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Biting the hand that feeds you may not be the best way to win clients

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The RIBA’s Guerrilla Tactics conference last week was geared to helping small practices win work. So why were some of the audience apparently hostile to the vital role of the client? asks Will Hurst

In 1992 a brilliant campaign strategist called James Carville helped presidential candidate Bill Clinton beat George Bush to the White House with a phrase originally intended for internal use only. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ was actually one of three key principles in Carville’s ‘war room’ but this one became the de facto slogan for the whole campaign, and still resonates in elections to this day. If there’s an equivalent for architects seeking to establish themselves, it should be ‘It’s the client, stupid’, since clients are self-evidently the other part of the equation when it comes to architects winning work.

Yet, if last week’s annual RIBA Guerrilla Tactics conference is anything to go by, this message is still not getting through. The small practice event, the 12th event of its type and this year created by Esther Everett and Eleanor Fawcett of the London Legacy Development Corporation, focused on ‘client perspectives’, and featured a great line-up of expert speakers brimming with advice on how to get noticed by and convince those who commission buildings (see below).

It should be ‘It’s the client, stupid’, since clients are self-evidently the other part of the equation

And yet much of the audience appeared to struggle with aspects of this advice, with one speaker - an architectural patron, no less - facing hostile questions from the floor. Jacqui Lait, a former MP and private client, recently commissioned up-and-coming practice Alma-nac to design the Split House for herself and her husband on the East Sussex coast. Lait explained that they had held an invited competition for a ‘beautiful piece of architecture that would be easy to live in’ and had selected the relatively untested Alma‑nac after the practice demonstrated how well it understood what they were after by sending the couple an architectural model in the post.

One might have thought Lait would be applauded as a supporter of architecture and new talent. Instead, she was grilled by one audience member over whether she had failed to pay for the architectural ideas she had procured. Her protestations that she had only requested ideas on the back of an envelope appeared to fall on deaf ears as the questioner reeled off a list of grievances about why saintly architects are not better supported by the public, Grand Designs, the media in general, you name it … and was then applauded by his fellow delegates.

There was of course a real irony in accusing a client of risking architects’ cash in the competitive process when that client had herself taken enormous risks with her own money in the pursuit of good architecture, but this seemed entirely lost.

Even some architects at conferences on how to win work have an anti-business attitude

Without suggesting for one moment that architects should routinely work for free, what this episode demonstrates is that some architects - even those who attend business conferences on how to win work - have a fundamentally anti-business attitude. This mentality takes the vital role of the client for granted, and ignores the give-and-take necessary in any commercial transaction. It is a dangerous trap to fall into. If you don’t understand the basic idea of providing a service to a client, then you’re doomed to fail.

How to win over the client

Claire Bennie former development director, Peabody
‘You’ve got to understand the maths - the client’s business, their needs and priorities. That’s such an important thing … most housing clients will want to know you’ve a really good hand on the tiller, not that you’re a poet.’

Sasha Bhavan RIBA client adviser and founding partner, Knox Bhavan Architects
‘You have to listen. The reason that Graeme Massie Architects won the [RIBA] Birmingham Centenary Square competition was that it listened. The client was concerned about money but most of the other architects [in interview] regurgitated the same concept they’d put forward at entry stage.’

Leanne Tritton managing director, ING Media
‘You have to understand the language the client talks, and what matters to them. Talking in the same way to an art curator and to a major contractor is complete madness. It’s the client’s dream, not your dream, so you have to understand what they’re trying to achieve and understand their problems.’

Ian Selby project manager, Lancashire Wildlife Trust
‘Are you competent? Can you spell? If you can’t spell you’re in deep trouble.’

Miffa Salter executive coach, Urbancanda
‘If you’re not likable you’re lost … I’m going to be honest and mention something architects don’t do brilliantly: it’s called smiling.’


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Excellent comments. I would also recommend Steven Hodder's RIBA publication The Client & Architect.
    ‘Clients believe that architects who listen properly are rare’ RIBA Client & Architect report
    ‘Invest in understanding clients’ world views, speak their language, pre-empt problems and optimise designs to meet their key drivers’ RIBA Client & Architect report
    ‘Architects need to be business analysts – you need to understand how the client’s business works’ Andrew Bugg Knight Frank
    ‘Successful outcomes cannot be delivered by an individual. Successful buildings … have been with the collaboration of many people including an engaged client.’ Stephen Hodder
    ‘Being good with people smooths project stresses and forges lasting business relationships’ RIBA Client & Architect report

    ‘Architects need to be business savvy, demonstrating an awareness of how to deliver value’ RIBA Client & Architect report

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