is a great way to test people out in the wild and see how they mesh with your culture. Other tactics that will help you in that regard are as follows, in no particular order: attending design crits at local school, job fairs, attending industry events, etc.

Outside of the post-secondary education system, it’s good to identify promising prospects and keep tabs on them. Stay in touch once in a while and ask them what they’re up to. You’d be surprised how much a quick check-in once in a while can help you find the right candidate when time is of the essence. That graduate you’ve kept in touch with for years may very well be your next hire if the stars are aligned. A friend of mine maintains a list of people she would like to work with and has coffee with them once in a while, when a position opens at her firm, they are the first ones to get a call.

In a similar fashion, don’t hesitate to have meaningful conversation with your peers on your challenges, successes and good candidates that have showed up on your radar. The sharing of knowledge contributes to everybody’s efforts and makes it a little easier for everyone. It’s also a good idea to sift through the mass of unsolicited applications to keep the interesting ones for later reference. Bonus points if you can have mini pre-screening interview with the candidates that showed interest and look promising. It will give you a good idea of what they’re about. You can always purge that pile of applications more than 6 months old as these tend get out of date quickly. A quick coffee date with a candidate can go a long way and make the interaction a little more human and personal, which never hurts.


Outsource it:

Sometimes it makes sense to hire a seasoned professional to help you with your recruiting. They have the network, resources, expertise and experience that you don’t and can really make a difference when it comes to narrowing down the field of candidates. Some people mistrust recruiters as they are sometimes seen as ruthless mercenaries that will poach people from their current jobs with little or no scruples.

While I can see that being an issue, and I am sure you’d find unscrupulous people out there doing unsavory things in just about every industry. Let’s not forget that these guys have a whole lot of skin in the game as they don’t get paid if you don’t make a hire through them. As far as incentive alignment is concerned, it’s difficult to make it more favourable than that for you. When it comes to ruthlessly poaching people, I would argue that this is the hard law of the marketplace. But if you’re experiencing people routinely leaving your office for greener pastures, I would highly recommend looking past the financial and emotional aspects of such transactions and take a long, hard-look at your culture. The best way to prevent people leaving your firm as soon as something better presents itself is to define, refine and constantly strive to improve your office culture. A great culture creates loyal, fulfilled employees to whom a job is much more than just a salary. I know first hand of such companies: their staff routinely decline other better paying jobs because they’re having way too much fun. Which leads me to my next point:


Work on your company’s culture and constantly refine it:

As a keen observer of the marketing industry, Terry O’Reilly likes to observe and analyze a company’s touch points to see how they interact with their stakeholders (employees, suppliers and clients). O’Reilly says that there are innumerable untapped opportunities for improving any of these touch points: from the way you sign-off your emails to your on-hold phone recordings, via your website and your social media presence, to name a few. The same goes for recruiting: how would you like your potential employees to perceive you and how would you go about them going “I want to work nowhere but there” upon leaving their first interview.

If you don’t know your company culture well enough to explain it in 1-2 sentences, on the spot, you probably have what I call a “by default” culture. A strong culture is your best bet to attract the right talent as it helps in creating an environment where everybody is valued and treated well. Every single company with a strong cultural foundation that I have observed first hand, has happier, engaged, loyal employees, often that wouldn’t leave their job for a salary substantially higher than their current one.

A great culture, as my friend Stephen Shedletzky puts it, equals values x behaviour. In other words, it means that you have to be clear on your why (purpose) and have well-established values. Not only that, but you need to live those values on a daily basis. Values that are not constantly used as a framework for decision making are useless.

GREAT CULTURE = VALUES x BEHAVIOUR


Don’t recruit solely based on skills and experience, and make the hiring process a family affair:

By the same token, a strong cultural foundation will help you focus on what matters most in prospective candidates: their personality, work ethic and ability to integrate an unfamiliar environment. Vitsoe has become a master at hiring slow and firing fast. They are so keenly aware of the need for new recruits to fit in with the culture that they notoriously dismiss candidates that would be perfectly fine for most of the rest of us, mere mortals. A story that stuck with me over the years is that of a technician that they were trying out on the job. On paper, the candidate was a great fit, but on day one, at the end of the work schedule, he tossed his tools in the toolbox and left. The fact that he did not carefully place his tools back in the order they belonged was a deal breaker for them. Needless to say that they collectively decided against hiring him.

