It’s Not The Retainer; It’s The Relationship

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Since launching teamDigital 25 years ago, much has changed, but the basics have remained the same – our core belief being one of them:

“If we walk in our clients’ shoes and do good work, strong partnerships will follow.”

Client Shoes

When you’ve spent a lot of time on the agency side, it’s easy to see the glass half full on the client side – they get to make the decisions, they own the strategies, they control the budget allocation, etc. We propose and profess (and perhaps even “know”) to have the right answers based upon the shared business objectives. Admittedly, it is sometimes deflating when clients don’t see things the same way. When I’ve seen my team struggle with that reality, I encourage them to take the time to really talk things through with the client to understand ”why” the respective visions might not be aligning and how we may best adapt to achieve success on their terms. That approach is literally broadcasted on our wall and known as the “Three C’s”. Communicate, Collaborate & Compromise. While an intellectual exercise, this approach also has the power to build empathy – the stuff of powerful relationships that transcends the job at hand.

Retainer Days of Yore

When clients retain agencies, both sides can absolutely benefit. Clients can easily manage their budgets, while at the same time enjoy a dedicated team on their business, thinking about it night and day from the perspective of each respective expertise; client and agency can work together seamlessly with dedicated staff – a true extended team. Agencies benefit by being able to dedicate bodies that can be partially or fully funded and assure a steady compensation flow for its operations and payrolls managing the inevitable “all or nothing” executional spikes, which make it more challenging to have the right talent available when needed. Of course, retainers are not open checkbooks and recourse is required, with the need for validating hours burned to ensure the value exchange is fair; regardless, the mutual commitment more often than not benefits all involved.

Yet more and more, the days of de-facto client-agency retained relationships are no longer sustainable from the perspective of many clients. The trend toward “every dollar must be a working dollar” has become a reality. The arguments that the value of “thinking” becomes a “value add” to the cost of tactical implementation is a worthy debate, yet as long as agencies are willing to build the cost of strategic development into the cost of execution, and as long as business leaders are comfortable with a working/non-working approach, the trend will likely continue.

When Business Isn’t Steady, Revenues Won’t Be Either

Over the years, I have seen my clients struggle with the reality that budgets are ever changing. Seemingly in parallel, retainers going to the wayside for a more project-by-project approach has aligned with marketing plans needing to change frequently as budgets come and go. Just as a retainer must be planned out as a recurring cost throughout the year, as budget allocations change, we’ve seen several retainers simply get cut after approval – fully-staffed teams have had to make tough decisions as the revenue goes away and can no longer support the resources allocated. Agencies could argue that a contract is a contract expecting the terms to remain as agreed, yet more often than not, agencies find they must accept the change and reorganize to accommodate. History shows it is typically smarter to retain business through change than let it go.

Project-Based Model

With this belief, we’ve always remained close to our clients and find the best approach is project based. Yes, project based. As budgets come and go, planning cycles get shorter and innovations and opportunities spring forth unexpectedly. A project-based approach allows agencies to serve clients in a nimble way, with recurring instances of smaller-scale tactical implementations happening more frequently with more closely-related ROI. Our team has been able to take what we’ve heard from our clients in terms of what they need to succeed in their organizations and built an approach in a way that can make them win, which allows us to win, too. In fact, working on a project basis has actually allowed us to better use our resources, as we have great flexibility to move them across teams without the risk (or perception) of “double-dipping.”

Rather than pine for the old days, we have embraced the project-by-project model because we know it best serves our clients. By so doing, we’ve enjoyed great success with long-term relationships, many spanning more than two decades and thousands of projects. We unequivocally know that we must deliver each and every time if we are to continue to build deep client loyalties, and we will need to continue to adapt as our clients continue to evolve.

By walking in our clients’ shoes, our client partnerships have strengthened over the past 25 years. Consistent with our core beliefs, we’ll keep an eye on how our clients need to work in the future to be successful, and that will drive our business for the next 25 years.

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1 Comment
  1. I like that you said both clients and agencies benefit from having a retainer agreement. That is because clients can easily manage their budget because they already have a dedicated team at hand, while agencies can be assured that there’s steady compensation flow for their operations and payroll. My sister is planning to start a marketing agency in the city along with her college friends. Perhaps it’s a good idea that they hire a consulting retainer plan services to help them with their retainer marketing packages. Thanks for this!

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