Retainers are for all agencies the gold star – a retained client paying monthly or quarterly is exactly what most agencies strive to get: yes the big projects are all very nice, but a client paying you regularly… well that’s gold dust.
But does it encourage agencies to work harder for their clients?
The answer to that question in most cases is unfortunately no. It’s one of the reasons I started Vivid all those years ago, I got so depressed working at large agencies seeing great accounts lose their spark the minute they became retained. All to often in this industry, retained work becomes expected and standard, clients you’d once have fought for become clients that are just there, they pay and you deliver what’ll keep them happy, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with retained work, it must be treated with respect by the agency and an iron fist by the client, because otherwise it’s bad for you, and it’s bad for the reputation of our industry.
Firstly let’s look at you, it’s your money after all. At first you think you’re getting good value, you’ve got an almost ‘in house’ team – they deal with everything and you very rarely have to get into the bowels of the work, after a time things become routine, a few press releases a month, an issues awareness day or week, your happy face in the media when the easy picking stories come up for you to respond with, what’s wrong with that?
Well quite a bit – the routine falls into motions, easy to go through, well practiced – but essentially the same, day in day out. Good public relations and marketing is reliant on innovation and creativity, it relies on a hunger to find or create the good news, as well as just responding lazily to the bad. The second your retained team fall into that routine the quality of your press and marketing plummets, you need the fire of the pitch or at least an agency that retains the fire of the pitch to stave off the familiarity that breeds mediocrity.
Second, it’s bad for the agency: yes the money is nice – but a retained client is an agency football, yes the big guns are brought out for important matches, but the rest of the time the ‘b’ team will do – one of the reasons I got out of big agencies was because I was fed up with accounts being passed off to junior staff and interns the first time the client wasn’t looking: they’d bill the time as if it was the full team, but often that team was off working on new business – fighting hard on new projects because they’ve won the fight already on yours.
Third, it’s bad for the industry, it promotes laziness a worrying lack of transparency between the ‘account directors’ who meet with the client and those people who actually do the work on your retained account, but most concerning it promotes a culture where a complete lack of creativity is the norm: ‘it will do’ solutions overtake cutting edge thinking, the easy option becomes the only option – and when that happens it dulls the edge of our whole industry.
So what can you do? Well first – look long and hard at your agency, working with them should feel as fresh ten years in as it did when your first worked together; there should be a real sense that they know what they’re doing of course, but the thinking should still be filled with excitement and not tinged with cynicism.
Then, talk to your agency, don’t be afraid to ask exactly what they do for the retainer, if you think they should be doing more then make that clear, and a good way to start is to build in a monthly creative briefing – make them think for their money, good ideas will allow you and them to innovate and reach new goals.
And finally, talk goals – don’t let your agency get away with presenting a cuttings folder as ‘proof’ think hard about whether it’s met your goals, where is your return on investment – any agency worth their salt should be able to talk ROI, don’t be fooled by impressions to view or estimated worth, tie them down to how it impacts your business.
And if all this still doesn’t get you a better press and marketing service, why not talk to someone like us – never afraid to talk about your bottom line, and always happy to create and innovate, because we realise that real, measurable growth in your business is critical to the success of our own.