The pros and cons of having a retainer contract with your digital agency (and how to avoid the cons)

Written by Emily Owen on 10th April 2017

What is a retainer?

Retainer accounts vary from agency to agency but are based around the same principle: a fixed fee paid by a client for an agreed amount of agency time per month. At Liquid Light, a retainer is a rolling contract with us, in which you have an allocated time per month for us to continue to make improvements to your website. Through continuous review of your site, competitor analysis and keeping up with the latest trends, we refine the user experience and ensure it’s performing as it should: driving traffic and, ultimately, aiding business growth.

We work hard to make sure that the time outlined is the time used, but if the hours of work are greater or fewer than agreed, this is carried forward by one month.

What does a retainer cover?

A retainer contract allows you to continue to make the most of your agency’s skills and could include any of the following:

  • Account Management: on-going email support and regular conference calls
  • Analytics: quarterly reporting on website stats, including insight and recommendations
  • CMS: editing, training and support
  • SEO (search-engine optimisation)
  • Social media analytics
  • Newsletter campaigns
  • Marketing support
  • Bug fixes
  • Server maintenance
  • New feature recommendations and build
  • Creative direction and design work

So What Are the Pros and Cons?

Pro: It’s Cheaper

Perhaps the most obvious and straightforward benefit – you’ll get greater value as a retainer client, as a retainer rate is always going to be cheaper than ad-hoc!

Pro: The agency does what you haven’t got time to do

Unless you have a dedicated person or team who manages digital activity for your business, you aren’t going to have the time to update content and run analytics. For this reason, many of our clients – such as NGOs or businesses within the finance sector – are particularly suited to retainer relationships. With a dedicated amount of time set on your account each month, you know the work will just get done – no chasing or waiting required. 

Con: You aren’t using your retainer time

On certain months, it might be struggle to find enough work to send to your agency, leading to unused retainer time and, potentially, wasted money.

So how do you avoid this? 

Your agency should have a realistic understanding of how much time your company needs and a dedicated Account Manger should be proactive, always using analytics and feedback to make suggestions on how to use your time as effectively as possible. An easy way to achieve this is to have weekly or monthly catch ups where you or your Account Manager can set priorities for the upcoming months. This way there's always something to do be done. 

Pro: Your agency knows your business

Your agency can’t build a website for you without having a deep understanding of your business. S.C.P (Strategic Content Profiling) is our audience-centred process for defining websites – in this process we step away from functions and features and begin with the basics: who are you? what do you offer and what makes your offering unique? who are your audience? etc. We never lose sight of what the website is trying to achieve, whilst always considering the visitor and what they are looking for. A good digital agency will utilise that knowledge after the website is launched and continue to build from it.

Pro: Costs are fixed

Therefore, spending is predictable and budgeting is made easier. Most importantly, you’ll drop the need to have fees approved by senior management for every project, whilst gaining the flexibility in project management that a smaller agency team can provide, and enhancements to your website can be made more swiftly and efficiently.

Con: You can’t track how your time and money are spent

A concern when sending work out-of-house is that you lose the ability to monitor how time is really being used and, therefore, whether what you’re being charged for services is accurate. 

So how do you avoid this? 

Agencies offering retainers should be transparent with their time usage. Request detailed breakdowns of what your agency has been doing with your dedicated time each month. We’ll happily provide a breakdown of time usage on an invoice and make the most of various project management tools to enable us to do this (Active Collab to monitor our time against projects, Trello to keep track of our day-to-day tasks, and Slack to improve team communication). 

Related blog posts: Why we dumped Basecamp and what's the alternativeHow we use Trello to keep track of our marketing scheduleUsing Slack to improve team communication

Con: I already have another agency

Each agency is likely to specialise in a particular area and, whilst you might turn to one for a website redesign, you may already have another agency working on SEO or writing your content. As such, continuing to manage a number of relationships might seem like a stressful prospect.

So how do you avoid this? 

Any experienced agency is actually quite likely to be familiar and comfortable working alongside another (or even multiple other) agencies. The key to success is transparency and openness between agencies. When everyone has a clear understanding of who is doing what, the client can reap the benefits from the specialised skills and expertise of multiple organisations.

Related blog post: Inter-agency Communication: How to work with multiple agencies and get the best results


A retainer contract might sound like a scary commitment but, when planned carefully, can be a fantastic solution for many companies and a great way to get the most out of your agency.

As long as the contract is clearly outlined and time is accurately tracked, the work can only become more efficient as time goes on. With ongoing transparent communication, the relationship will continue to grow and clients can enjoy the peace of mind that comes from having a dedicated team at their disposal.

by Emily Owen

  • Emily Owen

    Emily Owen

    Emily is a Senior Account Manager & Business Development Strategist. When she's not consulting on digital strategy for Liquid Light and our clients, she's usually travelling around in her campervan with Poppy, our resident sheepdog.