Writing for PRWeek last week, Mary Glazkova, PR partner at The Untitled, called for a rethink of the retainer model where the agency "gets paid for time regardless of results". She suggested alternative ideas, such as linking payment to KPIs and mid-way reviews.
A snap Twitter poll by PRWeek found almost nine out of 10 respondents opposed ending retainers:
Should PR retainers be scrapped? Vote below and please leave a comment— PRWeek UK (@prweekuknews) September 16, 2021
Stephen Kenwright, chief commercial officer and co-founder of the agency Rise at Seven, said retainers are "essential" for his business.
"Lots of our work is in fast fashion or financial services, where we need to be reactive. This means we need to monitor the news constantly and we need resource available to be able to capitalise on opportunities that we find. Agencies that do this kind of thing on a project basis are much less able to forecast results, because there's less certainty on what might be in a news cycle over three months than there will be over 12 months with a full 'season' (and a measurable benchmark year on year).
"We have clarity over what we usually do over the course of a retained relationship, which means that we have people available in our creative studio; copywriters; researchers and analysts; web developers etc available to put out something that looks extremely good, sometimes over the course of a single day. Project-based agencies are forced to rely on freelancers who might have other commitments, and they need a real commitment from a client before they start spending their own money pulling it together."
He added: "PR has a huge impact on other channels like search, where traffic is generated over a period of time rather than overnight. We can reliably forecast a sales increase over the course of 12 months by tying our PR activity to search, so we can say with relative certainty to a client that signs up for a year that they will pay £X and they will get £Y back."
Others expressed their views on social media:
No. Why not address the actual problem - demonstrating the commercial value of the work? A retainer has lots of advantages for both client and agency - if you can't demonstrate ROI, that's another issue - much like if you can't demonstrate the value of a project. Same problem.— mikerobb (@mikerobb) September 16, 2021
Retainers are cheaper for clients than actual time charged or even per project. Given the absence of an agreed ROI model for PR, results-based remuneration is wishful thinking.— Neil Drewitt (@neildrewitt) September 16, 2021
It's this type of thinking that devalues PR - it will make the 'race to the bottom' problem even worse.— Timothy Amoui (@TimAmoui) September 16, 2021
Also - for inhouse teams knowing we have a certain amount of time for work is good. Issue is when we try and ‘bank’ that time that screws up agencies. Better agency/client management better…— Natasha (@SpinningRed) September 18, 2021
Should we think of work as time in exchange for money? Or think of expertise & results in exchange for payment? People on high salaries don’t work longer hours? Folk in low paid work do things we value most-carers- we need to rethink ‘work’ in its entirety.— Clare Smith (@ClareBearAlert) September 18, 2021
According to research for PRWeek's UK Top 150 Consultancies project, most UK PR agencies increased the proportion of their revenue derived from retained accounts in 2020, with many saying project work was harder to come by amid the downturn.