One of a Kind: Dr. Tami Hausman on Listening, Talking, and Taking Action
By Julia Gamolina
Dr. Tami Hausman is the Founder and President of Hausman LLC, providing expert communications advice to top firms in the design industry. She is a strategic thinker and planner who has helped many clients to define their communications goals and successfully implement their outreach programs. She frequently writes and lectures about trends and topics in architecture and urban planning. Her professional experience is supplemented by a doctorate in architectural history.
Prior to co-founding Hausman LLC, Dr. Hausman’s experience included just about everything related to marketing and public relations for architecture firms including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Cooper, Robertson & Partners. Most recently, she was Senior Consultant at Capelin Communications, where she worked as a PR consultant to the A/E/C industry. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University and a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in art history from New York University. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Tami talks about building her unique career and advises young architects to talk to anyone who will talk to them.
JG: You studied French and semiotics in college, and then started working at KPF after graduating. Tell me about how you got your start in the industry.
TH: Semiotics is a study of signs and symbols in culture – a lot of philosophy, literature, linguistics, a very hybrid major. I found architectural history through it – architecture was a way for me to apply all the theories I was learning about. That time was the height of Post Modernism, and the buildings were so strange and interesting.
When I graduated, I threw everything I had into a car and drove to New York City with a friend. I thought about doing something in architecture, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I could do with my background. I spent three weeks on the phone calling everybody who was doing something related. I got some informational interviews that way, and then two job offers, one of which was to do marketing at KPF.
Tell me about that – how did that experience plant the seeds for your career to come?
I started in 1989 when the economy was booming; there was a lot of work. Then, in 1991, the economy dipped and I got laid off. After a few more jobs in marketing, I went back to grad school. I finished grad school in 2001, right when 9/11 happened, and the economy dipped again. Then I started my own company in 2008, when the economy really tanked. Years later, Gene Kohn, president of KPF, said to me, “Just make sure, if you’re going to do any big thing in your career, that you let me know so I can prepare for it.” [laughs]
I worked at a few places in architecture in-house, and I did that to see if I liked architecture – I was just out of school and I didn’t really know what it entailed. I ended up liking it, but had the idea to get my PhD in art and architectural history. I got my PhD and still did some part-time work, in marketing, but then started to get more into public relations.
What did you like about the work you did in architecture?
I learned very early on that people who were visually oriented were not always as good at communicating what it is they were doing – and they were doing great things. This is a vast generalization, and not every architect is like this, but architects aren’t always good at talking about their work. I realized I was good at helping them write and talk in a way that didn’t come naturally to them, and I loved helping people to communicate better.
Can you explain the difference between marketing and public relations for those who are new to this?
The difference is that marketing is about selling your products and PR is about reputation building and increasing external visibility through knowledge and expertise.
So after your PhD, you started to hone in more and more on PR?
The thing is, even though I went to get my PhD, I never really wanted to teach – I love research and writing, but I didn’t want to be isolated from what architects were actually doing. I realized early on that working with designers on a day to day basis and dealing with budgets and clients and sites and context, was the best way to participate. Abstract theory is great, but seeing people on the ground and dealing with real issues was interesting to me.
After my PhD, I still wanted to be in architecture. I was actually interested in curating – I was second in line to get a job at MoMA as a curator, but didn’t get the job and went back to marketing in-house. Then I had an opportunity to join a small PR firm, similar to one I have now, and that’s where I went in 2006.
How did you decide to work in-house for a firm in marketing and communications versus working for a PR agency?
Frankly when I was younger, there weren’t that many options for doing PR out of house. There weren’t a lot of PR firms at the time simply doing PR, and even marketing was still new for a lot of architecture firms at the time – the law changed in 1977, but before that, a lot of architecture firms couldn’t advertise or market their services. There’s a Supreme Court case, Bates & O'Steen v. Arizona, about all this. So when I was working in the late 80s, marketing for architects was new, and PR was even newer.
How did you make the decision to finally start your own PR firm?
I was working for a small PR firm for architects for two years and really liked it. I worked with Joan Capelin at Capelin Communications. I learned a tremendous amount from her – she was an amazing mentor and was a pioneer of the field. Eventually, a time just came when I knew I was ready to do my own thing – I turned 40 and I could just feel it. The decision was a big leap of faith, but I was ready.
You’ve had your firm now for ten years. What have been the major milestones for Hausman LLC?
Some are pretty standard, like getting official office space. When I started my company, I worked out of my apartment – this was also the year I got married to my second husband. We were living together in a small one-bedroom apartment and the dining room table became my desk for a year. Then he moved into a bigger office and had some extra space, so I moved into that office. All of the sudden, I had a home base specifically for the business and didn’t have my cats running across my keyboard [laughs]. Having a physical address for the business was a big one.
Also when I started, I got two big clients almost immediately, so hiring staff was the next milestone, which was good because I never wanted the company to be just me. We had one really big international client who sought us out and that was really exciting for us, that someone had heard of us and wanted to work together. Growing our footprint has been exciting to watch.
Where are you in your career today?
