The Agency Retainer or Project Debate: How to Make the Best Choice


When you’re thinking of scaling up your marketing efforts, chances are you might begin working with an agency.

If you have a particular need for a lot of content or creative input, a big decision awaits you:

Should you work with an agency retainer?

While there are benefits to sticking with project fees for each and every assignment you need from your agency, the option of an agency retainer is one that many businesses are opting for.

In this article, we’ll look at the pros and cons of an agency retainer, and give you the insights you need to make the best choice for your brand.

What is an Agency Retainer?

This is one of the most common agency payment models used today.

Whereas project-based is pretty self-explanatory, an agency retainer needs a little elaboration to understand fully.

Put simply, a retainer is when an agency and client make an agreement that they will work together for a long period of time, collaborating on several projects.

The actual retainer allows the client to reserve a set amount of the agency’s time every week or month, for an agreed rate.

This involves some thorough forward-planning so that you can make accurate projections on the scope of your project(s), its goals, and the time required on a weekly and/or monthly basis.

If you have a clear vision for your goals and the needs of your projects, an agency retainer is an effective way of ensuring you get preferential treatment from your agency.

Some retainers run on a month-by-month basis, though others usually cover a longer time period.

The Key Differences Between Agency Retainer and Project-Based Fees

The key differences are as follows:

  • Agency retainers have a flat monthly fee. Project-based services are paid per project.

  • Agency retainers cover a wide scope of services and deliverables. Project-based services are much more defined.

  • Agency retainers offer dedicated personnel for the account. Project-based services often tend to rotate personnel, depending on available talent.

  • Agency retainers are used for long-term goals that consider ongoing marketing needs. Project-based services focus on short-term goals and one-off assignments.

E29 Marketing offers both avenues and can work with clients on defining their projects, providing the flexibility of hybrid options too so you can have the best of both worlds.

The Pros and Cons of Using an Agency Retainer

To give you a clearer picture of the benefits of using an agency retainer, and the potential drawbacks, here is everything you need to know to weigh up the decision. 

Pro: It is Less Expensive

  • Nothing matters more in business than your bottom line. With a retainer, your rates will always be less expensive, which makes this the best benefit.

Con: You Might Not Have Enough Work to Use the Retainer Time

  • Sometimes, there may be a quiet spell where you don’t have enough work for your agency. This can lead to some retainer time not being used, which could be a waste of money.

  • To avoid this, keep in contact with your Account Director to ensure there is plenty of work planned in advance. By staying proactive, you can ensure your agency is always kept busy.

Pro: You Can Delegate Tasks You Don’t Have Time For

  • There’s a lot to do in marketing, and unless you have specialists on your team, it can be very time-consuming to try and manage everything from planning, execution and analytics yourself.

  • With an agency retainer, you have the time on your account to put to good use. You can be confident all work will be done, which makes it easy to put it on their plate, freeing your time for other tasks.

Con: It’s Hard to Track Where Time and Money is Spent

  • This is a big concern about outsourcing marketing, as you can lose a little control on time management for the people you are paying.

  • However, good agencies tend to be pretty transparent about how they use their time, which means you can request a detailed breakdown of what they have done each month.

Pro: You have a Dedicated Agency that Knows your Business

  • With project-based fees, typically you get a freelancer or agency who will approach the work as a one-off arrangement. They aren’t always concerned with getting to know your business on a deep level.

  • By contrast, having an agency retainer invites an agency to the table, which makes them more likely to take more interest in truly getting to know your brand, your goals, and your audience.

  • The best agencies will be more invested in your business and will want to continue building your brand the longer they are working with you.

Pro: The Costs are Fixed

  • This makes spending more predictable, which is good news for your budget and financial projections. It also gives you more flexibility in project management, as you don’t need to negotiate with different agency personnel for every project or get clearance from senior management.