I recently got wind that the email address “iwanttokickfearinthenuts@rvltr.studio” I have listed in a summer internship posting that I put up at a local photography school, turned off a potential co-op student who was apparently offended by its attempt at humour. Instead of feeling bad about it, I realized that I had probably dodged a bullet by avoiding someone who would not understand our company’s culture and values. Better to have no fit than a poor fit.

While this kind of pickiness may seem extreme to some, I believe it shows that a company who knows what they stand for to such a degree, will not hesitate to make such decisions because they know the weight that a wrong decision can carry down the road. And being so picky is another way to turn off people that wouldn’t be a natural fit, so the people you’re left with at the end are the best fits for your company. Which doesn’t mean they’re a good fit for anyone else either, by the way.

On a side note, fire fast doesn’t mean rudely dismissing people without empathy. It just means letting go of the bad fits quickly. It’s certainly not a free pass to be an asshole about it. We still all have a duty to be humane, even in the most uncomfortable of situations.

Additionally, the hiring process shouldn’t be just a HR process. People you hire will work with others and most company with a great culture make hiring decision while involving all concerned parties from the Janitor to the CEO. It does make perfect sense to ensure that one’s coworkers can get along with or your run the risk of mutiny.

Ultimately, a resume and cover letter are a quick and efficient way to separate the good from the bad, but to determine fit, you have spend the time with the candidate and test their mettle, better yet: do it under pressure, as it’s when everything goes to shit that problems arise. Try them out in the real work environment and see how they respond to challenges, big and small and more importantly how they treat other people. You probably want to avoid the person who’s going to think that the janitor doesn’t deserve even the smallest of acknowledgement.

Once you’ve made that hire, keep watching them during the honeymoon period and at the first sign of trouble, address it immediately.


Conclusion:

Ultimately, recruiting is a lengthy, challenging process, in which we all tend to be be way too emotionally involved with. While a great culture will help with making interactions more human and personal and ultimately, hire people that feel at home in your company, it is important to remove as much emotional attachment to the decision making process. In other words, trust your gut but don’t become emotionally attached to the outcome.

In Vipassana meditation practice, this is called “Anicca”: the ability to not have any aversion for negative situations, feelings and sensations as well as for the positive ones. Meditation is a great tool to be able to reach that level of zen master self-control, I highly recommend it.


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.

The Truth On Architectural Imagery

Reading time ~10 minutes

pexels-photo-712786.jpeg

Introduction:

The latest developments of evolutionary psychology teach us that our sensory perception of reality is not the window into the truth that we’ve assumed it was for a long time. Rather, it’s more like a metaphorical desktop on a computer, where the reality of the computing power if hidden behind symbolic representations of reality (e.g. the file folders on a virtual desktop). That helps us accomplish our tasks without being burdened by the minutiae of the computer’s inner workings, which would never allow me to easily and effortlessly write this piece as I was able to do, if I had to literally try and understand how everything works in a computer, down to micron-sized transistors.

What that means in concrete terms, is that evolutionary psych. tells us that we don’t see the world as it really but rather that we interpret it, these interpretations being a reflection of our evolutionary fitness. I.e., we have evolved interpretations of reality that allowed us to survive and thrive.

By the same token, since there is no such thing as an accurate perception of reality, the same goes for how we create visual media that represent the world around us. I would go as far as saying - in the example of a photograph or video of a space - that the very act of creating and designing an image of a space or building is in itself an interpretation of the object itself, influenced by the mind creating it. Not to mention the fact that we lose the 3rd and 4th dimensions (the 4th being time) and reduce the representation of the space to a 2-dimensional plane. Therefore, there can be no accurate representations of the physical space, as it’s always going to be incomplete, due to the missing dimensions.

As we just demonstrated that we cannot by design, perceive - and therefore  - represent the world around us in a truthful manner, we cannot expect an imperfect representation, or rather approximation of reality to be truthful. Not to mention that visual media in architecture is further removed from reality due to the subjective interpretation of the creative mind crafting the media, reality and truth is a myth that can never be reached.

Now that this is out of the way, what does it mean with regards to the truth and narrative in architectural media? Well, I’m glad you asked and we can proceed to answer to this question from two different perspectives, each considering a discrete aspect of the architectural documentation process.


