What is a Marketing Retainer and How Does It Work?

Last updated: 06-01-2020

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What is a Marketing Retainer and How Does It Work?

Marketing retainers are commonplace and stand as an alternative to project-based work. A retainer arrangement has many benefits for both the agency and client.

In this post, we’ll cover:

A marketing retainer is a long-term agreement between a company and advertising agency that is typically billed monthly or quarterly at a flat rate. Within the retainer, the agency provides a range of services or deliverables in exchange for the set fee.

The agency is often dubbed the “agency of record” for that brand, meaning they function in many ways as that company’s marketing and advertising department.

The scope of work in a retainer is defined, but loosely, which allows for some fluidity in services delivered.

For example, a retainer may cover content creation and email marketing for most of the year, but the company also participates in a trade show once annually. As that trade show approaches, the agency’s retainer and focus would shift to designing and prepping trade show materials.

Another example may be an eCommerce company that initially needs brand identity work, but once that phase of work is completed, then needs to move into ongoing email marketing, SEO, and ads management.

In these scenarios, rather than the company and agency needing to revisit the entire agreement, they can instead quickly shift focus without the slow contract negotiations.

The agency can be considered “on call” in some capacity.

If a new project or opportunity arises and it falls within the scope of the retainer, the agency will typically shift some resources to taking on that new task.

In theory, a retainer can contain any amount or level of services, as agreed upon by the brand and agency. Some of the more common services are:

One of the most common reasons for contracting an agency on retainer is to have oversight of your brand identity, ensuring all your designed materials, ad creative, and website and digital channels stay within brand standards.

Especially within large organizations, it doesn’t take long for people to go rogue and start misapplying brand colors, logos, fonts, and the general look and tone of the brand.

Whether your company is just starting to establish a brand identity or needs a single point of control over an established identity, hiring a branding agency of record on retainer is a cost-effective way of accomplishing these important tasks.

Media planning and buying involves taking ownership of a company’s advertising budget and allocating it to the channels and placements that will provide the best return on ad spend (ROAS).

This includes campaign concepting, requesting quotes from media vendors, negotiating rates, gathering creative specs, designing creative, ensuring flight deadlines are met, and ultimately reporting on campaign effectiveness.

In the retainer model, the agency is either delivering an allotted number of impressions or spending a per-determined budget in the case of pay-per-click advertising. In either case, the amount between the retainer minus the cost of delivery is the agency’s net gain.

Websites are much like that, except in a digital format. Your website is in constant flux, whether it’s server changes, traffic changes, plugin updates, user experience improvements, or otherwise.

Things break. That’s just the way it goes.

Especially for large websites, like eCommerce websites, having management and maintenance resources on retainer is critical.

Having an agency on retainer to monitor your eCommerce website for errors and rapidly jump to fix them could quite literally be the difference between making and losing tens of thousands of dollars.

Plus, you’ll need to frequently add or update new products, add new images and content, and execute design changes to follow timely promotions.

Even if you’re not running an eCommerce business with a large catalog, simple brochure websites still need routine maintenance to ensure stability and security. If your WordPress theme or plugins get out of date, your site may be vulnerable to attacks.

Similarly, if you’re using website hosting that isn’t up to par from a security or updates standpoint, you may open doors to significant data and privacy breaches.

Having an agency on retainer for ongoing website care doesn’t have to be expensive either. For example, here at NerdBrand, we offer different levels of website care packages starting as low as $89/month for hosting, content updates, and ongoing maintenance.

Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the practice of making changes to your company’s website to improve its organic rankings in Google, Bing, and other search engines.

To emphasize, influencing organic search rankings is wholly separate from establishing paid advertising campaigns within search engines — that would fall into the media planning section above.

To very broadly summarize, SEO ranges from improving a site’s technical stability and security to actively producing fresh content both on the site and on external sites.

Search engine optimization services delivered under a retainer will often break down on-page and off-page tactics, as well as establish clear KPIs measuring success.

On-page tactics are those efforts you make within your site, like content topics and architecture, internal linking, URL structure, mobile usability, and so on.

Off-page tactics are largely centered on improving credibility of your site in the eyes of search engines. This involves attracting links to your site from authoritative sources using PR, guest posting, social media, and so on.

Content marketing is the forefront of any modern marketing strategy. Without exceptional content, the chances of success in a digital-driven world are slim.

In this context, content marketing refers to creating articles, blog posts, videos, infographics, podcasts, and so on to attract your target audience’s attention.

This content also plays a key role in improving your search engine rankings, as content is what attracts links to your website.

No great content to link to = no links = search engines don’t view your website as very authoritative on whatever the topic may be.

In a similar vein, lacking content means search engines don’t have much content to rank and your website visitors don’t have much to engage with. That’s why you’ll often hear the phrase, “content is king!”