Con: You Have Several Agencies

  • Digital marketing is a wide umbrella, and below it you may have a separate agency for specific aspects, from web design, SEO or copywriting, to advertising and social media.

  • As these begin to stack up, you might find yourself stressing over managing all these agency relationships.

When an Agency Retainer is the Right Choice For Your Business

For businesses who really have a clear vision for the future, and believe they have the resources, products, and potential to operate for many years - then there is a lot to gain from an agency retainer.

If you are a big brand, or have the plans to become one quickly, then you’ll most likely have a lot of work to do. Being able to delegate this to an agency takes the weight off your own in-house team, allowing the company to be more productive as a whole.

Not only will you save time and money in the long run, you will gain a dedicated agency that understands your business and their goals.

Ultimately, this will result in better content, and a better ROI on your marketing.

You can forge a strong working relationship with an agency that you trust and will never have to worry about their availability whenever you need them.

This long-term partnership is also likely to pave the way for more experimentation and optimization over time.

While the upfront costs may not be possible for smaller start-up businesses, by booking in advance you can actually save money. And, it definitely works out to be less expensive than budgeting your projects individually.

This makes it straightforward to include the agency expenses into your long-term financial forecast and the overall marketing strategy of your company.

When an Agency Retainer is the Wrong Choice for Your Business

If you don’t already have experience working with an agency, then jumping into a long-term arrangement might not be a wise choice.

It’s important to get some experience working with several agencies first to figure out if you work well together.

Moreover, it’s essential that your company has already got a well-defined plan for the future. This must be mapped out, so you can clearly articulate what needs to be done to accomplish your goals. Without this, an agency retainer could be a bad move that leads to more stress than its worth.

By underestimating just how much help you need, you run the risk of upsetting your agency with unexpected changes to the workload. This could lead to tensions in the relationship.

Conversely, overestimating your needs could lead to a colossal waste of money as you have paid for the agency’s time but have nothing to give them.

The Decision Must be the Best for Your Company

An agency retainer isn’t for everyone.

While the benefits are certainly attractive, it’s important to weigh whether or not that is enough for you to go down that road.

An agency retainer is most beneficial to companies who understand the value of a steady relationship. They have a long-term plan, many well-defined milestones they would like to reach, and they are looking forward to focusing on that journey.

Project-based fees are good for smaller businesses with short-term goals and small budgets, but as you grow, the benefits of an agency retainer are well worth considering.

With help from a flexible agency like E29 Marketing, you can figure out a long-term plan best suited to your needs.

As your business grows, you might find the workload is getting too much for you or just one agency. They might specialize in written content, whereas you need experts in graphics or marketing.

By choosing experienced professionals, you can form a network of agencies that are comfortable working alongside each other.

So long as everyone is transparent about their duties and capabilities, you can build strong working relationships that allow your brand to flourish from the help of these specialized organizations. 

10 Captivating Ads and their Captivation Triggers


As much of the work we do at E29 Marketing involves advertising, I asked the team to share their favorite ads and explain their reasons for being impressed. As you know, consumers are inundated with ads, so it is imperative that ads are excellent in order to capture attention and encourage ad and brand recall.

What makes an ad captivating?

Ben Parr's book, Captivology is a wonderful resource describing the seven captivation triggers to capture immediate, short and long attention. The seven triggers are automaticity, framing, reputation, disruption, reward, reputation, mystery and acknowledgement.

1. Starbucks: Afternoon Made at Starbucks

Megan says "My favorite ad right now is a Starbucks ad titled "Afternoons Made at Starbucks." It's REALLY visually captivating. I saw it on Hulu and I think it's a great placement. Hulu is the only place where I see ads besides the occasional one on social (YouTube, Instagram or Facebook). Starbucks has been doing a push to get more people to there stores in the afternoons. I've gotten notifications through their app regarding their "Happy Hours" and it ties in really well with the ad I saw. On a side note, I believe they are testing serving alcohol so this could be a pre-test to see if they can get more people to visit in the afternoons/after work."