The commercial aspect:

Architects are professional service providers and as such, have to be able to show their work in its best light, in order to convince prospects to hire them. To do that, a portfolio of images is a critical tool in the sales process. Much like any other kind of commercial photography, one can make a case that doctoring images in order to rid the iconography of the things that don’t convey the vision of the architect is fair game, and that’s the opinion of one of my peers. If you look at food or automotive photography, these guys routinely cheat in order to get images that represent the ideal of the product they’re selling and not the product itself, as you and I would experience it.

Even though what other industries are doing can be pretty dramatic in term of how far they’re willing to go to make a product look better than it actually is, nobody is ever accusing them of lying or being dishonest. That’s because if you go buy that burger or that car as a result of seeing an idealized version of it in an ad, you will still get the same thing, it just won’t look as good in the physical world, but it’ll still taste the same or perform as promised.

The same can be said of architecture and in this context, I think it’s OK for architects to fairly dramatically alter images if the end result is not quite what the original intent was. For example, I have more than once digitally “stained” wood finishes on a building’s exterior that was initially supposed to be a very dark stained finish, but had never been finished and was therefore showing up as a much lighter tone of wood than the architect intended. In that context, I personally have no qualms making such a change.

We also routinely remove electrical outlets, smoke alarms and exit signs that are both unsightly and create visual clutter. What we end up with is a clean, more focused imagery that better conveys the sense of space in my opinion, which in turn serves the commercial intent of these images.

All those changes do not fundamentally alter the physical experience of the space and do not speak to its performance. Again, let’s keep in mind that we are talking about 2 dimensional interpretations of a space the we experience in 4 dimensions and that there is no substitute for an in-person experience. In that sense, any image, doctored or not, is always going to be a somewhat deceitful representation of the space.


The ethical aspect:

Now, from an ethical perspective, one could convincingly argue that doctoring images is dishonest and does not represent the project as it is. Ignoring for a moment that a photograph (or a movie) is an incomplete representation of the physical space because it lacks 1 or 2 dimensions, an argument can be made that architectural media should take on a more documentary-like approach to the craft.

Supposing that this is feasible and realistic, I think it’s a weak argument because even a documentary medium -especially film- tells a story that is a representation of the author’s thoughts and opinions. While the media may not be altered per se, it’s the narrative that expresses an inherently biased opinion. And I think that’s the crux of the issue, that short of directly experiencing a space or a building, any other form of representation, doctored or not represents the artists’ biased view through a narrative. It is therefore very difficult to say that a photograph (or movie) is a truthful representation of reality

A few years ago, and incident with the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) made the news when it was revealed that an award winning building image set had been doctored, where unsightly (and very visible) air handling units on the roof of the building were removed in post production at the behest of the architect. In the article quoted above, Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architectural critic described the oversight as follows:


“So the honor award puzzled me. How could a jury of respected architects from out of town have missed this glaring misstep? Easily, it turned out.

Unlike the AIA's national awards, which require that at least one juror visit a short-listed building, or the Pritzker Architecture Prize, whose jury travels extensively, jurors for the Chicago AIA honors typically don't inspect buildings firsthand. There simply isn't the time or money. The jury meets for just one day. In the distinguished building category, there are scores of entries (134 this year), and they consist of projects from all over the world. So according to people who administer the contest, the jurors consider required materials (design statements and photographs) as well as floor and site plans, which are optional.”


To me, the issue is only partially the responsibility of the architect and/or the photographer. In this case, it’s clearly the jury process itself that created conditions for a doctored image set to allow for Juan Moreno’s building to win an award.

The AIA has since issued new rules for their award submissions regarding retouched images, although I couldn’t find these rules in my research. I think it’s great change, because when it comes to awards, we step outside of the realm of strictly commercial photography and that we can and should reasonably expect images to not be purposely deceiving. It can easily be speculated that the building wouldn’t have won the award, had the images not be photoshopped. Since awards don’t have as much of a commercial component (although some privately-owned award competitions are huge money makers for the organizers, but that’s a debate for another article) and are supposed to be an objective assessment of the entries and determine the winners based on the merit of the work, there should be an expectation that images not be modified and in my opinion, it falls on the organizers to demand more truthful imagery.

Similarly, publications reporting on architecture, have a moral duty to ensure that the projects they publish are not overtly deceiving as it erodes the reputation of both the magazines and the designers, especially when it comes to publicly accessible architecture that can be experienced by the general public. It would be very damaging for a magazine to talk up an innovative building only to find out that half the innovations are being impeded by some unsightly design element.


