After months of waiting, you get the phone call you've been hoping for: The project you entered in a design awards program has been chosen as a winner. You let out a cheer, send a congratulatory e-mail around the office, and pop open the champagne. Now what?

Having your design skills validated by other distinguished architects is no small thing. As a mark of personal achievement, a professional award carries more weight than getting your work published in the popular press, because it's judged by a more critical collective eye. When a jury of peers gives a thumbs-up to your talent, it lets you know you where you stand and what you're doing right.

For a handful of firms, such validation is its own reward; no further fuss is called for. Some architects, in fact, are ambivalent about touting their own honors. They don't want to sound boastful. George Suyama, FAIA, a partner with the Seattle-based Suyama Peterson Deguchi, has a philosophy that's in sync with the firm's understated sense of design. "The announcement of design awards is more successful when it doesn't come from us," he says. "We don't have a large firm that demands full-time marketing. We're in that dilemma zone thinking we should do more, but feeling uncomfortable about doing it."

What you do with awards, of course, will depend on why you submit projects in the first place, and on the size of your firm. Carlos Jimenez Studio, in Houston, also plays it low-key. As the owner of a four-person firm and a professor of architecture at Rice University, Carlos Jimenez views design awards as a measure of achievement within academic circles, rather than as grist for the marketing mill. "Awards become part of our resume, but are not something we pursue for marketing in the proper sense of the word," he says. "For me, they're more interesting in the sense that they're appreciations by others in the field; it's nice to get positive feedback. But it's not something we advertise very much."

Joan Capelin, Capelin Communications in Manhattan, offers up a very different perspective. A communications consultant for design professionals, she is convinced that a design award isn't the end, but the means to an end, which is to attract clients and talented staff. "It's the golden door," she says, "the chance to put forth your approach to design. A lot of design professionals miss the perspective going forward." Capelin believes that design awards carry a lot of meaning and that architects should seize the opportunity to make the most of them, in a tasteful way.

small but strategic

Small- to mid-sized firms have devised simple, cost-effective ways to get the word out. Roger Ferris + Partners, Westport, Conn., works hard to accumulate kudos, entering three or four carefully selected awards programs each year. In order to defray some of the marketing costs while capitalizing on visibility, should a project win, the firm gives top priority to sponsoring organizations that have a strong Web presence. "We recently picked up a project from a client I never would have had contact with in South Carolina, because of an AIA award that got posted on some Web site somewhere," says Ferris, AIA, adding: "You ultimately have to distinguish yourself by your work. You underscore a project and a client will take a second look. If you're trying to convince them to try something extraordinary, the award helps."

Upon hearing good news, the first thing Obie G. Bowman Architect, AIA, does is to update the online resume. The three-member firm may also mail postcards to consultants, friends, and clients--past to prospective. "Our having won the award is beneficial to current clients," says Helena Bowman, Obie Bowman's wife and office manager, in Healdsburg, Calif. "They're gratified they've made the right choice." She spends about eight hours putting together a photo postcard explaining why the project won and what the design attempted to accomplish. In the scheme of things, the printing costs are negligible--less than $200 for 500 cards. Bowman also sends a press release to local newspapers, which she says almost always carry the announcement.

Most small firms, which lack dedicated marketing departments, could use a little help writing press releases. But Bowman is on the right track. Capelin says press releases should announce not only that you won but why, emphasizing that your firm has a particular gift for something. Maybe you're on the leading edge of a trend, or good with color, or clever about how money was spent. Shelter magazines, local publications, and newspapers should be on the mailing list. "And don't ignore cable or even network television. In any metro area there's always a morning talk show," says Capelin, whose new book, Principles for Principals: Insights and Anecdotes About What Makes Professional Firms Thrive, is due out this month. Whereas press releases are usually reserved for the media, Internet announcements can be broadcast to "just about anyone who would possibly care," Capelin says. "Even if your business is colleges and universities and you do one house a year, everyone has the common experience of living in a house."

accolade etiquette

Clients, of course, are the first people who should receive the news of an award, not only as a professional courtesy but because their funding and creative spirit made the project possible. And so the praise needs to be turned back on them. Jessica Olshen, account director at Clifford Public Relations in Manhattan, recommends that architects send an e-mail or handwritten note of thanks to the client for helping the firm to build a stellar body of work. "What architects owe to clients can't be overstated," she says. "It's good business, but also just true to acknowledge that." Some architects take the gesture a step farther by framing a subsequent article about the award and giving it to the owners in a celebratory way.

When the winning house is in a region where an architect has done multiple projects, Olshen can make the honor go farther. She sends a notice not only to the owners but also to former and prospective clients in the area. "It builds their pride in their home and the region they're living in," she says, while planting the possibility for new work. "Everyone wants to be working with a star." For example, one of Olshen's clients, New York City-based architect Dennis Wedlick, AIA, has many clients in the Hudson Valley, a popular weekend destination for Manhattan residents. "The fact that he's able to have that kind of foothold in the region is due to the support of clients in that area," she says.

Krueck & Sexton, Chicago, takes a similar approach. When word of a winner comes in, the firm e-mails thank-you notes to everyone who made the project happen, from clients to contractors and furniture installers. Rico Cedro, AIA, the firm's director of sustainability, will often include a short press release that describes who gave the award and what made the project unique. "In the case of corporate clients, many times we'll see that verbiage appear on their Web site and reports," Cedro explains. "So, first and foremost, we use those people who are involved closely with the project to spread word to the community and multiply our effect."