Consider the audience who watches Hulu, which is predominantly females 18 – 34 and how much this audience appreciates cool, hip and well…sugar! This ad effectively makes use of the automaticity trigger with sensory cues of color and sound. Zooming in on the drinks and showing the swirling of ingredients together could be argued to be the framing trigger, because it is forcing the viewer to imagine seeing each drink very close their eyes so that they imagine how it would feel to be drinking one.

2. okcupid: DTF

This campaign while somewhat controversial, does a good job of making people think. Once you understand what DTF means and how it plays on the millennial favorites of "WTF?," and "Down to F___" then you understand what it's all about. I like ads that make me feel smart, so when I feel like I understand the ad after spending a little time to figure it out, I feel part of an elite who get it. This is good for brand building and makes use of the acknowledgment trigger by encouraging a deeper connection with the brand because I feel validated and part of a community who use "WFT" and also understand the innuendo of "DTF" and how OkCupid is changing the meaning in an empowering way. Take a look at AdWeek's article about the campaign where the CMO says the DTF campaign boosted buzz by 50%. The campaign is also using the disruption trigger as it includes all types of relationships and for a dating app, it is very well targeted to daters of all sexual orientations.


And the results of the campaign are telling too: "In the crowded category of dating apps, OkCupid has rarely been one of the most high-profile options, but its recent "DTF" campaign seems to be working at changing that." 

3. Geico: Longest Goal Celebration Ever & 4. Old Spice: Talk to the Land

"My [Terra] household watched every single World Cup game. If we weren't home to watch live, we recorded it and watched as soon as we got home. This was extremely different for our family as I can't remember the last time I watched anything LIVE, let alone RECORD something to watch. We are die-hard HBO and Netflix fans.

This meant that I watched a boat-load of Fox TV (ugh) and real, live, TV ADS (gasp!)

There are two ads that stand out for me. No, they don't have talking animals or babies (which I typically LOVE), but both are similar in the following ways:

  1. They make me laugh out loud even as I watched them for the 3rd and 4th time
  2. They have nothing to do with the product being sold - or even really mention/show product benefits other than their taglines (gasp again…), no RTB, no POD, and, I'm not even sure there is a consumer insight?
  3. They are both PURE entertainment, and almost make their products feel irreverent. I didn't feel like I was being "sold", there wasn't any fluffy marketing speak, just pure entertainment.

The first ad is Geico's Longest Goal Celebration Ever, the robot at the end leaves me on the floor.

The second ad is: Old Spice's "Talk to the Land". Why would he need deodorant spray when he's going to crash? The whole thing is so absurd, it's awesome.

My 10-year-old son asked me why we don't have Geico and is Geico better than what we have? I told him that all insurance is the same. He said, "Well, why wouldn't you want to save 15% or more on car insurance?" It's a good question. My 12-year-old son asked my husband why he doesn't buy Old Spice. Another good question. Net, net, even though I loved these ads, I will not change my insurance, or buy Old Spice for my husband.

This begs the question of the role of cable and network TV ads. I would argue that yes, broad-scale awareness can be achieved. but ONLY if it's entertaining. My next question won't be confirmed for another 10+ years but... will my boys purchase Geico and Old Spice? Or, will they stick to boring old State Farm and Aussie Products?"

Thanks to Terra for her very entertaining perspective and accurate observations. The Geico ad also makes use of the acknowledgment trigger in that it was placed during live soccer games and who is more likely to appreciate goals and soccer idiosyncracies than soccer fans?

The Old Spice ad makes use of the disruption and mystery triggers. Disruption because the ad is so strange and unexpected and mystery, because it is a story and we watch in order to know the outcome. Mystery, uncertainty and suspense are very good at keeping an audience intrigued until the end.