Conclusion:

I don’t believe that we can draw are black or white conclusions from this topic. Ultimately, each player in the process, be they photographers, architects, publications, award organizers or critics have a duty to ensure that they’re not purposely deceiving their public.

I think the amount of doctoring that should be tolerated should fall on a spectrum from heavily retouched, to very slightly retouched and that were the imagery falls on the spectrum is dependent of what one is comfortable with and what is appropriate for the intended usage of the images.

Some architects and photographers will have specific opinion in favour for the more honest side of the spectrum while others will unabashedly put out images that have less to do with reality and more with the commercial aspect of their practice. Azure published a very well thought-out article on the topic last year and their conclusion was thoughtful and fairly accurate representation of the variety of opinions that are out there.

I personally do a fair amount of retouching but I do draw the line at doing work that would alter the architecture and represent the space in a way that could never happen in reality. Outlets, exits signs and smoke alarms are all fair game and so are blemishes on a wall, reflections in glass, etc. I am also a little more liberal for residential work as the issues we fix are often a matter of the construction process not being faithful to the original vision or the client making changes without the architect’s knowledge.

I would generally say that restraint and common sense are ultimately our best allies. I’m a big fan of trusting my gut when it comes to making decisions that aren’t easy and the science backs me up on this.

I think the biggest takeaway from this discussion is that we ought to be very conscious of the impact the decisions we make will have down the road and act accordingly within the boundaries of what each of us is comfortable with. The rest is just noise.


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.



Truth Is Golden ep. 206 - Loosen Up A Little, with Paul Petrunia

In episode 206, the third instalment in our series on LA creatives, Paul Petrunia talked about his upbringing in the Canadian prairies, how Arthur Erickson influenced him to be an architect, his ill-fated career as a teen ballet dancer and his cultural confusion as an expat torn between American and Canadian cultures. Going back to the early Internet days when he started a dot-com business in the middle of the lake late 90's boom to today and his life as the man behind the popular Architecture website archinect.com.

About the podcast: The intent behind our podcast series "Truth Is Golden" is to look at renowned creatives and their work with a critical eye. We aim to ask deep questions in order to peel back the layers of marketing, clever one-liners and sexy branding. We want to show the world what it truly takes for genuinely creative forces to find their own voice build a career on what is very often nothing more than a drive to do things differently. We want to hear about the successes, the failures, the inspirational stories and the lessons gleaned from all of it. We want the truth, so that we can inspire other people to fulfill their own creative aspirations and in the process contribute to making the world a better place.

Credits:
Post-Production: Ryan Aktari
Music credit: Bounce Trio, Star Animal, 2014.
Organ & Keys : Matthieu Marthouret
Ténor Sax : Toine Thys
Drums : Gautier Garrigue
Composed by Toine Thys (copyrights SABAM).

Buy it on BandCamp :
weseemusicstore.bandcamp.com/album/smal…big-rivers

More info and music here :
www.youtube.com/user/weseemusic
www.matthieumarthouret.com
www.facebook.com/MatthieuMarthouret.Music/

Truth Is Golden Ep. 205 - Less Is More Or Less w/ Dan Brunn

Dan Brunn’s early life in Tel Aviv, subsequent move with his family to Southern California at age 7 and his later nomadic lifestyle as a adult certainly did not make his life easy, yet set the stage for a highly creative and driven character to develop. Someone as uncompromising as he is a kind soul who wants to do good in the world. Dan is a young architect based out of LA creating buildings inspired by the Bauhaus aesthetic he grew up around in Tel Aviv, but also influenced by Southern California modernism. We chatted about what moves him, his very early love for architecture, his influences as well as his love of cars, music, food and travel. Listen in to hear Dan speak about his work and life.

A vision for the future of architecture?

~ 4 minutes read

In the countless business-oriented books that one can find, there is a trend in recent years of books discussing the core of a successful enterprise. Heavily rooted in empathy, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, it makes empathetic interpersonal relationships the center of attention. Heck, Entire businesses are created around developing empathy-based company cultures and leadership.

There are many stories of business leaders and creatives who created businesses (and failed many, many times while doing it) that were centered on providing satisfaction to their stakeholders in one form of another. There are books focused on teaching us to be better listeners, claiming that in this culture of telling, listening is a rare skill that can lead to great outcomes when wielded properly.

Over the last few years, while continuously educating myself on the matter, in order to understand empathy better and more importantly, why it has become such an integral part of the business thinking zeitgeist, I integrated some of these lessons in my own work. This led to developing services helping architects to develop better cultures and communication strategies.

