Like many of you, we at Hinge have watched as events related to the COVID-19 pandemic unfold before our eyes. The scale of global health and its economic impact has profoundly affected us all.

My own perspective on the crisis has evolved, and I worry about the wide range of challenges faced by our clients around the world and their families. Even with the relatively minor inconveniences of shelter-in-place, spotty internet, and overloaded videoconferencing, I am very thankful for the tools and resilient people that I work with every day. We have clients at the epicenters of the pandemic who are able to translate their experiences into practical advice on essential infrastructure, infection control, and logistics. Others are impacted by the growing number of major national and international events that face delay and cancellation. 

In the face of these extraordinary times, I am reassessing some of the perspectives gleaned from our 2020 High-Growth Study for AEC firms. The research is still relevant, even in unpredictable times. But it needs new context to make sense in today’s upended world.

Many industry leaders I’ve been speaking with over the past few weeks share a similar outlook. We’ve had healthy discussions that have focused on which data is most relevant in today’s conditions. With that in mind, I’ve chosen a few highlights from our AEC focused industry study that may help you find some objectively solid ground in a choppy sea of shifting perspectives. 

Hinge’s 2020 High Growth Study: AEC Edition represents almost $24 billion in 2019 reported revenue, and it oversampled larger firms by design in order to deliver more balanced and relevant insights.

Insight 1: Recruiting and retaining the best talent remained the #1 challenge faced by AEC firms

AEC firms continued to grapple with intense competition for top talent across a wide range of roles. This continues a 3+ year trend. Considering the stresses facing markets overall—and preliminary reports from the staffing and recruiting world—we can expect a fair amount of volatility in the labor market over the coming months. Now is a time to show as much solidarity and support for your MVPs as you can, and if you’re in a position to do so, there may be opportunities to hire top talent you struggled to secure in the past. 

The number one challenge identified by high-growth firms (those that grow 20% or more year over year) was unpredictability in the marketplace. We’ll have to wait until next year to see if they were better prepared for this pandemic, but at least they were considering possible disruptions. Which brings us to the next finding.

Insight 2: High-growth AEC firms conducted considerably more formal research on their target audiences 

33% of these faster growing AEC firms (large, small and in-between) reported conducting formal, structured research on their most important audiences. Interestingly, a lower percentage (26%) of slower-growing firms also reported conducting similar research. Average growth firms reported the lowest levels of structured research, coming in under 10%. While our study did not explore the quality of these reported research studies, the high-growth cohort did seem to “put their finger” on more relevant issues and strategies from Hinge’s perspective. Teams that are equipped with more relevant, timely and practical business intelligence are better equipped to be more resilient and command a stronger market position.

Figure 1. AEC Firms conducting structured research.

Insight 3: Brand differentiation is the top priority of AEC marketing leadership

AEC firms identified standing out in a fiercely competitive, rapidly evolving industry as their top marketing priority. AEC marketing teams are supporting this imperative  by investing in content generation and social media. Considering our expanding social distancing mandates, it is interesting that high-growth firms also find marketing videos and podcasts impactful. These are primarily digital techniques that have wide reach and deep engagement. They also support an overall strategic theme of professional services high-growth leaders — digital disruption. There are still relatively few AEC firms that consistently apply these techniques as part of their differentiation strategy. The on-ramp requires time, some budget planning and (often) learning new skills. 

I hope these preliminary insights will provide some small help to you and your teams as you adapt and prioritize your day-to-day approach to your brand’s position and communication. Please don’t hesitate to drop me a line or share your thoughts

You can download Hinge’s AEC specific industry analysis of our 2020 High Growth Study here. We’ll have more related insights and virtual events coming up so stay tuned, stay healthy and stay flexible!

Karl Feldman