Ditch the retainer model and stop billing clients for time instead of results

With PR agency retainers averaging £5,000-£7,000 a month in the UK, it’s not uncommon for clients to get next to no actual return on investment, so how much should PR cost?

It's time to pay for PR based on results, argues Mary Glazkova
It's time to pay for PR based on results, argues Mary Glazkova

It’s an evergreen question with no straight answer, but one thing is certain: PR shouldn’t cost more than the client will get out of it in terms of its business goals.

However, most agencies still charge based on hours on the campaign, not the actual result.

In a way, it’s understandable. As a PR agency, you need to manage costs and resources (and pay your staff fairly). A retainer model favours the agency business as it ensures there are enough people with enough hours to work on a project. Responsible agencies do not take advantage of it and make sure they deliver results within the agreed time scope.

Nevertheless, I have seen my share of post-campaign PR reports with results such as “pitched to”, with 10-20 names next to it – and an invoice for £5,000.

Ridiculous, isn't it? As PR is increasingly treated as a part of a marketing mix and is expected to add value to the total result, it’s time to rethink the retainer model where the agency gets paid for time regardless of results. Here are some ideas:

Tie the cost to KPIs

Whether it’s a number of publications, backlinks or a specific list of media where the coverage is required, there must be a line in the contract defining the results a client is paying for.

Show due diligence

An agency should be able to show a track record of delivering the results a client is expecting. For example, a traditional PR agency might not be able to deliver a digital PR campaign aimed at boosting domain authority. Or a local agency might not have enough expertise in running a national campaign. It’s better to understand your strengths upfront than under-deliver.

Come to a compromise

A fair PR costing could be based on incrementals or bonuses upon achieving the goals. For example, 50 per cent of a retainer is paid in any case, the other 50 per cent upon delivery of KPIs. If you are feeling confident, you can set up a higher fee which is 100 per cent payable upon delivery. Also, some clients might be open to throwing in a 10-20 per cent bonus for over-delivering.

Check in mid-way 

Sometimes campaigns get out of hand due to changing market conditions or media agenda. For example, during the pandemic it became extremely hard to pitch branded content because some media had to cut staff or seek more revenue from sponsored articles. A mid-way review will show whether it’s worth spending any further time on the pitch.

Be realistic

If you feel you can't deliver then don't take the client. But if you decide to proceed with the campaign, please don’t tell them you’ve spent 10 hours on pitching with zero results, and help them to get quality coverage instead.

Mary Glazkova is PR partner, London, for The Untitled

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