What is empathy anyway? The dictionary definition is as follows:

“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

It’s when someone tells you the details of a creepy story and you get the heebie-jeebies because you can picture yourself in that predicament. It’s when you become sad because your friend lost a loved one and you remember your own similar experience from a few years ago. It’s when someone tells you about skydiving out a flying plane and you get a rush of adrenaline just imagining what it would feel like.

You may say “OK empathy is great, but what’s your point?” Empathy is important because by gaining a deeper understanding of another’s circumstances helps us understand any given situation better. Combined with the outsider’s perspective, we are now equipped to help others overcome seemingly intractable problems, by having the ability to look past the blinders, yet understand their position at the same time, in other words effectively putting ourselves in their proverbial shoes.

The epiphany

On this journey to learn more about empathy and relationships, I slowly came to the conclusion that the architecture and design industry was in dire need of such help. In the course of my work, I get to interact with many architects and designers and invariably end up looking at their communications and marketing at one point or another. What became painfully evident to me is that there is a trend in the industry for incredibly uniform communications. In other words, architects, by and large, all convey the same message. You can go to any of their websites and you’ll find very similar descriptions of their companies, culture and work.

This lack of distinction in the way firms communicate leads to a general perception that architects are a commodity and therefore interchangeable. While this is also true in many other industries and conversely, one can find designers out there who stand out and buck the trend, the architecture industry is incredibly uniform in that sense. I believe that this is due to a couple of reasons:

  1. Architecture schools don’t teach critical business skills: Marketing, communications, business management, sales and HR among others are painfully absent from architecture curriculums, or an afterthought at best. The heavy emphasis on design and technical knowledge creates amazing designers but largely ill-equipped business leaders.

  2. Architects are generalists: Architects are trained to be generalists and often try to do everything. I think the future of the business lies in hyper-specialization. Instead of competing with a virtually infinite numbers of generalist firms, there is value in picking a niche and becoming the best at that very thing, competing with few or better yet, no firms at all. It may seem scary and limiting, but is in reality liberating because it cuts out a bunch of distracting activities and focuses a firm on one, narrow area of expertise.

Equipped with that knowledge and seeing the opportunity to change the way architects communicate in order to change the public’s perception of the value of architecture (#architecturematters) we are helping clients develop their culture, visual communications and marketing strategy.

Stay tuned for next week’s follow-up article on how we went about doing this.

What do you think stands to be improved in the architectural field?


Vetting Clients = Power

~ 6 minute read

It’s just like dating.

Unlike many other professional service providers, architects sell services that routinely tie them to a client for multi-year projects, often taking one, two or even more years from kick-off to occupancy. Such long term relationships eventually move past the honeymoon phase to settle into a routine, a more casual association where each party gets to know the other more intimately. Much like a romantic relationship, the qualities, quirks and annoying behaviour traits of the other naturally rise to the surface, as people get more comfortable with one another.

There is nothing inherently good or bad about this, but it does beg the question: How do we ensure that one chooses the right kind of clients? Much like one should probably not get married on a whim, designers ought to spend time ensuring that the clients they take on are a good fit, both from a service provider perspective, as well as on a personal level, as the two eventually become intertwined as the relationship evolves.

 

A quick sidebar on residential architecture.

I’ve personally heard many an architect say that their relationships with residential clients are way closer to a friendship than strictly a business exchange, because in order to design a suitably customized space, the architect has to know their client intimately on, or even beyond the level that a close friend or a family member would. Boundaries become blurred and the relationship becomes a hybrid that can at times lead to awkward situations, because the architect is both a friend and a service professional, a confidant as well as accountable for the work they do.

While the architect has the moral obligation to behave professionally and be on the ball when it comes to dealing with issues, working with carefully selected clients through a vetting process ensures that, when the shit hits the proverbial fan, there is enough trust and confidence at on personal level to maintain a good relationship. A poorly-suited client would be more likely to use problems as an excuse to drag the relationship into adversarial territory, due to lack of rapport and trust. Something to be avoided at any cost.

 

How does vetting work?

A few weeks ago, we looked at what to do when dealing with unreasonable clients, and briefly touched on the idea of vetting clients. Many professionals are all too willing to subject themselves to client interviews, but few do take advantage of the opportunity to flip the interview on its head and interview their prospective clients in return, the prospect of more business being too tempting to risk letting go.

