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Why Digital Marketing Agencies Don’t Want Retainers Anymore!

As the business grows you’ll notice you need more time spent improving your online presence. This is quite crucial for your expansion, so you most likely need a monthly retainer with an agency… or not? 

The truth is that many digital marketing agencies are moving away from retainers, because the content, calls-to-action, landing pages, pay per click campaigns and the social media updates are things that change constantly, and require a robust/personalised action plan.

But to understand in depth what we’re talking about let’s start from the basic stuff…

What’s a retainer anyway?

The retainers vary slightly from one agency to another, but the basic principles apply: a monthly fee paid by a client for a predetermined number of agency hours. Some agencies require you to come up with hours for your retainer, while others conduct monthly strategy meetings and once they establish a plan, objectives and strategy, schedule all the work they must do throughout the time that has been set.

What should be covered up by a Retainer?

  • On-going support by telephone, email & regular strategy meetings
  • Weekly/Monthly reporting on marketing analytics (including insights and recommendations)
  • Specialized marketing search, strategy, planning & workshops
  • Web content strategy & creation
  • Creative direction & design work
  • Web design and development
  • Social media strategy, content creation & run of analytics
  • Marketing support
  • Newsletter campaigns
  • Influencer Marketing
  • SEO, PPC & Bid Media
  • Conversion rate optimization
  • New feature recommendation and build
  • Server maintenance

Established scope and fixed hours, a dream come true for any agency. But outdated for performance marketing


Most digital marketing agencies love retainers, mainly because it gives them a degree of certainty in their projects, which in-turn allows them to plan their revenues and resources correctly (in theory). To a certain extent, this far-reaching agreement makes sense for creative work, where the effort can be similar every month and the deliverables quite consistent with each other.

However, in performance marketing (web analytics, organic search, optimization and paid media), long retainer agreements or established work scope doesn’t play any logical role. Why? Because the adjustment performance means changing the plans in the short term (days, weeks or months). Keeping the same scope in a long-term basis is the perfect formula for not top performance. 

Pros & Cons of having a short-term retainer

Pro #1: It’ll keep your wallet happy

One of the most common and straightforward benefits: money saving. A retainer will give you a fixed hourly rate lower than an ad-hoc, depending on the agency. As you’re guaranteeing certain amount of time to an agency, and they don’t have to struggle for their work, there should be considerable cost savings in place.

Con #1: It is a monthly investment

You certainly have to figure out whether your business is at that stage of its life-cycle, because employing your own team of creatives, marketers and developers isn’t (unfortunately) a cheap exercise, having those talents at your service costs a small fortune especially when it’s a long-term agreement. Then, you should find a retainer that allows you to scale up and down the team and services you need at the right moment.

Pro #2: The agency does what you haven’t yet found time to do by yourself

The agency is full of experts who spend the entire day marking out things on your To-Do-List. Unless you have a dedicated person or team that manages the digital activity of your business only, you aren’t likely have time to update the content and comb the analysis. 

You have more important things to do, such as maintaining relationships and running your business, so you should only be able to count on someone who can take care of things you couldn’t make. That’s the beauty of guaranteed hours, you know the work will be done, without the need to pursue or wait.

Con #2: You are not using your time

Sometimes this could happen, in certain months it becomes difficult to find enough work to get done, which would lead to unused time and potentially waste of money, why bother with a retainer agreement?


How can you avoid this?

Your agency should have a realistic understanding of how much time they need and a dedicated and proactive Account Manager. In addition, they should meet with you, discover your goals, aspirations and offer ways to help achieve them. 

You can create a list of the projects you want to complete, but you haven’t had time to think about. That way, if ever exists a pause, your agency can move on without your constant help. There are endless ways to promote your business and a good retainer should attack them one by one. After all, their main goal it’s getting paid by helping you to grow right?

Pro #3: Your agency knows your business well enough

It’s obvious your agency can’t get anything done for you without having a thorough knowledge of your business. If you already use your agency for another project, at this point they’d have a deep understanding of your business path.

Con #3: You can’t track with certainty how your time and money is spent

An important concern when sending work-out-of-house is you lose the chance to check and monitor how they’re really using the agreed time, and therefore, if whether are you charged for is correct or accurate at least.

How can you avoid that?

Although I’d like to think trust is a vital factor in any relationship, at the end of the day you’re still paying for a service, and you need to know in detail what that service is. Transparency must be a priority in the agency you use. 

Ask for detailed breakdowns of what they’ve been doing with your retainer time each month. In addition, they must feel comfortable using the right tools to track their time, progress and results.

Agencies dynamic is changing/evolving

 The agencies, rather than changing are evolving, adapting to new market environments and surrendering more than ever, and all that happens while customer loyalty decreases, competition increases every day and a project-by-project pitching seems to be a trend.

Especially, smaller brands are looking for by-project agreements, as they feel they’re given the flexibility to negotiate rates based on results in a regular basis, and the freedom to work with different (or more specialized) agencies by project or in a short-term basis.

Adapting to this new dynamic is crucial

How to achieve it? … Here are some ideas

  • Focus on new businesses, improving workflow and response times
  • Change financial structures, to have more resources that aren’t dedicated to clients but jump from one project to another.
  • Retain better resources for long-term partnerships and short-term solutions
  • Invest in resources and solid strategic tools for planning and research
  • Become more flexible and adjust the way you work with your clients – they are all different.
  • Learn to pick your battles with the time consumed and cost they could incur, based on accurate data.

So, is a retainer ideal for everyone?

No, that’s for sure. If the client doesn’t have a clear idea of their plans, the retainers can be a great headache and put stress on the work-relationship. The retainers are more useful when you know a stable and predictable relationship has a logical sense, so it allows everyone to overcome the paperwork and focus almost exclusively on building and executing. But always remember that performance by its very nature requires a lens that must be data, to guide it as to what the scope should be.

Why Digital Marketing Agencies Don’t Want Retainers Anymore!


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