This moment is very exciting; in May, we had a party celebrating our ten-year milestone. I feel like I blinked and there you have ten years. When we were just in the business for two years, and people would ask me how long we’ve been around, I would have to emphasize my long history in the field before I went off on my own [laughs], but now, we have ten years!
I still feel like the company is a start-up because I learn things every day, but we are established. Looking forward, we’re in growth mode – to grow into other industries beyond architecture, engineering, and construction, and to grow our presence in some cities where we aren’t already active.
Given your consistent focus on marketing and communications, you have a really unique perspective on the field. What advice would you give to architects?
The biggest challenge for architects is differentiating their firms. We see a lot of firms describing themselves in the same way that many others do – a lot of language gets picked up and repeated. I don’t know if it’s because it’s hard for people or they haven’t thought about it, but everybody needs to find an authentic message. Language is powerful – it really drives your mindset. Getting specific about who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing is actually really empowering.
Architects also need to realize that architecture is a business – it's a creative endeavor for sure, but it’s undoubtedly a business, and architects need to understand that marketing, business development, and PR are essential components of their work. The business side of things is very real and prominent but for whatever reason, it’s uncomfortable for a lot of architects – maybe because they haven’t been exposed to it, or don't have that knowledge or experience. Architecture is a tough field – it’s up and down, and nothing is straightforward – but it's key to really know who you are, and you do need to think about it and be able to articulate it.
Looking back broadly, what have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced and what have you learned?
One of the biggest challenges was that there really wasn’t an established career path in the field for someone like me. For an architect, the path might seem really clear – you go to school, you train to become an architect, and you get licensed – but what does someone do when they’re interested in architecture and went to school for semiotics and French? There isn’t that yellow brick road waiting for you.
Similarly, when I went to get my PhD in art history, a lot of people were getting PhDs so that they could go into academia, and I didn’t want to go into academia. I graduated and again, no one really knew what to do with me, and that was a challenge. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a trailblazer because I wasn’t doing something that others were doing necessarily, I was just always the one who was in architecture that wasn’t an architect, in academia but not aspiring to be an academic. I just had to trust my instinct that somehow this was all going to make sense. If, when I got an undergraduate degree in semiotics and French, someone said that in 20 years I would have my own PR firm, I would have laughed in her face [laughs].
What have been some of the biggest highlights and what are you most proud of?
Professionally, I’m proud of my PhD. That was a labor of love, and I really enjoyed it and learned a lot – a way of thinking and a way of approaching the world. It gave me the confidence to question, think deeply, be strategic, and develop my own voice. The process of being pushed on my voice was really essential.
What was your dissertation?
The architecture and planning of Paris during the Second World War. Pretty intense! [laughs]
So cool. What else?
Since we’ve had the firm, we’ve had one of our clients on the front page of The New York Times, and that was really big. The biggest successes, though, have been having repeat clients that have stuck with us for years and getting our clients exciting opportunities that they might have never thought of. The satisfaction of helping people, giving them advice, and leading them down a rewarding path, is wonderful. Those successes, while they may not always be as big as the front page of The New York Times, happen every day, and having clients put their trust in us and helping them is what makes me feel good.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I really believe that you have to be open to exploring and enjoy what you do. If you really want to be satisfied with your career, you have to feel like it’s something you’re really engaged in and that it’s not just a job. Follow what you enjoy, even if you don’t know where it’s leading. For me it was something – anything – to do with architecture. When people ask me what I do in the field, I would say I’ve done everything except be an architect [laughs]. They laugh, but it’s true! I’ve built a career by getting a PhD in art history and working for architecture firms, having a PR firm, and being on boards at organizations, so I’ve been driven by this passion to be around architects and learn how I could best contribute. Stick with it if you feel like it’s somewhere you need to be.
What advice would you give to those wanting to start their own business?
I think if people feel compelled to do it, they should – I’m really glad I started my company. It’s one of those things where you just have to go with it, and not think too much about it, or you’ll probably never do it. You can’t second-guess yourself. I would recommend having a good support system – many different people supported me and I was very fortunate that I knew a lot of people in the business that I could talk to. There are a lot of resources in New York and I’ve built an amazing network. I’ve been in the profession now, in New York, since 1989, so when I started my company, I had 20 years of contacts. My advice to people would also be not to burn bridges – I have clients now that I met when I was 21 years old, when I didn’t know my right hand from my left hand [laughs]. Because I worked hard then, it paid off, and because I didn’t alienate people, I had those people coming back to me.
What advice would you give to those just starting their careers?
To talk to anyone who will talk to you.
Story of my life!
Yes, exactly! Talk to anyone who will talk to you – right now when younger people call me, I always try to make time for them because I never would have gotten to where I am now if I didn’t have great people who guided me. I had lunch with people, I called people, and all this led me to my next steps.
So talk to everyone and also try different things, get involved with organizations, take classes, get on committees – people are looking for help all the time and they’re looking for committed, smart people. People recognize when you put in effort. You also have to explore a lot of different things! The reason I’m on a board of an organization now is because I basically said to them ‘I love what you do, put me to work!’ You have to have a little bit of chutzpah and be curious about different things. Really explore, especially in a place like New York because there are so many opportunities and things to do.