5. Smove

You may have seen this one on Facebook or Instagram for the ultimate in selfie-sticks. The ad runs equally well whether sounds is on or off for the viewer as it has captions. What Smove is doing well is capturing attention with frequency and appealing to the audience who wants to look good on social networks. The special offer code makes use of the reward trigger and for the gadget loving yuppie with disposable income, this lifestyle enhancing device looks like it could be a winner. The number of reactions and views of the video don't hurt either.


6. Pepsi: Radio Ad

As Carol is often exposed to ads is when driving long distance and listening to the radio, she says "I really like the Pepsi Stuff radio ads that are currently airing. One, in particular, has the male speaker say stuff so many times, and in such a hilarious voice, it not only drives home the promotion (buy Pepsi, earn points, redeem for stuff), but also makes the listener want to go check out what all the stuff is (and on a 90 degrees day as you're driving around in a hot car, hearing the cans opening in the background actually almost make you crave a Pepsi because they sound so refreshing)… There is no image obviously with radio, it all has to be imparted verbally, and in my opinion, this ad does it well, not only through the repetition, but also with humor."

The ad uses the automaticity trigger with the sound of opening a Pepsi and probably also the disruption trigger in that the voiceover is saying unexpected things to be funny.

7. FullStory

On Instagram, I was stopped in my scrolling for an ad for FullStory. The ad is very well targeted to me and tells me everything I need to know about eCommerce checkout funnels in less than 30 seconds. The role of an ad is to spark curiosity to get the potential customer to want to learn more and therefore visit the website. This one worked on me. Also notice the colors that match Instagram. That was no mistake as people have very strong feelings about Instagram which will be sparked again with this ad.

The trigger/s used? Acknowledgement as well as reward.


Another one that does an excellent job of explaining a product 30 seconds is one for The ad is fast, succinct, fun and makes me want to check out the product since after watching it I believe it will save me and my team time. The captivation trigger here is framing, which as Ben Parr describes it is: "Adapting to or changing somebody's view of the world so they pay more attention to you," and also the acknowledgement trigger, because the Monday seems to understand me in my work life and need to manage projects differently.

The ad isn't shy about being an ad and the confidence is very compelling to the viewer. They don't say "confidence is sexy" for nothing.

9. Suburu: A Life Story on the Line

Another commercial Megan loves. "It captures your attention from the beginning by telling a story, while you are unsure what the ad is about. At first, it seems like a love story, taking you through a couples big life moments, which is appealing to women. Then it pans over to an accident, which then made me think it was an anti-drunk driving ad and that the children (in the car) had died. But then it informs the viewer that the family is still happy and alive because of their Subaru Forester. Ending on "That's why we will always drive a Subaru. Make sure your life story is a long one." They use a bit of a scare tactic, but I don't think it is overdone as now many people in their lives have some connection to drunk driving, texting and driving, etc. Typical car commercials are showing how fast and cool their cars are, but this Subaru commercial speaks to its safety awards. The story is very compelling and does a great job connecting to parent drivers who want their kids to be safe."

The trigger being used for this one is the mystery trigger as we want to know how the story ends, so we watch it all the way to the end.

Sidenote from Megan: "Acura tried to create a commercial like that, where they talk about seeing their test dummies as real people to convey how important they think safety is. But they do not do as good of a job conveying the importance of safety as the Subaru commercial does."

I totally agree. As humans we are hardwired to enjoy and be captivated by stories. Where the Subura one takes us on a journey we can imagine ourselves on, the Acura one is just Acura telling everyone how wonderful they are. As consumers we connect better with stories than with brand touting their own prowess.

10. Barbie: Imagine the Possibilities

Our fearless leader's favorite ad is one that is super entertaining and while watching it I challenge you to try not to smile. Amie says "At the core it taps into the insight of how little girls play with Barbie and encourages Girl/Women empowerment." It completely reshaped Barbie for the current times and the creative execution is fantastic.

This one makes use of the mystery and disruption triggers because it keeps our attention by being unique, unexpected and intriguing.

