Can Architects Advertise? The Complete History Of Advertising in Architecture

Can Architects Advertise Their Services?

In our work with architects around the world, we often encounter the question: Is it legal for architects to advertise their services? A different, yet related question in the back of architects' minds: Is it professional for architects to advertise their services?

The belief that architects aren’t allowed to advertise may also be a holdover – even if it isn’t much talked about – from when it was actually true.

Early Efforts to Prevent Advertising by Architects

It all started in mid-December 1909 at the 43rd annual convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In the first Principles of Practice, advertising was (in great detail) forbidden to architects – reflecting the mindset of that specific time period and general approach to the profession.

Deemed inappropriate and unprofessional, advertising was ‘condemned.’

This meant that architects had no right to advertise themselves in any way, to give away services for free or compete with other architects over price. All architects were instructed to charge the same percentage of the construction cost.

At this meeting and others that followed, architects were thrown back into old-fashioned means, mostly word-of-mouth and reputation.

‘Good work will lead to more business,’ went the thinking. Simple as that.

Conventioneers heard the following rules at the AIA 43rd convention in 1909 and they became the ‘official' policy:

On Offering Services Graciously (Free of Charge) …

‘The offering of professional services on approval and without compensation, unless warranted by personal or previous business relations, tends to lower the dignity and standing of the profession, and is to be condemned.’

On Architect Advertising …

‘Advertising tends to lower the standard of the profession, and is therefore condemned.’ 

On Compensation …

‘An architect should not take part in a competition as competitor or professional adviser or juror unless the competition is to be conducted according to the best practice and usage of the profession as formulated by the Institute. Except as an authorized competitor, he may not attempt to secure work for which a competition has been instituted …’

There is so much in this tenet to examine, starting with the assumption that the architect is male. But that was then. Consider as well that some of the world’s most illustrious, iconic and cutting edge designs come out of competition. It’s healthy!

The positive take away from those 1909 Principles of Practice, on the other hand and still very important in architecture, are the high standards of ethics and accountability.

[Lastly, went the new rules] ‘it is unprofessional for an architect

  •         To guarantee an estimate or contract by bond or otherwise.
  •         To advertise.’

When it comes to letting others know about their services, it looks like those early architects designed themselves a field with very high walls.

A Brave Few Architects Take a Chance

Still, architecture firms bent the rules a bit. Occasionally, a line or two was published in the Yellow Pages to promote architectural services. Architect Archibald Norman Torbitt, of Huntington & Torbitt, advertised his services as an architect with an independent practice from 1952 to 1956.

McGraw-Hill Construction explains: ‘In the case of architects, it was as if Starbucks were forced to charge the same amount as Folgers, but could not state why their brand was unique.’

The U.S. Government Opens Doors To Competition

Finally, about six decades later after the 1909 rules were published, the U.S. Justice Department intervened.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Justice Department investigated the rules against fee negotiations in many professions. It determined in 1972 that the AIA’s rules, which followed an overarching societal trend, were ‘a form of trade restraint.’ The act of setting the prices was perceived as holding them higher than they should have been and in violation of U.S. law.

The AIA signed consent decrees and agreed that members should be allowed to submit price quotes, competitive bids, discounts, or free work (proposals, sketches, etc.) if they so choose.

Some of these seem pretty standard today, but our architectural predecessors worked hard to get them.

Advertising in Architecture Today

After all that history, it’s hard to shake the anxiety about advertising.

One study found that more than 60% of architects do not have a business plan and 40% do not set an annual budget. And this article from Houzz justifiably states that that ‘most architects are not good at marketing.’ Advertising is one slice of the marketing pie, which can also include staying in touch with existing customers, raising awareness about the value your firm brings and community involvement.

However, today’s architecture firms are catching on to marketing magic. But they have a lot of work to do.

As architects revisit their outdated websites, they realize there’s more to selling than a fancy portfolio, list of services and a short ‘about us’ page. They have started telling their life stories and the stories of the buildings they design and renovate, focusing on the people who live, work and play in their completed homes, commercial buildings, and other projects.

Business Plan for Architects

A business plan for architects is rapidly going from ‘strange’ to ‘necessary’; best of all, that business plan can (and should) include marketing goals.

It’s now perfectly reasonable to promote your services and has been considered professionally acceptable for many years. Architects have worked hard to become professionals in their field, and they are free to advertise and market services just like any other professional.

Be brave. Be bold. Secure the types of projects you truly desire. The shackles are off – the only limit to what you can achieve is yourself.

Here at the Architect Marketing Institute we have a saying, “Architects don't advertise, they publish.”

To read what we mean, visit this article to discover how architect marketing can help you attract projects that make a difference.

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