In the sales process, once a fitting prospect has been identified, the first step in establishing the relationship is to demonstrate value of your expertise and quickly win the polite battle for the control and get some face time with your prospect (a topic for another article). The following step is to move on to the the qualifying conversation where prospective clients are interviewed to determine if they’re a good fit. A number of questions need to be answered in order to do so.

 

From objective questions, like:

  • “Do the client’s objectives align with ours?”

  • “Can we confidently deliver on what they’re asking for?”

  • “Do they have a budget and timeline?”

  • “Have the decision makers been identified?”

 

To the more subjective ones, such as:

  • “Would I happily go have a drink and shoot the shit with them?”

  • “Am I able to uncover their deepest fears in order to address them?”

  • “Do I understand their aspirations and can I help them achieve these goals?”

  • “Do we share the same values?”

 

It can be accomplished by spending a bit of time with the prospect, asking a lot of very specific questions aimed at uncovering the needs, fears and aspirations of the prospective client and listening intently to the answers. Letting them answer each question as they see fit. Mastering interviewing clients is a rare skill, but the good news is that it’s something that can be learned through practice. Since this is a qualifying interview, it should be clear to both parties that the intent of the meeting is to determine fit. The next steps being discussed and mutually agreed upon at the conclusion of this discussion.

 

The art of shutting up and listening.

In a previous article, we covered the art of humble inquiry. I personally like to start with very general questions so the prospect can tell me in their own words what they think they are about. Since I am looking to work with people who share similar cultural traits, I usually ask them to tell me what their company culture is like. From there, we move on to goals, aspirations, challenges, successes and failures. Getting these questions answered should paint a pretty accurate picture of what that firm is about.

From there, more aspirational questions can be asked in the form of spontaneous visioning exercises, for example, asking about where they would like to see themselves three years from now. Which will reveal as much about what they aspire to as it will also reveal the gap they have to bridge to get there. This is gold for the rest of the conversation, as now there should be a pretty clear picture of what the clients goals are and from there it can be determined if our services are suited for them.

 

Your gut is right (most of the time).

If there is a good fit, your gut should tell you by now. Conversely, if there is no fit, now is the time to politely say so and make a graceful exit, as it’s a very bad idea to force a relationship where there shouldn’t be one. Like other areas of life, it’s better to accept that we’re not meant to get along with absolutely everyone. With that being said, with a good lead generation process, most of the prospects knocking on the door should be somewhat pre-qualified at the very least interested in what is on offer. If that’s not the case, then it’s time to review your lead generation strategy to find out where the breakdown in communications is.

 

Where to go from there?

Now is the time to co-define the next steps. A fit has been established and the last thing that should happen is to leave the prospect without pre-determined and mutually agreed upon next steps. Depending on where that conversation ended, you should be somewhere between a verbal agreement to proceed and an interest in pursuing the conversation further, but whichever case you find yourself in, the next steps should be crystal clear to both you and the prospect.

I want to conclude with this thought: throughout this vetting process, it is by gently taking control of the conversation that you can lay the foundation for good communications and give prospects a glimpse of what it is like to work with you, simply by acting and being a certain way, which should be congruent with who you are. As an expert in your field you want to create and maintain said expertise and it shows in huge part in the way we interact with one another.

Talk is cheap, actions matter.

 

If you liked this, please share with a friend and let us know your thoughts in the comments!



 

How I was inspired by a writer to look at architecture differently.

The State of Architectural Journalism.

I love talking to people in the architecture industry to find out what makes their jobs exciting, learn about their challenges and use that information to try new things. I often do this with journalists and editors and find it fascinating to learn how to think like they do, and it helps me help them to find good stories for their publications.  

When I met with Dave LeBlanc, columnist for the Globe and Mail and well-known for his weekly column, “The Architourist”, I learned a lot about architecture from a non-architect’s perspective. Dave is not a trained journalist, he spent his whole career in radio production and serendipitously fell into writing about architecture a couple of decades ago when asked to produce short radio stories on Toronto architecture. Having been a fan of design and specifically mid-century modern architecture since childhood he jumped at the opportunity, which eventually led him to become a weekly columnist at the Globe.

Dave is as much interested in stories as I am and, similarly, thinks architectural narratives in their current state are a bit dry and factual, too often forgetting to speak about the human stories unfolding within the built environment, in favor of the building as an object, replete with facts, statistics and bombastic declarations, which are no-more than transparent, ego-inflating statements that makes the designers feel good, but leave the people who are looking to connect with architecture on a deeper level a bit hungry for a relatable story.

