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    The Shortlist

    On Value Propositions

    In mid-January, SMPS San Francisco convened a panel on Value Propositions. Traci Vogel, Content Manager at TEECOM, was the moderator and the panelists were Kenneth Caldwell, Erin Cullerton, Sarah Young, and myself (John J. Parman). To prepare for it, I made some notes prompted by Vogel’s questions. Although these notes are, of course, some distance from my spoken remarks, they may be useful nonetheless.

    Question: How do you define “value proposition” in relation to your work as AEC strategists, marketers, BD professionals, communicators?

    To me, “value proposition” is a tactical term that’s most useful in the context of project development, when the goal is to condense everything the team offers into a pitch that speaks to the client’s motivations and then tries to go beyond them to give compelling reasons why this team is the one to pick. I prefer “pitch,” because it makes it clear how context-bound a value proposition is, tailored as it is to the opportunity in question.

    A value proposition can be applied to a sector to the extent that its projects share a number of traits, so what might be thought of as an “elevator pitch” will resonate with potential clients and help a firm or team qualify for specific opportunities. Here, the goal is to get on the sector’s map and yet differentiate the firm from competitors. The more a firm has conveyed its experience, expertise, and point of view to the sector before it pursues a new client or project, the easier it is to tailor its pitch to the actual context.

    Question: Starting from zero, what are the essential steps or elements in creating a value proposition, whether it’s for a firm, a sector, or a pursuit?

    In reality, you’re never starting from zero. There’s a history—the track record of the firm or team, for example, and its visibility. There’s the Zeitgeist, which can favor new faces and/or convincing signs of reinvention. A successful relationship with a given client can result in non-compete wins: a string of work that rewards a responsive team. If the team is truly responsive, the value proposition will keep pace with the client’s needs. The pursuit is where you demonstrate this, again and again. (The work is part of a pursuit. Ideally, every team feeds itself and uncovers new opportunities for its colleagues. In the case of one-off projects like private houses, referrals across a cohort of like clients may function similarly. Erin Cullerton can speak to this, as it’s not a market I know well.)

    Question: Describe how a value proposition shapes communications strategy.

    Given the way I’m defining the term, it’s the reverse—the communications strategy shapes the value proposition by helping to establish its broader context. When firms communicate, they are thinking about the bigger picture of how they’re perceived by potential clients, industry partners, the media in its role as amplifier and influencer, designer peers, and students as likely future talent. The bigger the firm and the wider its geographic reach, the more it has to delegate content-creation to market specialists. This can create dissonance unless there’s shared agreement about brand and identity. But this has to be kept simple and easily restated in other languages and cultures. 

    A communications strategy uses the part that firms control—their official outlets and their top leaders when they make official statements—to engage everything else. Social media, tipped toward individuals, forms a parallel stream to the firms’ official channels. Practically speaking, firms’ control of individual communication is limited. But with the individuals’ agreement, firms can “follow” them, tapping and amplifying posts that get traction. They can also encourage people to repost firm-generated content when it’s relevant to their own followers. It’s a good way to broaden a firm’s audience.

    Individual communications have the advantage of first-person credibility. Firm communications gain credibility by highlighting real people and by discussing the work in ways that make it authentically the firm’s. On social media especially, it’s a mistake for the firm to try to act like an individual. It has to communicate as an organization. It’s also a mistake for the firm’s top leaders to communicate “personally” in an obviously scripted way. There are exceptions—Norman Foster presents himself idiosyncratically, mixing formal engagements with informal documentation of his hobbies and activities. Some of the photos or clips are his own, but often someone’s filming him. He’s Norman Foster, and most of us—including the leaders of your firm, probably—are not. This is why I suggest developing a synergistic relationship between the firm and everyone involved with it, potentially including clients and others whose views it values. 

    Question: What makes a value proposition compelling and credible?

    For starts, communicate it well. Ask yourself who’s on the receiving end and what will draw their attention. Consider the purpose of what you’re communicating and where you are in the process of achieving it. Communication is a trajectory, and you can build on each step, shifting the emphasis to keep the recipient interested. Think of it as a conversation between the team and the decision makers. Always ask yourself, “Who’s on the other end?” There’s an element of persuasion, but first of all there’s a need to engage, put a viewpoint forward, provide insight, and invite discussion.

    Bells and whistles have their place. Sometimes they’re table stakes, but it still comes back to the chemistry between human beings, signaled from the outset and cemented in real conversations that point to the possibility and desirability of working together.

    (Life is short. Never pretend there’s chemistry when there isn’t. Not worth it.)

    John J. Parman was a marketing director for the first 20 years of his career, ending up at SOM San Francisco. As the editorial director of Gensler’s Communications Studio for the next 20 years, he launched the firm’s award-winning client magazine, Dialogue, and its Design Forecast. He continues to write, edit, and advise, and can be reached at

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