Construction doesn't understand marketing, according to John Pratt, chairman of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. He spoke to Marcus Fairs about his frustration with an industry that thinks his discipline is about printing more business cards
John Pratt has spent a lifetime working in the construction industry, starting out as a civil engineer with Halcrow and Costain before setting up a management consultancy advising industry firms. His year-long tenure at the Chartered Institute of Marketing will end next month.

What does the CIM do?
It's the professional, standard-setting body for marketers, chartered by the Privy Council. We try to encourage people to get qualifications in marketing. Beyond that we're trying to get the corporate world to recognise that if they're good at marketing and employ good marketers, that will drive value down to the bottom line. We define marketing as "the process that identifies, anticipates and supplies customer needs efficiently and profitably".

You wanted to use your presidency of the CIM to improve construction industry marketing. What have you done?
We've tried to make marketing more accessible. [We're trying to set up] accredited continuous professional development modules that would perhaps be compulsory. Hopefully, they will tempt construction professionals into broader management topics. We've also expanded the CIM's Construction Industry Group, setting up regional groups for people interested in construction marketing, organising seminars and showing that marketing isn't difficult.

Have you succeeded?
This year has been full of pleasures but also frustration. The industry has never been more dynamic structurally, with all the takeovers and mergers, but in terms of changing work patterns and attitudes, it's really quite frustrating. Many of us are desperate to see change, but there's a level of inertia and intransigence that seems to frustrate it. The industry is so short-termist that its attitude to marketing is either "we're doing so well we don't need marketing", or "it's really tough so we have to cut costs". I've had letters recently from marketers who've said: "I've just been made redundant along with the rest of the marketing department." They're seen as disposable when things get tough.

Do construction executives understand marketing?
There isn't a connection in the minds of many CEOs between my definition of marketing, which is about generating long-term, sustainable quality business, and their view of marketing, which is printing more business cards. I think it's a failure of strategic vision. What's missing is the quality of thinking about the markets they should be in and what their core competencies are and trying to get a cross-match.

Why doesn't the industry understand what marketing is?
Maybe it's marketing's fault, maybe we haven't defined it correctly. Or maybe in the education of construction management there is no marketing. I suspect it's a bit of both.

Can contractors' problems be pinned on poor marketing?
Contractors traditionally offered a fairly wide portfolio in the hope that if one bit went down another would go up, without recognising that you can't be good at everything. There's a failure to sit down and ask: "What am I really good at?" and then dominate that area. It's the contractors who've been caught in the general contracting area - those who build anything for anybody -who have been horribly squeezed.

For example?
Costain is the one that really makes me sad. I don't think they understood marketing at all. When I was a young engineer they had a great reputation. It lost sight of their roots in the UK as it tried to go and build a big overseas market. That went quiet, as it did for many British firms, so it came home and found they had lost their position. They're a minor player now and they're trying to focus on small profitable areas. But up until recently, I don't think they understood the idea that you need to focus on what you're good at.

Are any firms getting it right?
There are some good businesses out there, often the small ones, the privately owned ones, which actually recognise where their strengths and their markets lie. I think the big, private contractors are better-run in that respect because they recognise where their strengths are. Public companies get into the most frightful short-termism because of the pressure of the markets.

Which construction firms are good at marketing?
I would say hats off to Jarvis, Amec and Amey. Why are other people flocking like lemmings into facilities management and those sorts of areas they pioneered? Those are the people who have done some strategic thinking about markets, and have recognised that if you can get long-term relationships [with customers] then you can generate margins. WS Atkins has got a vision of serving the market a different way. While the other consulting engineers have decided to dominate specific areas, Atkins has said it's going to focus on a long-term relationship with clients through the life of all their buildings. O'Rourke has also got a great vision of what it's about. That market isn't a glamorous area to operate in, but in terms of its technology and sophistication and its ability to dominate a pretty tough market, O'Rourke is doing a great marketing job.

What about architects?
It's odd that as a marketing consultant in the construction industry, we've never worked for a firm of architects. We've worked for contractors, consulting engineers, materials suppliers, the lot. It's clear that architecture is a very frightened profession; you sense there's this desperation about protecting their role. If they are any good there should be absolutely no need for protectionism.

What will happen to architecture firms who act this way?
A reputation is made in the marketplace. It might be comfortable to have a licence to practise but in reality it doesn't push people to think about what makes them better or unusual or different. There are some great names out there, signature architects who've built their reputation, and they're getting the work. And there are other, middling, people who will continue to struggle.

Is poor marketing a particularly British trait?
The Americans don't have this nervousness about marketing that UK construction professionals have. The number of people who've said to me: "I'm not going to convince people to do something they don't want." There's this sense that marketing is somehow like selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It isn't understood that it's about matching need, whereas Americans have no qualms about getting out there and promoting themselves. They're extraordinarily aggressive about doing it and they don't give up.

Is American marketing savvy a threat to British firms?
The Parsons Brinckerhoffs, the Bechtels and others who've come into the UK market have made very strong pitches for business. They're very aggressive; they've gone in and talked to government and the big clients like Railtrack. It's worrying for the Brits who are perhaps not so sure what their mission is or are less willing to project themselves.