 

How Kahn and Mies brought this home.

When I think about some the best and most memorable buildings I've ever had the chance to visit and get to know intimately, like Crown Hall by Mies van der Rohe and the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn, the spiritual experiences that I've had in those space had very little to do with the architecture itself, but rather with my experience of the space, specifically through the way natural light was managed and let into the building in very specific and deliberate ways.

I didn't care that much that the building was made of metal, concrete or wood but rather that these materials provided me with an phenomenal sensory experience and therefore deeply influenced me. The Kimbell with its silvery natural light flooding from the slits at the top of each vaulted ceiling, grazing the galleries’ surfaces and revealing the textures and warmth of the wood and concrete combination. Crown Hall through the enormous amount of natural light flooding the space from all sides, and reflecting the seasons and time of day, while blocking a direct views on the outside, the black steel curtain walls, terrazzo floors and wooden partition walls taking a back seat to that experience.

I believe this is what Leblanc is trying to convey in his weekly column: how architecture is a machine for sensory experience, to paraphrase Le Corbusier. Perhaps that's what his "Machine for living " idea meant? After all, what is life if nothing but a succession of sensory experiences?
 

More experiential narratives, less verbosity.

The lesson to retain from this, is that aside from other designers and self-proclaimed design nerds, very few people care about who designed a given building, how much of a celebrity the designers or how expensive the finishes are, because these facts are completely irrelevant to the physical experience of a space. There is a reason the best writers and magazines in the design world are more interested in how the architecture is lived in and like to include the users in their stories. That reason is that it makes for quality content that will capture a reader’s attention. It is an absolute necessity that the story you tell speaks to your audience, or you run the risk of losing their interest.

There is no shortcut for getting to know your audience. You have to spend time engaging with them. It helps greatly to be able to show a vulnerable side of yourself that they may not know about. Digital and social media allows for unprecedented levels of access to your audience at a very low cost, making it easy to be in dialogue with the people who are interested in your work.

Spending the time to craft compelling narratives that speak to the way your building is lived in is the way to go. I know it’s tempting to wax lyrical about the technical achievements of your project, but if they do not directly contribute to the human, dare I say emotional, experience of your space, they can be ignored. Instead the focus should be put on what it feels like to experience your space from a user perspective.

In these days of instant gratification and casual consumption, most people will probably not pay attention to what you are putting out. However the level of care that you put into it will be noticed by the people who relate to what you have to offer. This minority of ardent supporters will go to bat for you. Once you have a few of those, you’ll know you’re on the right track.

A community of followers, the kind of people who will fervently support you and promote you because they believe in your vision, cannot be bought. It is primarily based on trust and that trust has to be earned. There are no shortcuts.

What can you do today to build such a following?

If you liked this, share with a friend and let us know in the comments!

The 10 Commandments of Design Culture, Strategy and Communications - Our Manifesto

Two kinds of architects populate this universe: those who understand culture and communications as a critical part of running their practice and those who don’t.

Let’s do a little mental exercise and picture two architects, both mid-career, with very similar experience and talent:

Architect numero uno is deeply invested in the success of her business and although her talent has gotten her some attention, she understands that a prosperous company needs much more than sheer artistic genius. She invests equally in the success of her stakeholders: employees, client and suppliers. As a result, she gets work that’s profitable, that she’s passionate about and challenging but delightful clients, which often become her friends. Her employees are happy and invested in their work and her suppliers are very friendly and accommodating.

Architect numéro deux believes that his great talent alone will bring him all the work he needs to be successful. Alas, his reality is different and his business has a high turnover rate, his clients are often pissed off at his lack of professionalism and his suppliers have stopped any largesse after his nth unpaid bill. Yes, he got his big break when talent alone got him his first commission, but it hasn’t gotten any better since and he’s been riding that wave for 20 years. The cognitive dissonance between his idea of a successful business and his reality is staggering and sadly, doesn’t realize that business as usual will eventually, well, put him out of business.

As an architect, your success largely rests on your ability to create, develop and foster a purposeful culture that promotes value-based decision making and business practices as well as open and clear communications. It really boils down to the way the information flows between designers, clients, employees and suppliers. It starts with the way you communicate inside your company, with employees and suppliers, as well as outside, with clients and prospects.

