Author Archives: reillybri

Be The Leader At The Table, Not The Sucker


I would bet most of us have heard the phrase, “If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s probably you.”

Here’s a riff on that phrase: “If you can’t spot the leader at the table, be one.”

This week, Pius Heinz of Germany won the annual World Series of Poker in Vegas. The 22-year old pocketed $8.7 million by consistently outplaying his opponents and dictating most of the action at the table. He was the leader!

Have you ever been in a poorly planned meeting, on a boring conference call, or a project/proposal kickoff where there was seemingly no leader or a real agenda? Perhaps the decision-makers you needed were not present. Or it was a weekly or monthly get-together and, with not much new to report, the group was just going through the motions. It’s a real time-suck, right?

Don’t let this happen again. Go “All In” on your next teleconference, proposal kickoff meeting, or other gathering that is begging for some leadership and engagement. Speak up! Identify something (there is always something!) that could use some feedback or discussion among the group that is there. Having trouble with the proposal you’re working on? Need a photographer recommendation? Have an idea to make a decades-old process better?

Run it by the group, create engaging conversations, and reap the winnings!

Sandella’s – A Missed Opportunity on I Street

I know, I know. Restaurants go out of business everyday. But when the resto in question is one that offered delicious, healthy fare and was a great value, it’s very sad.

Take Sandella’s Flatbread Cafe on I Street in Washington. It’s been a go-to establishment on my weekly lunch tour for a while, and I had grown fond of the place since they first opened a few years ago. My better half, the Bitchin’ Dietitian, would approve of my faves: the Mediterranean Quesadilla (400 calories) and Chicken Fajita Quesadilla (510 calories).

Sadly, last week I went to grab a flatbread sandwich and the doors to Sandella’s were locked and it was dark inside. I think this location has just gone out of business, a real shame. I guess I’m not totally shocked since they were in a high-rent location and the place was never really packed with customers. The recession likely didn’t help.

But I can’t help but wonder if Sandella’s on I Street did everything it could to survive.

Lack of Social Media Engagement


Men’s Health magazine recently named Washington, DC, America’s most socially networked city. Not Palo Alto (aka Zuckerburgh) but your Nation’s Capital. Woot! Yet in my experience with Sandella’s, they never took the opportunity to engage and interact with these tech savvy customers. Here are some thoughts that may or may not have helped.


Though several Sandella’s franchises around the country have fairly active Twitter pages, the main Sandella’s page (@sandellas) is really sad. It has over 100 customers following it, but the page hasn’t been updated since 2009. Actually, Sandella’s has only sent out 3 tweets! I’ve tweeted several times about my delicious lunch at Sandella’s but never had any response at all. It’s hard to imagine customers saying nice things about a business and them not taking the time to discover this easily accessible information and hitting the engage button.


I’m proud to say I was a one-time Foursquare Mayor of Sandella’s on I Street until Zack L. ousted me.  You already know that Foursquare is the super popular geo-social application with which users check-in to local businesses. These check-in’s can be announced on Twitter alerting the entire Twitterverse that customers are in  your store. In general I think businesses have been slow to take advantage of people saying, “I’m here at [insert name of business!]“. For example, could Sandella’s offer perks for the mayor of each of it’s stores? $2 off a sandwich or free chips? And what about special deals for customers who check-in a certain number of times? In social media, I really think offering something as trivial as a bag of chips can create buzz. Crazy, don’t you think?


Brown Bag, just around the corner from Sandella’s, offers $5 off lunch for customers who write a restaurant review on the social networking site, Yelp. What’s interesting is Brown Bag wants both postive and negative reviews. They actually care about what their customers think about Brown Bag!  Could Sandella’s have done something similar?

What do you think?

Could these small social media steps have helped Sandella’s on I Street survive? What else do think may have made a difference?

The Life of an Intern (and Extern)

Good help is sure hard to find. But we struck gold in the marketing group last summer with Geneviera and Phil.

As you start your search for summer 2011 interns, look for solid marketing young guns like these two. And when they arrive, make sure you treat them with the same respect and dignity I always offer to our help – err, I mean young professionals.

[thanks for being good sports, Geneviera and Phil!]

The Dreaded “Zombie RFP”

I’m a big fan of AMC’s new zombie series, “The Walking Dead.”  A child of the 80s, I’ve always loved those creepy, horror movies like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street.

