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Are traditional digital marketing monthly retainers dead?

Rising costs and budget concerns are commonplace discussions in the world of marketing. Are retainers fit for the new age? Have they truly had their day, or do they need to evolve?

If they do need to get with the times, then what are the ‘new world’ alternatives to the time-honoured fixed retainer?

What is the traditional marketing retainer model?

Marketing retainers have existed for what seems like aeons. They are predominantly based on the client committing to a monthly fee, for pre-agreed, set services and activities, that are completed on a rolling monthly basis.

The benefits of the monthly marketing retainer

As a pricing model, retainers have stood the test of time for good reason: they provide benefits to both the agency and the client. For agencies, it’s all about the certainty of resource allocation and budget. For clients, it’s about flexibility, value for money, agency understanding and being a ‘priority’.

Let’s explore in a little more detail.

Budgets and resourcing

As an agency, we thrive on being able to plan, log work and ensure we hit client deadlines; retainers streamline this process because they mean we have a rolling amount of time dedicated.

We don’t need to waste time or spend extra budget gathering new briefs as the plans are traditionally (as much as possible) plotted out in advance via meetings that may take place monthly and highlight priorities - which also come out of retainer time.

Efficiency, knowledge and familiarity

A rolling retainer helps to build cumulative knowledge of those clients and their industries. There’s always a risk with piecemeal project work that the agency doesn’t have sufficient consistent time to ‘get’ your brand and business.

On efficiency, the agency doesn’t lose time briefing in new jobs and bringing people up to speed. It allows for quick responses and timely delivery of projects; needs can be factored into each month’s calendar. Agency teams know exactly what they are working on day to day to meet these objectives.

From the client side, this ‘always on’ approach means they benefit from a timely response and consistent, guaranteed output. You know exactly how much you’re spending each month and what you’re getting.

Prioritised workload

Internally, the agency can plan better, but the client also knows that when paying for a retainer, the work is already ‘expected’ or pre-planned, which means that changes, amends and new ideas are quicker to be actioned over one-off, ad hoc requests. Your time is protected.


One of the biggest pros of a retainer, for clients, is usually that it covers peaks and troughs in requirements under the agreed pricing structure. No surprise bills, but the idea is that your busy periods are covered and the overall cost or any over-servicing levels out in quieter periods of the year.

So, these are not off months where nothing is happening, but rather need and activity are pivoted towards key points in time. You should of course always have a plan to maximise output across all months.

Channel flexibility

For clients, a retainer gives freedom, to some extent, to pick and choose from a range of marketing channels. At least with a full-service agency, retainers can be quite dynamic.

Thinking of diverting some of your organic social media time towards an all-important email marketing campaign, or towards a press release for that latest product launch? It usually won’t be a problem.

Again, note the ‘usually’ caveat - retainers can flex to some extent, but constant, last-minute chopping and changing will be sure to soon land you in the bad books… to formalise this process, you might want to look at a ‘flexible retainer’ (see point 3 in the next section!).

What are the alternatives to a traditional monthly marketing retainer?

There are a couple of long-term favourites when it comes to offering an alternative to the classic fixed monthly retained spend: ad-hoc project work, consultancy and ‘flexible retainers’.

1.Project work

The obvious alternative to a monthly retainer is project-based marketing that responds to a brief and relates to a specific period of time for execution and delivery of that campaign or project.

This is popular with clients when budget may be limited, unpredictable or the need is for temporary or additional support to assist with in-house or existing marketing resources - perhaps to plug a skills or resource gap.

Monthly projects often feel more comfortable for clients as they don’t require long-term commitment. This model has increased in popularity in a post-pandemic world where budgets may have been quashed by the cost of living crisis, market volatility and reduced consumer spending.

2. Consultancy

Consultancy is another option, often favoured by businesses with a limited team or one which needs expert support to achieve its aims. This approach allows a client to access assistance with specific channels, strategy and recommendations, usually centred on recommendations from the agency being actioned in-house.

3. Flexible retainers

Yes, we know we said alternatives, but this counts in that it alters what we know of the retainer model and creates something more flexible and appealing to a lot of clients.

Traditional retainers are usually a certain fee for a set amount of channel-specific hours. Under this revised model, you plan in advance as usual and commit to the hours, but the agency agrees to flex the service within the retainer on a monthly or quarterly basis to ensure it continues to meet aims without constant revisions to fee structure.

For example, a client with this option will work a quarter ahead but can use those hours across any channel and change that output again in the next period to suit seasonality, aims and business goals.

This is more work for the agency as it’s not as structured across the year and means the team cannot plan as far in advance as the workload or delivery team may be subject to change. However, what it does do is provide retainer stability for both client and agency in terms of fees and output; the client can enjoy retained benefits but without being married to specific services or teams, and the chance to pivot at any time.

OK, so many retainers aren’t dead, maybe they’re just evolving to better suit the requirements of clients in today’s businesses and economic climate. That’s no bad thing — best get with the times, eh?

Whichever model you choose, you need the right team on hand (we hope that’s us, by the way). For a good old natter about your marketing requirements, get in touch with our team.

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Post by

Team Amy K


Head of Brand & Content

Amy joined in 2014 to set up our Content department. She now heads up a growing Brand and Content team, utilising over 13 years’ experience to deliver brand awareness through targeted, multi-channel copy. As well as engaging content for websites and blogs, Amy delivers PR strategies and tone of voice exploration, helping clients to communicate the purpose and values of their brand with maximum impact.

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