“Look Up”: A Behind-the-Scenes Peek at Architect Group’s New PR Campaign

Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects, shares some insight on the collaboration and thinking that went into building its recently launched three-year public awareness campaign.

What do mushrooms, competitive swimming, and frozen foods  have in common?

If you guessed recently reinvigorated public relations and advertising strategies, you’d be correct.

Associations in all three industries launched awareness campaigns in the last year, and adding to the list in 2015 is the American Institute of Architects, which recently kicked off a three-year public awareness campaign to educate the public about architects and the work they do.

“We are undertaking this campaign—which was months in the making—to not only change the perception of architecture and architects among the public but to also place the architect back into the national discussion on infrastructure, economy, the health of communities, and the future of our country,” AIA CEO Robert Ivy, said in a statement.

AIA, which has faced some criticism within the industry—architects have said that the association’s membership dues are too high, and it’s been accused of catering to larger firms instead of smaller shops and sole practitioners—implemented the campaign largely at the behest of members.

“Our members, 85,500 members, have asked for years for a national advertising campaign,” Ivy told Associations Now. “Three years ago, we conducted an extensive survey, one of the largest we’ve ever done—33,000 people we reached out to. We found that, by and large, the public and our collaborators admire architects, but they do not understand what architects do. Now, that’s a disparity: They like us, but they don’t know what we do.”

To try to fix that discrepancy, a group of AIA staff and elected officials met with marketing firm The Purpose Institute to develop an integrated campaign, titled “Look Up,” which began in December with a social media push featuring a 90-second video and was augmented this past weekend with several 30-second national TV spots. Next year, AIA is planning an even bigger public awareness push that includes two new ad campaigns.

While this isn’t the first time the association has launched an ad campaign, this new one is the largest in scale. Below, Ivy shared some behind-the-scenes insight on what went into creating its latest advertising endeavor.

Why go the broadcast route?

It’s only one element of this campaign. We began with social media, which is actually a great way to begin. We began with a 90-second spot, and that acts as a focus group in a way.

It primarily went to our own community, architects, but it went beyond that too. It had 12 million impressions plus. We also got constructive criticism, and we took that criticism and applied it to the TV spots.

The goal is that once someone has seen these spots, that, over time, they’ll turn to their neighbor, their colleague, a member of their community and they’ll say, “Didn’t I see your work or the work of your organization on national TV?” And that will begin a dialogue.

These are not meant to sell architecture services. They’re not meant to be a comprehensive checklist for all the things that architects can do or offer. Instead they’re meant to invite people to look up and think about the fact that this group of people helped to bring those things about and then to engage [people] in dialogue about what architects can offer over a range of issues.

Why roll the campaign out over a three-year period?

Well, for one thing, AIA has had briefer campaigns in the past in a variety of media, but it’s been a very long time. Second, to be effective this requires a bit of time. If the first step is consciousness-raising, which literally gains the attention of an audience, then you have to go back and ask and answer questions. And that will be the duration of the campaign.

How will you be measuring the effectiveness of the campaign?

We have analytical tools that are already in place. We began with a baseline. We’re going to be tracking that and sharing it with our board of directors and counsel. We’re going to be looking at how we’ve been able to change public perception—that’s on the television side of things. We’re also tracking our social media.

Ultimately, I think the answer’s going to be when that neighbor or community member turns to an AIA member, an architect, and says, “Aren’t you an architect?” That is the entrée to the larger dialogue. That is the ultimate goal.

What advice do you have for other associations for implementing a national, multi-channel campaign?

Honing the message is the first and most important part.

Frankly, our message had too many parts and pieces, and it took us about a year of hard work internally with our elected leaders, with our president and our executive committees to hone our message before we went public. I think is the hardest thing to do.

It’s very easy to say, “We need advertising,” as if that were going to solve the problem. It will not solve the problem, I do not believe, until the message is clarified, and that has to come organically through the organization. It has to be a result of consensus and vision on the part of the leadership, whether they are staff members, leadership within the organization itself, or the elected leadership.

When the message is ready, then it’s time to engage the marketing and public relations professionals to help carry the message forward. … It’s not enough to simply go in, throw up your hands, and say, “We’re great.”

What advice do you have for associations implementing a national public awareness campaign? Let us know in the comments.

A scene from AIA's "Look Up" commercial. (YouTube screenshot)

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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