Here’s something else that’s scary to us marketers in the AEC industry: the dreaded “Zombie RFP.” Ever heard of the Zombie RFP? I hope not. I want credit for that term!

The Zombie RFP is the fringe opportunity that is no go’d early only to come back to life a few days before the due date and make your life a living hell.

Tell me if you’ve encountered this situation: an RFP comes in for a decent project which your firm could likely complete. Perhaps it would look nice on your folks’ resumes and the photographs of the completed work would be pretty cool on your website.

But something is wrong. Actually many things are wrong.

Your Go/No Go analysis indicates that your firm didn’t take the time to visit with the client before the RFP was released, and now it has become apparent that there are two major competitors who have worked with the client in the last five years and have well-developed relationships. In addition, the RFP is asking for 5 relevant, completed projects from the prime with references in a specialized project type for which your firm doesn’t have great depth. Finally a detailed project approach to the scope is required along with a fee, but unfortunately, all of the potential project champions have a heavy project workload and are unavailable to help much. Sound familiar?

This RFP has flunked the Go/No Go test and you, the empowered marketing professional, have put this opportunity out of its misery. Hallelujah. No Go! You can see your hit rate increasing!

You go about your life working on other deadlines for which your firm is well qualified.

But then something incredible and not that uncommon happens. The opportunity comes back to life!

A higher-up who wasn’t involved in the initial No Go decision learns more about the project or is alerted to its existence by a potential teaming partner. It usually goes something like this – “I understand from a friend that even though the client is asking for 5 completed projects from the prime, we can submit unbuilt work or we can show projects from our teaming partners or consultants.” Or how about this – “I’ve been contacted by a potential teaming partner who plays golf with someone in the client’s office, and he has been encouraged to submit a proposal!”

So the RFP is now a Go and you drop everything to put together a pretty solid 11th hour response. Because you’re a professional and that’s what you do.

In my experience, these responses to Zombie RFPs rarely result in a shortlist, much less a win. I would argue that it’s almost better to NOT be shortlisted for an interview so your firm can learn its lesson, save money, and live to fight another day. Even a great interview can’t be counted on to save a flawed pursuit.

What do you think? Have you responded to Zombie RFPs? Have you had any success? What are some good reasons you’ve been given to chase seemingly unwinnable work?

Next week: How to bury the “Zombie RFP” for good.

I Wanna Be Made – Holiday e-Card Version

I recently discovered that MTV can be a great source of creative inspiration. No, The Situation’s abs did not get me back in the gym regularly, and I feel no need to take on someone on Real World/Road Rules challenge. Still, when it came time to create a holiday e-card for our company, the home of “16 and Pregnant” was there for the assist. 

Many of us would agree that the typical holiday e-greeting has become blasé. Of the dozens we received this year, only two or three truly stood out. (What do you think of going back to old fashioned print/sign cards?) Our group, therefore, was less than enthusiastic when tasked with producing our very own video e-card.

We started slow with a few pretty general ideas such as a series of quick answers from various staff members to the question “what is something cool or notable that happened to you in 2010?” After seeing a first draft, our lack of a solid organizing principle had us worried that we were crafting something more likely to win a Razzie Award than an Oscar.

[Cue Super Hero Theme Music] But then newest marketing superstar Kate Erdy was there to save us. She quickly saw that what we were trying to do was very similar to the opening of the MTV show “Made.” You know, it’s the self improvement show where teens try to be “made” into things like dancers, singers, and football players.

The opening is fast with quick responses from kids who say what they want to be made into: “I wanna be a drummer; I wanna feel good about myself.” The intro ends with the simple phrase, ” I wanna be Made.”

Suddenly we had our organizing theme. We needed a solid, attractive background. Very brief responses from staff were required. We needed to have quick transitions. Fun music was a must. And we could edit our video to give it a vintage, Super 8 feel.

We came so far from our first draft and our group was very happy with the result. Check out the video and let me know what you think.

SmithGroup Holiday Video

You graphic design types certainly live and breathe this everyday, but the process reminded me that inspiration comes from seeing something you like, re-crafting it, and making it your own. Design is an iterative process and it’ s mightly difficult to just sit there and come up with something brilliant out of thin air.

What did your firm do for a holiday card this year? What are your thoughts on e-card versus a “real” snail mail card?

Help Everybody Everyday

I was ecstatic when fellow SMPSer Matt Handal asked me if I was interested in exchanging blog posts a few weeks ago. I’ve followed his awesome AEC marketing  blog “Help Everybody Everyday”  for the past year and love the fresh insights he offers to both new marketers and grizzled vets. So of course I agreed.

