27 Mar, 2019

Veteran Member Spotlight: Melanie Vracas

Anne Morris


Read time: 4 minutes, 14 seconds

For this month’s veteran member spotlight, we spoke with Melanie Vracas, Principal at Cakewalk Strategies. Find out why Melanie stays engaged with SMPS and what drives her approach to our industry.


Name: Melanie Vracas

Company: Cakewalk Strategies

Title/role: Founder/Principal/Chief Strategist/Relentless Rainmaker/Client Whisperer/Proposal Wizard

Hometown & Current town: Alexandria, VA

Alma Mater(s): Sweet Briar College (yes it still exists)

Family/pets: French Bulldog (Kyra) Cat (Henry) Fish (Naughty)

Food you always crave: Mexican

Favorite celebrity/brand to follow on social: trewrussellbrand

Favorite app: For pleasure = Instagram, For life = Todoist

Currently binging on Netflix: Russian Doll

When I’m not at work you’ll find me: Cooking for friends and family

Dream job: I’m living it!

Let’s Get To It….

What got you into the AEC industry and what keeps you here?

Coming out of advertising, I had no idea this industry even existed. A colleague connected me to a friend who happened to work at Louis Berger Group. I started out as a Marketing Assistant, then worked my way up the ranks—mainly working for engineering firms, with a sprinkling of architecture firms along the way. I paid my dues, became a master proposal writer, and thought eventually, I’d work toward a marketing director position in-house somewhere. But those roles were hard to come by, and I enjoyed working with different types of firms, so I took a chance and launched my first AEC marketing consulting practice in 2012, which focused on providing real-time, as-needed proposal and project help to AEC clients.

As a consultant, I started to realize that many of the clients that I was helping to pursue projects on a contractual basis were working without a net. Post-recession, and as a result of cost-cutting over the last decade, they no longer had the benefit of strong, in-house business development and marketing teams that were doing strategic planning or proactive pitching. So in 2017, I rebranded as Cakewalk Strategies and expanded my service offering beyond proposal generation to include strategic marketing planning and business development—offering environmental scans and planning for different target markets, competitive analysis, teaming advice for specific project pursuits, strategic relationship building with peers, and proactive marketing and branding services.

Having been in the industry for 20 years, I continue to be in awe of the built world. I have learned so much from the technical professionals I have worked with throughout my career. I rarely walk into a space or pass by roadwork without taking a closer look at the finer points. I also love the people and the connections that I’ve made along the way. Learning something new each day and meeting new people keeps me excited!

When and why did you first join SMPS, and what keeps you coming back?

In 2001, my mentor at the time urged me to join SMPS and make a habit of attending events. Being new to the industry, I was excited to meet people and learn as much as possible, as quickly as I could. I became a member and have been so grateful for the SMPS network. Many of my colleagues have become personal friends.

I support SMPS because I think it’s an important organization for our industry, no matter how many years of experience you have. I’ve actually moved from being an active member to a sponsor because I think it’s so important. For people starting out, the group can become a lifeline as well as a resource.

What advice do you have for our newer SMPS DC members about getting the most out of their membership?

Be active and be present. SMPS has grown so much in recent years. There are more conferences—including regional conferences and events with amazing speakers and inspiring insights.

My advice would be to go to everything you can and talk to as many people as possible. As marketing professionals, it is easy to become weighed down in deadlines and lose sight of the contribution that we’re making to the growth of our firms. Get out and build your network. The people who understand your work challenges best are your fellow SMPS members. They will be your best resources, your lifelines and your cheering squad!

What has been your favorite SMPS DC or SMPS event?

I really enjoy the SMPS DC holiday party since it was the first event I attended once I decided to go out on my own and it’s a great opportunity to slow down and catch up with colleagues in the midst of holiday madness.

As my client base has grown, I’ve needed to connect with colleagues up and down the east coast, so I also branch out to attend events in the SMPS Baltimore and Virginia regions. Both offer excellent networking opportunities, and it’s interesting to hear what’s hot in these neighboring markets.

What part of the SMPS mission to Advocate, Educate, and Connect most resonates with you and why?

I think “advocating” may get lost in the shuffle. Just like any technical person in the AEC industry, marketers are professionals with a distinct set of skills that are honed over time, and typically drive measurable growth in their firms. In other industries, this is recognized and rewarded, but the AEC world has a long way to go to catch up. In the competition for marketing talent, the AEC industry is going to lose out if we don’t value the contributions made by professional marketing staff.

I recommend inviting your principals to SMPS events. Bring technical staff to SMPS lunch and learns. Show them the importance of this organization and why they need to support your participation.

What is your favorite SMPS DC memory?

After 20 years of attendance at SMPS DC events, I’m not sure I can narrow it down to one favorite.

Best work-related advice you’ve ever gotten?

The best advice I’ve ever received is to “ask questions.”

Those two words have served me well through the years. Talking to technical folks and asking them the “hows” and “whys” of what they do has helped me become a better marketer and business developer. Most love to talk about what they do – and often don’t understand how their job can be exciting.

Asking questions can be the catalyst to writing compelling project descriptions, finessing a company profile, boosting copy on a website, and then eventually connecting firms with the right teaming partners and clients.