So that it can respond quickly, the firm has already gone over the ground rules with the client about what it will call the project and what level of information can be released to the general public. "Before the project is finished, it's very important to get that done, as part of the normal process," Cedro says. "Some people are sensitive about telling the acreage of the property; some want to say the house was designed for a family, not a family of four." At that point, photography has already been carefully choreographed. "Most people give us 100 percent access to the building, but sometimes there's artwork they don't want people to know about," Cedro says. "Then we'll photograph it either before it's installed or not make those pieces part of the shoot."

Parallel communications go out, usually by e-mail, to selected clients who have a particular interest in the winning project or project type. Web site connections also spread the word instantaneously while delivering a one-two punch. The firm posts up to 10 photos of the winning project on its Web site, distilling the essence of the award to a few sentences and a snappy headline. It also provides a link to the sponsoring organization, so virtual visitors can get more detailed information. "Occasionally we'll do a mailing as well, but we like the freshness of being able to move it out electronically, especially to people we're seeing soon," Cedro says. "I like to get to people before the project appears in print. Many AIA awards will be in a subsequent issue of the professional magazine, so if people pick up the magazine they see it again."

a winning proposition

For large production firms, entering design awards programs--lots of them--is crucial for name recognition. Because they must compete for a complex set of clients and funding, such firms have a more diverse group of people they need to impress. The $30,000 to $50,000 per year that the Irvine, Calif.-based KTGY Group earmarks for awards programs, for example, is viewed as money well spent.

"When you submit and win awards, all of a sudden magazines will call and want your opinion about lifestyle trends," says principal John Tully, who oversees a staff of 190. He estimates that the firm shells out $5,000 to $9,000 per submittal on photography, entry fees, and the cost of assembling the package. "Winning awards works internally, helping us recruit staff. It works externally to enhance our visibility, and it also helps our clients," Tully says. "You take that $9,000 and spread it out among all those items, and it's very cost effective. A lot of egos are involved in the residential market, from architects to developers to bankers and builders. They're all on our mailing list."

Each year, KTGY recruits 25 interns, and displaying the design awards on its Web site gets the attention of talented people across the country. Even if a project doesn't win, the simple fact that the partners deemed it award-worthy boosts employee morale. "That's as important as the outside PR to us," Tully says. "We do boards of all the awards submittals and put them up on the wall. The team that worked on the project does an evening presentation after they've won an award. Wherever they are on the ladder, they feel proud because the company feels proud."

KTGY also uses awards to garner goodwill with its business associates. Some of its clients, particularly developers who joint-venture with other partners, participate 50-50 in awards submittals. The kudos boost the developers' credibility in the industry and help them acquire financing for subsequent projects. And based on the personalized press releases that KTGY sends out to its partners on the project, many boutique builders pick up the story line in their own advertising.

In choosing which awards programs to enter, the firm looks for a blend of venues that serve different purposes. Local awards are sufficient for recruiting, Tully says, while national awards programs, such as the Urban Land Institute's, give its partners more banking clout. And when it's time to promote an award, the firm seeks out media sources that are willing to display photos. It also favors organizations that will work with the firm to develop an angle for a feature story. "Maybe it's some noteworthy technology, such as the steel-frame construction we're doing for Lennar," Tully says.

good connections

Ultimately, the best strategy is to select design awards programs that are aligned with the firm's goals. For some architects, that means shooting for awards that are likely to be picked up by prestigious newspapers and magazines. Other firms who want to become known for a specialty, such as sustainable design, might submit projects to green building awards programs. In that case, Olshen recommends they follow up by adding to their Web site a prominent section featuring the winning project. "When you get one award-worthy project in the news, it gives the impression that you have a real concentration there," she says. "Make sure your Web site is updated with awards announcements. The Internet is such an important information tool; people shop for everything online now, even items as big-ticket and as intimate as a designer home."

A press release from an influential organization that sponsored the award can also convey just the right cachet. But since some groups, such as publications, usually aren't in the business of writing press releases, Joan Capelin suggests that architects ask to draft one that the firm can mail out on the organization's letterhead. It lends a lot more credibility than if the firm were to send its own.

"It's what you do with an award that matters," Capelin says. "If you haven't taken the time to develop a mailing list, and budgeted for that bottle of champagne that goes with the announcement to the owner of the house, then you're not amortizing all the effort. Spend not just what you can afford, but a little more to make sure everyone knows why they should look at you in a new way because of the award."

Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.


free trade

Winning awards means nothing unless the news gets out to the right public," says Kristen Calkins, marketing director at the architectural firm Surber Barber Choate Hertlein, in Atlanta. For creating local job prospects, one of its favorite venues is the annual Georgia AIA awards program, which this year teamed up with the Atlanta Business Chronicle to announce the residential winners. Ruth Ann Rosenberg, planning director for AIA Georgia, believes residential design should have its own forum for recognition. As a result of the co-sponsorship, each of the winners, SBCH included, was featured in the Atlanta Business Chronicle's new "Living in Atlanta" section.

The Virginia AIA, in Richmond, also attempts to raise its winners' profiles with consumers by publishing the awards in the membership-directory issue of its magazine, Inform. The chapter prints extra copies, which are sent out to people who call the office looking for an architect. Margaret Tinsley, Virginia AIA's director of communications, also sends a press release to media in the winners' markets, including newspapers and alumni publications.

The digital era has made all of this easier. Washington, D.C.'s national AIA office upped its coverage of award winners this past year by creating an online image gallery. It contains three or four images per project (with photo credits) that the media can download for print. And when writers call the office inquiring about design trends, names are dropped. "We get a lot of phone calls from the media asking about design trends," says Cara Battaglini, media relations specialist. "The first thing we do is go to our honor awards and look at what is there. Usually we'll provide those projects as examples of good trends."