For 100 Percent Overhead, Matt waxed poetic about architects and engineers being overhead too, while I crafted a little diddy about being a “rock star” at your firm. You can read it here:

Look out for guest blogging opportunities with folks that you’ve grown to admire. Exchanging posts can be a win/win!

Climb Every Mountain

Courtesy Mountain Trip

Earlier this year, Vivian Rigney, a college friend of mine, summited Mount Everest, surely the realization of a lifelong dream. And no doubt one of the riskiest things anyone could ever do! In fact, by climbing the world’s tallest mountain, my buddy became only the third Irish person to scale the highest peak on all seven continents.

Vivian has always been highly motivated. I remember one group project we did together while studying for our MBAs in Paris where he was able to land an interview with the head of Nokia France for a project we were doing. Score!

When not wielding his ice axe and crampons, Vivian is the President of Inside Us, an executive coaching firm he founded in 2007. Based in New York City, Vivian is coaching senior level executives at Fortune 500 companies all over the world.

I have other friends that have taken the entrepreneurial plunge as well. Ron Braatz, a high school buddy with a real knack for all things tech, is rocking it at Liftoff deploying Microsoft Cloud Solutions to a variety of local companies. Branding and graphics diva Jill Spaeth is doing her thing at Citizen Creative helping clients communicate messages and tell stories.

My point? Be inspired by Vivian, Ron and Jill. You can do anything you want in life. You control your own destiny. Set some lofty goals and go after them!

Even Architects and Engineers are Overhead

We have a special guest poster today. I first met Matt Handal, from, at the SMPS national conference. Since then he has become what I can only describe as my personal Jesus. Here he takes the concept of 100 percent overhead to heart.  

Thanks Brian…What am I going to talk about on Well, one of my favorite topics…overhead.

Overhead sometimes gets a bad rap. People in marketing get stuck with this label of overhead. “Oh, you are just overhead.” That’s something the technical staff might say to you to take you down a notch. They mean you aren’t billable, just a cost the company has to suck up. And don’t you wish you had a clever comeback?


“Hey, I’m more than overhead. I’m a person! With feelings! And you, my friend, just hurt every one of them!”

Don’t use that. Here is a better one. “Every hour I work on a proposal is billable. Every minute I sit down with a client in an effort to keep food on your table is billable.”

Yes, that is actually true.

I think overhead is something marketers should understand better, because it is misunderstood. Overhead is simply the cost of doing business. Electricity is overhead. Bonuses are overhead. Taxes are overhead. Rent is overhead. Everybody’s salary is overhead. Yes, everybody’s salary is overhead. Not just yours.

It gets better.


Further Down The Rabbit Hole

Based on the Federal Acquisitions Act (FAR) and generally accepted accounting principles there are two general categories for overhead to fall under: allowable and disallowable. Allowable means you may charge government clients this expense. Disallowable means, “don’t even think about charging us for that.”

An example of an allowable expense is writing a proposal. Another example is meeting with a client to talk about their construction program. An example of a disallowable expense is taking the chief engineer to a strip club.

So the government will allow you to bill them to cover the expense of your proposal preparation. It’s lumped into your rates. Most design is billed lump sum. There are no hours directly tied to the price. But even if your firm works on an hourly basis, each time Joe Engineer bills an hour it is ludicrous to think that this hourly rate just represents Joe Engineer’s effort.

But what if your clients are just from the private sector? Well, in that case we just bill the client for everything. As a firm, you control your costs by forcing a multiplier on Joe Engineer. So if you have a $300,000 assignment and identify a 3.0 multiplier, that means that Joe Engineer and friends do the job for $100,000. The firm takes the $300,000, then pays Joe Engineer, me, you and everybody else.


Further down the Rabbit Hole

I can get further into it and talk about accounting practices like variance. But the long and short of it is it’s important for marketers to understand how business works. You can learn more about pricing structures for A/E/C services on my blog. Also, you might want to check out my post, What You Ought To Know About A/E/C Marketing Costs. It also helps to gain a basic understanding of the FAR act. 

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll always be able to respond to any comment about overhead. I think that’s Brian’s point with this blog. Learn more and be more. That’s how you break free of the overhead stigma.


Matt Handal is a marketer, contributing editor of SMPS Marketer, and blogs about Marketing in the A/E/C industry.

