Retainer VS Project Based work - what are the differences?

Curated by
Andrew Thomas
August 18, 2022
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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 marketing 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 lackluster. 

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

  • Marketing Retainer work
  • Project work
  • The final throwdown: Retainer vs project work

The argument for recurring retainer work / continuous services / Growth as a service? 


What is a marketing 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 marketing 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 standing 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. 
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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.

Relationship. By having a marketing retainer you get the benefit of a long term partnership with your agency. As a customer you get to know the people who are delivering work for you meanwhile the agency gets to understand you and your needs very well. This way, the agency you work with is more likely to become an extension of your team rather than only having a 30-60 days relationship.

This allows for more flexibility and reflection too, if the agency has the data and understanding from day 1. 

One important thing here though is to be aware this relationship not only requires commitment from the agency, you as a customer need to put some time and investment into it too to get the best results out of it.

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.

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. 

Budget friendly. For those companies who can't consistently commit to a monthly retainer, one-off projects can make a huge difference. It allows you to get the expert support you need and draw on wider experience without needing to commit to long-term support.

That said, it may be more budget conscious to start with a project if you have an internal team to do the day-to-day and you just need to spend your budget on the high-level expert work in a project - but equally, we would say it can be very cost-effective to have a retainer as for your money - you get a defined and agreed output contractually, which you may not be able to expect from an internal employee. You can hold an agency to account over the delivery and results very easily as it is all presented to you and agreed upon - internally this is also possible but with an agency, you have more leverage as a customer and agency teams also have the structure in place to track their performance on your behalf which can save a lot of time and effort.

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, those 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. 

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 have an in-house team ready to deliver but need expert help in inital setup, planning or strategy. Projects are great to support and educate your internal team who can then pick-up the project and continue with it 

You should choose a retainer relationship if: 

  • You’re going to invest frequently in marketing projects anyway
  • You don't have a dedicated marketing team in-house or the time / resources to hire and train the team needed to deliver your strategy 
  • 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 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.

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