Working with an agency on retainer to provide content marketing services is a reliable way to consistently generate a high volume of quality content. This arrangement often takes the form of an agency providing a set number of blog posts per month or producing video content as part of an ongoing content series.

Social media marketing demands a diverse set of skills and tasks. From copywriting and creative/photography to social listening and engagement, a lot of work and time goes into managing an effective social media presence.

Having an agency on retainer to manage social media adds efficiencies, as they’re able to become very familiar with the business and work in tandem with your on-site employees to gather real-time content.

It’s also rare for small businesses to have someone on staff who is adequately experienced to manage social media marketing. Tapping into the expertise of a marketing agency allows you to take control of the customer-facing channel that is social media.

Some say print is dead.

Traditional print advertising, like direct mail, can still be very effective, especially depending on the target audience.

Having an agency on retainer to manage direct mail, radio, and television advertising allows your campaigns to remain cohesive and working in tandem toward a common goal.

A lot of people are hesitant to sign a retainer, thinking they’re taking on too much risk. They often get hung up on “what specific things am I receiving each month?” or “do I get a certain number of hours per month?”

The truth is, the agency offering the retainer is taking on the bulk of the risk. They know some months will inevitably require more hours and a more expanded scope of work than others, but they’re making a bet that at the end of the agreement period, they’ll have profited.

That bet is lost in cases where the retainer arrangement wasn’t adequately scoped or priced up front.

For the company or brand receiving the retainer, there isn’t quite that level of risk. Below are a few of the many benefits of a retainer agreement.

Arguably the most important role of having a branding agency on retainer is ensuring every aspect of the customer experience is well-connected from a messaging and design perspective.

Having all creative materials flow through a single source that is familiar with your brand — or even helped establish the brand standards — is a great way to maintain consistency.

The alternative is having multiple parties or employees managing different aspects of the brand and advertising materials, which often leads to inconsistency.

Having a long-term relationship with an agency allows them to become intimately familiar with your industry, business model, culture, customers, and operations.

Thus, the agency is able to develop more compelling ideas and strategies that align closely with your business goals. Those ideas and strategies will also be more practical on an execution level since they’re coming from a partner who understands your culture, operations, and internal resources.

Realistically, your small or medium sized business cannot sustain salaries of all these individuals, and hiring contractors for one-off projects is both expensive and causes inconsistencies in your brand strategy.

By hiring an agency, you’re tapping into their economies of scale and specialists.

An agency can afford to hire expensive specialists, like a web designer and web developer, because they of course have numerous clients to justify the salaries.

An agency can afford to have copywriters, brand strategists, creative directors, and others on their team, whereas a small business is very unlikely to have the finances or need for full time experts in these areas.

When you hire an agency, you’re gaining access to a range of specialized skills, all of which are necessary at various stages of marketing projects.

The scope of the retainer can then be shifted quickly as your company’s projects and opportunities change — without the need for long hiring processes or major hiring risk on your part.

Whatever the need, the agency presumably has access to specialists who know how to get the job done well and efficiently.

Your website is home base for all digital advertising campaigns, and even a lot of your offline campaigns, so it’s imperative the user experience is positive. There is no replacement for a well-crafted website design that’s optimized for the end user.

An agency plays an important role to ensure your company’s website is cared for and operating at peak condition. They do so by actively monitoring the website, studying historical analytics, running experiments, and generally becoming familiar with your customer/user behaviors.

A key component to having a website that converts well is understanding the history of the brand and website.

When you have an agency managing your website over the long-term, they have the opportunity to understand the “whys” of your site’s performance. They grow familiar with the historical organic search performance of the website, the content architecture, the custom user and technical features, the campaigns that resulted in the best conversions, and more.

This familiarity allows the agency to ask the right questions, experiment properly with updates or campaigns, and ultimately uncover what truly moves your website visitors to become customers.

The age old question: how much does it cost?

Of course, a retainer can be any amount and is directly proportional to the value being delivered.

For a small and medium sized business, you’ll often find retainers around $3,000 to $5,000 per month — between $36,000-$60,000 per year.

That looks like a high number on the surface, but again, consider the value. For that rate, which is probably equivalent to one person’s salary if you were to hire internally, you’re gaining access to a team of advertising, marketing, and design specialists who can effectively manage your brand from A to Z.

Hiring an advertising and branding agency is a big decision, especially as a small business with little margin for error.

When you’re on the search, consider a retainer agreement to take full advantage of the agency’s expertise and build a long-term relationship with a partner who’s interested in learning the ins and outs of your business.

The retainer doesn’t have to be huge right out of the gate. If you’re only comfortable budgeting $1,500/month, the agency may be flexible and that retainer can always grow as the agency gains your trust.


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