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Retainer vs project work: What does your business need to thrive?

4 mins read

Aside from choosing who to work with, the most important thing is deciding how to work with them. Should you agree to a fixed fee retainer and sign away your soul to the most appealing agency? Or maybe play it safe? Paying as you go for projects, knowing it might never amount to anything other than the creative confines of the brief.

Fear not. Choosing between retainer and project work isn’t as doom and gloom as it sounds. When you get it right, retainers feel more like infatuation than suffocation, projects more liberating than lacklustre. 

Yet, everyone’s free to make their own choice, factoring in what’s right for them and their business. That’s why we’ve put together an argument for both, explaining what each model is in the process. 

The argument for recurring retainer work 

What is a retainer? 

A retainer is a type of pricing model used by agencies to facilitate long-term agreements between a client and contractor. Like a WiFi package or a phone plan, clients pay a fixed price each month to receive agency services. 

From agency to agency, the concept remains the same. But in practice, retainers may vary slightly. Some agencies calculate retainers by the hour, others use a points-based or actions system to determine what work is owed each month. 

What are the benefits of a retainer agreement? 

Efficiency. There’s no doubt that monthly retainers are a more efficient way to work. When you sign a retainer, agencies start work on your project immediately as well as carve out time in the future to dedicate to your campaign. Placing all your bets with one agency reduces research time and lets you know where you stand this month and the next.

Project integration. It’s not often that projects created by various professionals will feel cohesive when stood side by side. Having a dedicated marketing agency, on the other hand, solves this inconsistency, helping you integrate content, website pages and other marketing collateral. 

Accurate financial forecasting. Although retainer fees might seem steep at first, over time, they work out cheaper than paying for standalone projects. Agencies view retainer work as being a predictable source of income and so they’re often willing to offer a cheaper price than they would otherwise charge for short-term projects.

In turn, retainer work helps you to accurately estimate annual marketing expenses before work is even started. 

digital 22 office retainer work

Big-picture thinking. Ongoing retainer work helps to not only build valuable assets but also forge links between them and consider how they fit into your future. It’s impossible to see this far ahead when working on standalone projects.

Those in charge of project work have little to no long-term investment in your organisation and so rarely consider the relationship a project they’re working on may have with another in the future. Retainers, on the other hand, put great emphasis on this with regular reviews of campaign performance and marketing goals.

Using allocated time, agencies might choose to optimise existing content and experiment with new ways of working, not just build cookie-cutter projects with no regard for the future. 

Priority access. Having a retainer makes you an agency VIP that can enjoy fast turnarounds and quick response rates. Although mistakes are always possible, it’s not likely to happen in your campaign. Put simply, the more you invest in an agency, the more they'll invest in you. 


The argument for pay-as-you-go project work

What is project work? 

Project work is the simplest form of working with an external agency or freelancer. Firms simply pick a provider before paying them a sum to deliver a task in a short timeframe. 

You’ll likely have engaged in project work in the past. Most companies start this way, investing small amounts of money into infrequent agency support. As companies' marketing needs evolve, they may move away from this type of work. They either build an in-house marketing department, sign a retainer or both - but this doesn’t always have to be the case. 

What are the benefits of project work? 

Flexibility. The obvious advantage of project work is its flexibility in allowing you to stop, start and switch direction after every piece of work. Although there’s less opportunity to halt progress mid-project and you’ll need to keep an agency's capacity in mind when deciding to start something new, there’s undoubtedly more immediate freedom when it comes to project work

Experimentation: Project work is apt for experimentation, especially if you want to introduce a new format or design element to your content on occasion. For example, you might invest in 3D modelling for a specific service page in the knowledge you’ll likely never need such niche help again.

In scenarios such as this, project work gives you the best of both worlds: access to external talent with none of the commitment. Remember, you can always test a pioneering service and sign a retainer if and when it takes off. 

Trying agencies on for size. When you’re outsourcing marketing activities for the first time, rushing to sign a retainer might not feel like the right move to make. Instead, project work can act as a precursor to a long-lasting relationship, allowing you to try on an agency for size without any undue pressure.

digital 22 projects team

The only issue is the risk of alienating agencies that avoid project work completely, preferring to focus on retainers and long-term relationships above all else. Alas, in your quest to find the best agency, you might miss them completely. 

Small-budget friendly. Projects aren’t cheaper than retainers (making cost a major motive to choose retainer work). However, they are more small-budget friendly if you can’t afford to pay for consistent marketing support.

In theory, you could keep most marketing activities in-house and only pay for support when it suits you. This way, you don’t have to wait to hit financial milestones before flirting with the idea of agency assistance. 

Protect against the unexpected: Again, if your pockets aren’t that deep, project work is your friend. Without a rolling contract, you can easily walk away when the chips are down. This way, project work gives you grace when the going gets tough and protects your bank balance in harsh economic climates.

Of course, there are two sides to this coin. Some argue a consistent investment in your firm, in the form of a retainer, will help you to create strong foundations to weather any storm. 

The final throwdown: Retainer vs project work

When asked to pit project work and retainer agreements against each other, we’d always choose retainer work as the superior form of marketing support. Why? From experience, we know retainer agreements boast huge potential and are great at keeping both parties happy.

If managed correctly, retainers enable mutually beneficial relationships where two businesses can learn, grow and thrive together. 

Yet, we also recognise there’s a place for project work. Blossoming companies, especially, that are yet to form budgets and define their long-term vision do well with more laidback agency assistance. 

Project work or retainer agreement; the most important thing is to choose the right fit for you. 

When companies choose the wrong level of support, they never thrive. It’s not that they chose a retainer over a project or a project over a retainer. It’s that they under or overestimate their expectations when it comes to marketing support. 

digital 22 projects team

You should choose project work if: 

  • You’re outsourcing marketing activities for the first time 
  • You can barely afford agency assistance - but want it
  • You’re experimenting with something new
  • You’re still figuring out your long-term plan, budget and vision 
  • You want to play the field before picking an agency for a retainer 

You should choose a retainer relationship if: 

  • You’re going to invest frequently in marketing projects anyway
  • You’re serious about outsourcing your marketing
  • You want to save money in the long-term and accurately forecast finances
  • You’re craving consistency and the ability to integrate 
  • You want to be first in the queue
  • You’re all about strategic planning and creating future-focused content

    If you're still unsure about which is right for you, why not talk it through with us before committing to a type of work?

Need a hand deciding what's right for you?

Still not sure which to choose? Book a 30-minute consultation with our Head of Solutions, Caroline, who'll walk through your requirements with you. This no-catch consultation will help define what type of work is right for you and your needs.

We spend the time giving out useful information and answering any questions, not forcing you to make a decision or sign on the dotted line. If you need to talk it through before deciding, hit the button below.