On the Horizon:

Not yet fully mainstream, but something that looks interesting and coming soon are scroller ads for mobile. “Scroller” mobile ads are ads where if you’re reading an article and you scroll, the image scrolls with you. Megan says "With all the competition, it does a great job of capturing attention as it is not what you are expecting." Making use of the disruption trigger due to its uniqueness, scroller ads are sure to soon be commonplace on mobile devices.

Your turn:

What is your favorite ad and why do you think it is effective? Also, there's extra credit for identifying which captivation trigger the ad is using.

Yes, Gen-Z Kids Are Spending Their Time on YouTube


It’s astonishing how YouTube transformed into a social media giant so quickly! YouTube was founded in 2005 and ten years later was purchased by Google for $1.65 billion. It has become a social platform leading the charge on original content with many many people watching over 1 billion hours of YouTube videos every day.

The fact that YouTube reaches more 18-49 year-olds than any broadcast or Cable TV network, makes it crystal clear that advertisers wanting to reach a younger audience need to consider spending money on YouTube ASAP (if you want to reach younger viewers, which 99% of us do). I have a few unbelievable statistics on YouTube (with receipts): YouTube is the second largest search engine and third most visited site (behind Google and Facebook), 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute and the number of YouTube channels earning six figures has increased by 50% year over year. And those are just a few of my favorite stats.

What YouTube gets right about being a social platform is its easy to use platform, video recommendations and advertising placements. I’ve personally gone on YouTube for the sole purpose of finding a new trailer for a movie I want to see or wanting to watch that new Halsey video and just getting lost watching recommended videos, one after another, and temporarily forgetting why I came to YouTube in the first place. Their advertising placements work better for the consumer versus Facebook and Instagram where it can feel like you are being overwhelmingly advertised too (after every few posts in my feed sometimes!). YouTube always has an ad at the top of the page and at the beginning of most videos, which is what the consumer has come to expect and generally agrees to watch.

Video is such a powerful way to connect (and advertise) to consumers. But direct advertising on YouTube isn’t the only way to reach that younger audience, influencer marketing on YouTube is a very popular way to reach those Gen-Z kids. They trust influencers opinions and have learned to tune out advertisers. They want to be like these influencers and will buy what they are selling. But the influencer has to be authentic. For example, Summer McKeen in one of her videos says “As you guys know I don’t work with any brands that I don’t truly believe in and truly love” and I believe her. Her love of MVMT sunglasses really shows and is authentic. She also didn’t spend the entire video talking about the glasses, just the beginning, and showed 10+ photos of her wearing them IRL. It wasn’t pushy, forced or fake. She did a better job promoting the brand than most of the influencers I’ve worked with. It reminds me of how the movie “Love Simon” was promoted in an episode of Riverdale and it was cringe-worthy how obvious and unauthentic the placement was. The idea was a good one, but the execution was not successful.

According to AdWeek, influencers hold more sway than celebrities when it comes to branded content. There are high impact influencers and “micro” influencers. The “micro” influencers can easily slip out of popularity if they don’t keep up with their YouTube page. If they stop posting or don’t keep up with the trends they will lose their cult following. There are trends in the YouTube sphere that are popular amongst teen “lifestyle” influencers: A Week in My Life, Shopping at Thrift Stores and more. These lifestyle influencers show their followers their “perfect” life. Influencers on YouTube are the new reality television and radio personalities for today’s teenagers. They tell their viewers how to live their best life: “drink more water,” “make your own green smoothie” and “try this face cream.” Here are some popular teen lifestyle vloggers: Hailey Sani & Nil Sani, Tatiana Ringsby and “Queen” James Charles. What makes them successful? Engaging with fans, posting at least once a week, a lively personality, and being “somewhat” relatable. They shop at Brandy Melville and brought the Pop Socket into popularity.

Don’t underestimate the power of influencers! Use their popularity, influence and content to transform your brand. You can thank me later.