External Engagement through Client Satisfaction Surveys

Being a marketer, I’m naturally a “people person” (and I suspect you are, too.) Sitting at my desk working on yet another proposal or interview does not always fire that something in me that loves to be out there meeting people, shaking hands and bantering endlessly. I love to be on the front lines, talking to my network, project partners and clients. So when I was recently asked to participate in my office’s client satisfaction survey program, I jumped at the chance to converse directly with my company’s clients on our project performance.

We all know that the best marketing a firm can do is to provide great service and quality products to existing clients. Most firms get a very high volume of projects from repeat clients. Last year my company’s repeat work rate was about 75%!  While colorful brochures, spot on proposals and dynamic presentations are effective in promoting your brand and winning work, there is no substitute for making your client smile after the completion of a project. On the other hand, no clever marketing campaign can rescue a bad product or a flawed customer experience.

So, how do you measure and understand your firm’s performance on that recently completed office building? You ask your client, of course! Successful survey programs today focus on “touch” – real, meaningful contact with clients that can clearly result in improved performance.

At my firm, a list of recently completed projects is generated and the President then sends a letter describing the survey to the client contacts. Within a few weeks, the designated surveyor (c’est moi!) contacts the client to set up either a phone interview or, ideally, an in-person discussion. In my experience the clients have been overwhelmingly supportive of the client satisfaction survey program and are very willing to take the time to necessary to complete the survey and offer and their perspective since they feel like someone is listening to them.

Questions on the survey range from client perceptions of our firm, to client expectations and overall performance assessment. Imagine the information a firm could glean from the following open-ended question: “If asked by another organization about our firm, what would you say?” Another portion of the survey that I’ve found very informative explores competitor and benchmark information by asking the client who she considers to be the top firms in the industry and why. Priceless.

In most cases, the entire survey takes as little as 20 minutes. The confidential information from the survey is provided to the relevant project principal as well as the appropriate office director.  (By the way, it is perfectly acceptable – even preferable – to conduct these client surveys at an early stage of the process, prior to project completion. Obviously identifying and correcting issues as early as possible is ideal.)

Effective client surveying can help your companies maintain strong relationships with existing clients,  provide information that enables damaged relationships to be repaired, and improve performance across the entire firm. As marketers, you likely already possess the skills and enthusiasm necessary to unlock this vital information.

Does your company conduct client surveys? Do you participate? What did I miss?

Comcast Really Does Care (kinda)

No more rabbit ears! We’re finally jumping into the 21st Century over here at chez Reilly and now have cable television. I can’t wait to watch Mad Men tonight.

But getting the cable hooked up yesterday through Comcast proved to be a mighty struggle. We literally wasted an entire day waiting for the Comcast technician to show up to complete a 15 minute job.

When we ordered the service, they gave us the famous three-hour window; someone would show up to help us between 8AM-11AM. We hate being stuck in the house, especially on a Saturday, but perhaps someone would be there early and we could still salvage the day. But at 11:30, we still hadn’t heard from anybody and decided to call. We learned there was “a delay at dispatch” and someone should be by at 1:30PM.

I was really fuming by 3PM when there was still no sign of Comcast and decided to launch into “I’ll get them using social media” mode. I remembered reading about @ComcastCares, the Twitter channel established by Frank Eliason, that was supposed to be a great way for angry customers to vent their frustrations with the cable giant. I fired off a message through Twitter asking what was going on and complained that my family and I had lost almost an entire day waiting for their technician. My kids had been amped up to go to the park for hours.

I was really surprised that almost immediately I received a response from @ComcastMelissa who promised to talk to her contacts in Maryland (where I live) and get someone over to my house pronto. And it worked! Ronald from Comcast showed up pretty soon after tweeting with Melissa and very quickly hooked up our cable. It literally took 15 minutes.

I used Twitter to write back to Melissa thanking her for helping but also offering that the company needs to communicate better if there are significant delays like this. I mean, one phone call saying they were running late would have been extremely helpful. Melissa tweeted back that she was going to give us a late service credit and – get this – ask me to apologize to the kids for her!

None of this makes up for the fact that Comcast showed up almost eight hours late for a 15 minute service call. But knowing someone is out there listening to my frustrations, trying to help, and saying “sorry, we messed up” really goes a long way with me!

What about you? Have you had any bad experiences that have been alleviated using social media tools?