The project vs retainer debate

Discussing the changes to the industry over the last few years with a client this week, the move to more project-based work seemed to be the most significant – and the more we talked about it, the bigger the impact became.

Now, as an agency person, I’m sure you’d expect me to be on the side of retainer work, as it’s easier to manage from both a financial and resourcing perspective, and generally means a bit less pitching. And in harder economic times, where in-house teams are picking up more of the ‘day-to-day’ work, it’s easy to see why the project-based model can be a popular choice. Yet it does alter the client-agency dynamic.

As an example, if you’re working on a 6 or 12 month retainer for a client, you’ll be evaluated on your work over that 6 or 12 months. So you might have good months and less successful months, for all sorts of reasons, but they’ll (hopefully) balance each other out. But if you’re working on a two or three month project, based around one major announcement, you’re judged on that alone – you don’t get to have a bad day.

Hurrah, you might think as a client, this means I will always get your best work. And this is sort of true – the reason that project-based work is often over-serviced is that you know you’ve only got one shot at it, so if it’s looking rocky, you’ll of course invest more time in it. After all, you probably want to win additional projects from that client, ideally without having to pitch for them every time.

But there are downsides to this approach too. The best PR programmes can be a process of adaptation and experimentation – great ideas can come with risks attached, and don’t work exactly how you’d planned every single time. A two or three month working cycle doesn’t really allow for this – yes, you can tweak, but how risky can you be when you have all of your eggs in a single basket?

Unless a client has specifically come to you for something a bit blue sky, short-term project-based work can bring out ‘tried and tested’ instincts in an agency. You’ll get good, sometimes even great, results, but a potentially brilliant idea might have been missed along the way. And the learnings you’ll take from it to be able to build into future activity will be fairly limited.

Of course, in many ways this isn’t the end of the world, and I’m genuinely proud of the work we deliver on short-term projects (many of which do end up being repeat clients). But every award we’ve been shortlisted for this year has been for a longer-term client.  I wonder how many other agencies that’s true of?

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