Retainers and why they add up for both clients and agencies.

Ali Findlay • 9th Aug 2018

Generally speaking, retainers are seen as a money-saving measure. Something that’s especially true in today’s environment, where few companies can afford to staff their marketing teams with the full range of experts a multi-channel world demands.  

Despite this association with tighter budgets, agencies still value retainers. Why? Well in our experience a retainer allows us to dedicate the right amount of time to our clients, exchanging strategically committed creative and planning time at a reduced rate for long-term commitment.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with how a retainer actually operates – it’s an agreement between a client and an agency to work together over a longer time, at a set rate, on more than one project. If a client knows what their goals are, or is prepared to work them out with their agency, a retainer allows them priority resource at a consistently lower rates than normal. Our normal approach with retainers is to scope out the work together, create an implementation plan, agree which work it includes (and what it doesn’t) and how it will be seasonalised.

In our minds, a retainer should deliver three key benefits; a better understanding of the client’s organisation, high quality work and a faster turnaround than project work.

Don’t get us wrong, project work can be exciting, and great projects can be delivered by dedicated teams, however they can lead to big problems in Agency Land. Firstly, few projects allow budget for the full immersion and dedicated team needed to focus on breakthrough thinking. Also, if the majority of the agency’s other work is retainer-based, just how much dedication can they really give your project – and what happens to their retained clients if that project’s taken on?

A well-resourced retainer allows us to properly think about our clients, present a variety of work, plan resources to deliver everything on time and report on the (excellent!) results we’ve achieved for our clients. This means that not only is all the appropriate planning in place but there’s also the resource when clients needs something at the last minute too.

The best new business we’ve won in the last few years (in most cases) hasn’t come from a pitch. It’s been borne of an introduction that leads to a conversation, collaborative thinking then delivery to brief. The sort of ‘tap dancing’ that often goes hand-in-hand with a pitch rarely reveals the long-term talent commitment of an agency, or their ability to build a great relationship.

Marketing’s now all about sustained build and results, shifting brand position over time, increasing engagement and delivering new audiences. This takes consistent delivery of excellent work, refinement and reviews on a regular basis. Working in-hand with the client helps develop a deeper commercial brand understanding meaning better briefs, better planning and better creative. We’re big fans of the latter.

What about when a retainer doesn’t work? If your client isn’t a ‘sharer’ and they want the agency to guess their goals and trot out a grand creative plan – this doesn’t set a great precedent for a long-term relationship. It just makes it hard for the agency to deliver their best work. Not having faith in the fact that great results take time and collaboration means that you’re likely to find a retainer frustrating. Constantly challenging retainer time, makes agencies feel undervalued and untrusted, especially when agency staff generally record less hours than what’s actually been done. Retainers are very unlikely to be overstated.

Retainers are best where there’s a consistent requirement for a range of support services from an agency, allowing both parties to minimize admin and maximise effective time spent. They allow clients to get great work at a great price from a dedicated and knowledgeable team of experts who reward commitment with dedicated passion. Will we stop doing projects? Absolutely not. We’ll continue to take them on only when we have the right experience and resource available to do them brilliantly. Our heart really lies in building long-term futures by creating better, braver work and building both the client and agency brands together.

Our top reasons why retainer business is win-win.

It allows the agency to build a deeper understanding of client business goals and build a better relationship.
Understanding the client and their business saves time and leads to work that’s better informed.
The agency’s less distracted by pitches and more focused on their retained clients.
Less time is spent estimating, budgeting and managing fluctuating resource requirements within the agency and more time is dedicated to doing the actual work.
Retainers allow agencies to push the boundaries and create effective work that explores new territory for a client that’s happy to guide the way. 
A flattened, fixed rate is easier for a client to budget for and saves money.
When a client engages a full service agency, you have less conflicting parties to manage, meaning more efficiency. In your agency visit you can meet the Digital Planner, the Creative Director, The Media Strategist and the PR Exec all at the same location, bringing each expert in when you need them.
Agencies love the chance to help out when their client’s in a hole. Marketing Directors are always being challenged by the board, but the agency’s always there to remind everyone of the strategy, what it’d delivering so far.

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