Have you ever hired an agency to help with your big bad initiative and ended up with several missed expectations? Maybe it was upgrading your legacy website or creating a new application for your product catalog. 

Here’s how it probably played out… 

You commit a good portion of your budget. Both parties agree on the deliverable. Discussions are had, ideas are shared, designs are created, heads nod, and hands shake. The agency goes off to work on this shiny new product that will warrant praise from your colleagues and win over customers. A month goes by... then two. Three months later, the excitement has turned into apprehension as you have yet to review any of the deliverables. By the time you get it, you see that yes, it’s exactly what you asked for — but it’s not quite right... 

  • It is no longer relevant. Market conditions changed. That zinger to your competitor no longer applies because they pushed a similar product to market faster. 
  • Maybe you realize the product is not actually solving your customer’s problem. You’ve spent way too much time and resources on the wrong target.
  • Or maybe you realize that this is not what your boss wanted because the ask was unclear and misinterpreted.

How do you fix it? 

Your team and the agency swiftly meet again. You sign a change order only to find out they can’t start for another 3 months. You can’t hire others because it’s too costly to onboard and knowledge-share. The launch needs to happen in a month. You’re losing customer interest. Project catastrophe. 

But what if there was another way to collaborate that mitigates these risks? Exit traditional project-based work and enter retainer-based work. 

Traditional project-based work for an organization and an agency is when both parties agree on the scope for a set deliverable to be delivered on a specified date. 

Retainer-based work is when both parties agree to continuously collaborate to improve a specified product or initiative over time. 

Traditional vs. retainer-based work

A table comparing aspects of traditional vs retainer based work

There are situations where project-based work makes more sense, like when the project is simple and the scope is clearly defined. But in more cases than not, retainer work is the most efficient approach for both parties. Especially for organizations that already run on an agile framework—the flexibility of retainer-based work has clear benefits.

So why is retainer-based work a good idea? 

It gives you flexibility

When the product at hand has very unclear requirements — unknown variables, volatile factors, several stakeholders and decision-makers — then you need to simplify. You get access to a team who can learn, adapt and adjust right alongside you. 

It lets you think outside the box

Maybe you don’t have all of the capabilities in-house and you need outside expertise. Instead of hiring a group to help you with a specified deliverable, what if that group was continuously collaborating with your organization on that deliverable? Over time, these experts could leverage their experience to offer up different perspectives and solutions. Seasoned, diverse experts with a clear understanding of your customers is a powerful mix. 

It allows for quick pivoting

The right agency can help with planning in short phases (2-4 weeks at a time) so that external, changing factors are taken into consideration. Internal factors can be taken into consideration, like when leadership wildly changes direction. Fixed delivery dates from traditional project-based work make it hard to roll in changes to a defined project plan. 

It makes for a quicker time to market 

Retainer-based work makes sense when you are quickly trying to get something out the door and into your customer’s hands. A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach should always be considered if a quick time to market is essential. Assess the most essential features for the first release of your product. Which leads to the next point… 

It helps you find and fix problems early on

A huge benefit to having your MVP out the door is to quickly assess customer feedback on this variation of the product. With project-based work, this point in time can be several months after kicking off the project. But with retainer-based work, the focus is capturing feedback ASAP — even if the product isn’t “perfect” when it’s shipped. This helps identify problems early in the process and helps all agency departments collaborate in shorter cycles. At the end of the day, a quicker feedback loop means that the customer gets a more fitting product sooner. 

It reduces costs

With ongoing retainer-based work, the cost of doing business is significantly decreased at the contracting level. The agency no longer has to write and rewrite statements of work for every new project, which means your legal and executive teams no longer have to do additional rounds of revisions. If the scope increases, you no longer have to re-price and re-sign work. The new process handles all scope changes. Why spend any more resources on costs of doing business?  

Skeptics will say, “But how can I guarantee that the agency will deliver the timely work that I asked for if not by a legally binding contract?”

Like all great partnerships, this only works if there is trust between both parties. This is something we value here at Ample. Retainer-based work creates a shift in culture and in the way we conduct business. It is to say that I trust my partner enough to deliver quality work more than I plan to take legal action if they don’t. We’re certainly not against legal contracts, but we are advocates of fostering a more collaborative culture. 

We know trust is hard to come by. To help build trust, we recommend engaging in a small budget project with the agency you want to try. Maybe sign project-based work first, see how they deliver, and then discuss the idea of an ongoing retainer.

Sound like something you want to try out? At Ample, we’re proponents of retainer-based work to foster collaboration and keep product success top of mind. We help clients across industries with web design services, as well as strategy, design, web development, content marketing, search optimization and more. Send us a message to see how we can help you.

Interested in moving to the JAMstack? Let's talk.