Advertising is pervasive in our culture, with companies spending millions (even billions) on it. So it's natural for A/E firm leaders to assume they should invest at least a little money on advertising. And therein lies the biggest problem with adding advertising to your marketing mix: You probably can't spend enough to make it worthwhile.
Effective advertising depends on repetition to vie for people's attention. Repetition costs money—often a lot of it. Tempted to spend $5,500 for a one-time half-page ad in ENR because they reach almost 300,000 readers? Don't expect many to notice, much less call you because they saw your ad. A half-page ad every month might draw some attention, but would it be worth the substantial investment?
One of the reasons firms continue to spend on advertising is they simply assume it works, even though they can't measure or confirm it. This unfortunately is true of much of the marketing A/E firms do. They presume it helps "get our name out there," but have no idea if that's actually the case. I've encountered very few firms that make any attempt to measure the effectiveness of their marketing, especially advertising.
But there are several surveys that give us some insight into how effective advertising is for professional services, and the results are not encouraging. Advertising consistently turns up at or near the bottom of any ranking of the effectiveness of different marketing tactics. This is true of both print and online advertising.
Advertising serves two primary functions: (1) brand building and (2) lead generation. Most professional service marketers assume advertising is best suited to boost brand awareness. Why? Because it generally produces very few leads (only 9% of marketers found it effective in generating leads in one survey). Lead generation, of course, is much easier to measure than brand building. So advertising in our business is generally poor in attracting potential customers, but may improve your firm's brand recognition. How much do you want to spend on such iffy results?
Even if you assume that the potential brand building benefits of advertising are worth the expense, it still needs to be well executed. With rare exceptions, the A/E firm ads I see fail to create any impression of a distinctive brand. If you can't articulate what distinguishes your firm from the rest and present that in compelling fashion, you can hardly expect to overcome the aforementioned lack of repetition in drawing attention to your advertising.
This is not to suggest that I'm against all advertising. There can be value in targeted ads that don't cost a lot of money, especially when they complement other forms of marketing. For example, advertising associated with a technical conference where your staff will be making presentations can help drive attendance in your sessions. In general, I would advise limiting your advertising to smaller, targeted audiences where you are promoting or complementing other marketing activities (e.g., publishing, speaking, sponsoring events, etc.).
What has your experience with advertising been? Have you seen tangible results? Disagree with me on this subject? I'd love to hear from you.