Over the years, as clients’ in-house marketing teams have grown, and budgets have dwindled, the agency-client dynamic has shifted away from longer term partnerships to a more transactional relationship.

Retainers are growing far less common and project-by-project work is fast becoming the norm. It’s a predictable trend in tighter times.

We understand only too well, that businesses are unable to commit to longer term marketing spend when they don’t know what the future holds. But all businesses still need a marketing strategy – some kind of plan – and that plan requires management and an engaged team to actually deliver as and when required.

Breaking down the agency-client barrier

Having a close working relationship with an agency is essential to getting the best out of them. Working together to develop a shared vision, with goals everyone understands, means better work all round.

As our Creative Director, Bruce puts it:

“It’s bit like going into business together, it’s all about trust and working together to achieve the goals set, whether that’s over 3 months or on an annual basis.”

“A retainer creates an opportunity to build a really strong relationship with the client. The more you work together, the more you understand each other, and the more confident and honest you can be. Generally this is only a good thing and is reflected in the work created.”

We love to spend time with our clients, meeting the whole team – marketing, sales and beyond. And in turn we welcome clients to spend time with in the agency. It gives us the opportunity to learn all we can about our clients, understand them better and ultimately, do better work for them.

The hidden value

The value of a retainer of course has to be measured in some way – hours spent, tasks completed etc etc. But that isn’t the real value – this can only be seen in the results and return on investment.

What clients rarely see is the time and thinking that happens off the clock. I could quite often be sitting at night with a beer, still thinking about an idea for a client, taking notes on my phone. We’re regularly pinging thoughts and ideas to each other out of working hours. Yes we timesheet and monitor hours, but it’s only a guide and rarely an indicator of real time spent.

As an integrated agency, the importance of the team also can’t be underestimated. A client has access to 20-odd experts working across brand, digital, marketing, PR and social in one big room. That’s a lot of brains and a lot of experience to call on.

And finally, there’s a quite simple financial incentive. Our retainers operate on a flat-rate basis, so you get access to any skill you need within the agency at the same reduced rate. When Bruce is bringing his 15 years of creative thinking to your campaigns, it’s not costing you any more than it would for a junior designer.

When a retainer just doesn’t work

Of course the retainer model isn’t the right fit for all businesses. I’ve spoken to a lot of clients over the years, and their biggest worry is that the agency gets lazy under the retainer model. That somehow the security of knowing the money will hit the bank each month, means the hours just get filled.

In some cases, that could be true, but it’s not the retainer itself at fault, it’s the relationship.

Some businesses simply don’t have the necessary individuals needed to manage the relationship with the agency. For retainers to work effectively both parties need to drive each other on. An agency can ask until it’s blue in the face for a meeting to discuss ongoing work or where their priorities lie – if the client isn’t able to respond like that, they are potentially wasting their money and we just can’t give them our best work.

Working towards the hybrid retainer model

Unless a business has a complete in-house team capable of delivering across creative, digital, social and PR, then at some point they are going to need an agency. And the way to achieve best value from an agency is to have as close a working relationship as possible with them.

Increasingly we are seeing our clients work on a kind of hybrid model with us. The ‘essentials’, or the ‘normal operation’ activities are included in a retainer – the account management, planning, social, PPC/SEO elements for example. But then the other project work is scheduled in as monthly sprints as needed – website improvements, campaign creative, print collateral.

It’s a model that gives the best of both worlds for both parties. Budget is flexible for the client, but we’re paid enough to keep a core team engaged and thinking and hungry to do more. Where work can be done in-house by the client then we’ll support and advise.

It’s a model that’s working well for us,  and still means we can be human and communicate with each other on a completely transparent basis.

The human value

Let’s be frank. We are a business, and retainers obviously give us a greater deal of financial security. They allow us to forecast more accurately, plan resources better, spend less time fighting for new business, and also help to motivate and retain staff. So this human for one, is happier. But the key thing is that they drive real human relationships.

We talk to our clients, we understand each other. We know the names of their kids. We know that they secretly have a crush on Barry in accounts. We know it’s our job to make them look good. We learn what makes them tick and in turn, they learn what we need, to do our job well.

It’s a far healthier, and more enjoyable work dynamic for all involved.