Since we care greatly about your success and that of the industry, here are the 10 commandments of design culture, strategy and communications. If you’re practicing in this field, they will help you identify which areas you may need to work on and act as a guidepost to help you make the important decisions for your business:

The 10 commandments:

  1. Be purposeful and mission-driven: A clear purpose and mission will serve as the foundation of every decision made inside your business.

  2. Nail your values on your door: Being vocal about what you stand for serves as an accountability tool internally and externally. When the going gets tough, it serves as a reminder to not cut corners.

  3. Strive to speak human: Speak to your stakeholders in their own language. To them, archispeak is gobbledygook and serves no purpose. Lose it.

  4. Do your best to empathize and understand: Your ability to empathize with your stakeholders, will defuse many tense situations and help you make the decisions that serve everybody’s best interest. Asking the right question is often all it takes to solve an intractable problem.

  5. Be strategic: Before you start solving problems, it is crucial to reframe, challenge assumptions and get to the bottom of the issue. Only then a suitable strategy will emerge.

  6. Do not allow the commodification of your craft: Only by using different behaviours, language and strategy from everybody else, you will distinguish yourself, be valued for your expertise and not be treated like a dispensable commodity.

  7. Treat every stakeholder the way you want to be treated: Your wise grandmother probably reminded you of that one all the time. Trust her wisdom.

  8. Be honest and truthful: Sometimes honesty is hard to deliver, but it will serve your relationships in the long term and build trust. If you’re honest with yourself, people will be honest with you.

  9. Acknowledge, own and learn from your failures: We all fuck-up from time to time. Accepting failure as part of the learning process is fundamental. If you’re unsure of what the lesson is, ask for help.

  10. Experiment with new ideas: There is more than one way to skin a cat. Give yourself room to experiment and play in order to create a culture of openness and innovation. We call it kicking fear in the nuts.

Bonus commandment: When in doubt, less is more.

Don’t do it alone! It’s okay to ask for help when you’re stuck. Getting help will help you focus on what you should be doing most of the time: successfully running your business.

It’s time to kick fear in the nuts and get crackin’!

Old Spice or Charmin?

This I Know, is a book the advertising by industry veteran Terry O’Reilly. O’Reilly not only is one of the best storytellers out there, but his hilarious take on the advertising industry reveals a lot of secrets about great advertising, and what makes it successful.

In this first installment of our 3-part article, we will take a look at what makes an ad memorable and why Charmin has nothing on Old Spice when it comes to creativity.

 

What makes a memorable ad?

Think about a memorable ad that you’ve seen - any one of them will do - and now try to remember why it stands out in your memory, even years later. Chances are it was unlike any other ads of the time and perhaps even since.

The most memorable of these are funny, irreverent, sometimes downright outrageous (warning: NSFW - sound off), highly creative and often do not focus on the product or service offered, but rather how the offering makes the audience feel.

 

Old Spice does it right.

These ads usually fit two criteria: they are creative, often by employing humour and they manage to create a strong connection to the audience. The creativity enables the ad to stand out. By presenting the subject in an unexpected way, it commands the audience attention.

Take any of the Old Spice ads with Terry Crews, they are funny, nonsensical and talk less about the product than its supposed benefits for the user. Seeing Crews being a goofball is a treat in itself, but hearing in the subtext that Old Spice will somehow make me smell and look like him, makes me want to buy Old Spice, even though I would never in a million years buy a scented shower gel. It does so by connecting with the deepest desires and fears of their target: men. Indeed, who wouldn't want to smell, look cool and ripped? The creators of the ad went through the trouble of understanding their audience - empathizing with them - and used this knowledge to address their fears and desires.

 

Charmin does it wrong.

Conversely, take Charmin toilet paper ads for example, are for the most part safe, ultra-boring and speak to their audience like children. There is a reason we never remember any of them. They place the product firmly in the commodity box, where one roll of toilet paper is perceived as the same as any other roll of toilet paper.

As we’ve learned to tune them out after a lifetime of conditioning, they lose their effectiveness. They end up sounding condescending as they are the advertising equivalent of someone robotically repeating the same sentence over and over with no end in sight. I don't know about you, but I personally find pastel-colored bears irritating, insulting even. I am looking forward to the day where we see old-spice like TP adverts.

We’ve just looked at how effective advertising can be. In the next instalment, we will take a look at the power of creativity and risk-taking. Stay tuned!

What are some examples of bad ads that have stood out to you? Comment below to share your thoughts.