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10 Reasons Why Retainers Work Better for the Agency and the Client

Ian Servin is a passionate freelance video producer and director who's worked with brands such as Ford and Nike on everything from small projects to complex campaigns. He is a guest writer on the Wistia Blog.


Over the last year, my business changed dramatically – I shifted away from one-off projects and began focusing on longer-term contracts.

With one-off engagements, I was always pitching clients and seeking out the next shoot. Building pitch decks and negotiating contracts ate up a lot of my time. It also meant that I ended up building shallow relationships with clients.

These shallow relationships didn't give me a lot of creative freedom. And because they were centered around individual projects, there weren't opportunities to grow the relationships and do better, more effective work over time. I wasn't happy, and my clients weren't getting the full value of my expertise.

So I changed how I worked. Instead of being a video producer, I positioned myself as a strategic partner. This is very different from the traditional production business model. By building long-term contracts, I had the opportunity to become a trusted advisor and not simply a contractor.

How does a retainer actually work?

A retainer is an agreement between a client and an agency to work together for a longer period of time on more than just one project. It reserves a set amount of the agency’s time for a set rate.

For clients with a good understanding of their long-term goals and needs, it allows them to get priority treatment and a lower per-project cost by essentially pre-paying for work.

A typical retainer will scope out the work to be done by the agency over a set timeframe. It will outline key projects and ongoing activities that the agency is responsible for, and set a timeframe for completion.

Video retainers also include a process for dealing with overages and variable expenses that come with video production. Some retainers are month-to-month, but most cover longer periods of time, typically from 6 months to a year.

10 reasons why working on retainer is awesome:

For agencies:

  1. You can focus your time to get a deeper understanding of your client’s long-term goals and roadblocks.

  2. There's no need to constantly be pitching to new clients to maintain a consistent volume of work.

  3. You have a clear roadmap for future production and can budget your team's time accordingly.

  4. You have a predictable source of regular income and clear mechanisms for billing expenses and overages.

  5. A solid partnership allows you to take creative risks and be an expert rather than a service provider.

For clients:

  1. Working with someone who already understands your brand saves time and leads to better content.

  2. You have priority access to an agency you trust, and don't need to worry about whether they've already booked another project when you need them.

  3. Booking time in advance saves money, compared to budgeting projects one at a time.

  4. It's easier to integrate a single agency’s projects into your larger marketing strategy.

  5. A longer-term relationship supports experimentation and optimization.

Is a retainer right for everyone?

No. If the client doesn't have a clear understanding of their long-term video marketing plans, retainers can be a bummer and put stress on the relationship.

If they underestimate their needs, that can lead to unexpected overages and add unplanned hours to the agency’s workload. If a client overestimates their needs, they'll waste their money and the creative team will be sitting on their hands or scrambling to find projects to fill their time.

Retainers are most useful when you know a steady, predictable relationship makes sense. In these cases, it allows everyone to get past the paperwork and focus on building and executing. It's a way for both agencies and clients alike to do better work and grow their companies together.

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