In Defense of the Agency Retainer

Distributing Work in Small Increments Only Impedes Great Innovation

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Agencies and brands can't seem to agree on the value of the retainer, and it's holding back the entire industry. Clients look at the retainer as a way to save money, and agencies use it to dedicate appropriate hours, strategies and assets to specific projects. But for a variety of reasons, they frequently settle for project-based work, which makes it nearly impossible to allocate the appropriate resources and puts pressure on the relationship between the agency and the client. I've seen incredible ideas suffer the consequences of project-based work. Subsequently the agency-client relationship suffers, too.

At the end of the day, we both want the same thing: Stellar work that drives results. After spending a decade in project management and operations, I've found that an appropriately staffed retainer has two critical benefits: higher quality work and a faster turnaround.

Brand managers want a team that is focused on their business and knows their business as well as, if not better, than they do. But partial percentages or project-based arrangements don't allow for full immersion or a dedicated team. They limit progress toward the best work.

Agencies, for example, can find themselves with an art director covered for only 25% of his or her time on a specific client. The agency must then find other client work to fill up his or her remaining time.This usually leads to this person being spread across too many clients, limiting the singular focus required for breakthrough thinking.

Increasing staff time, of course, directly affects a brand's budget, which is the main reason we move away from a full-team approach. These compromises seem reasonable in the heat of the moment, but inevitably issues will begin to bubble up. Conversations quickly shift from excitement and blue-sky brainstorming to not-so-fun chats about hours, change orders and staffing limitations. No one wants conversations like that. The more time you spend on project maintenance, the less you can commit to creating great work.

A retainer that is correctly staffed can enable agencies to dedicate the appropriate assets to any given project well ahead of the deadline. Project-based work forces agencies to redistribute members of their team among projects they are not all familiar with. In other words, it slows them down. With a good retainer, they can put the right people in the right place at the right time, so when the client asks for something on short notice, they'll have the pieces in place to deliver excellence under pressure.

The conversation between agencies and brands needs to be anchored in a completely different way. Transforming a brand's position, defining its consumer-engagement model, or pushing the threshold for innovation is not a simple task. Nor can it be completed in project-by-project increments. Getting staff fully dedicated with a brand at deeper levels needs to become the priority.

Kris Rohman is vice president of operations at Questus.

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