Marketing Retainers Explained!

Posted by Steffen Wikhaug on Fri, Aug 09, 2019 @ 10:54 AM


What is a marketing retainer? How does it work? Why should you get one?

So you’re the owner of a small business. You barely have time to eat lunch. How are you supposed to take the time to create a social media strategy? Or run Facebook ads? You know you could be doing a better job on the marketing front, and you’re considering contacting a marketing agency.

Great! That’s a good first step. Now, marketing is filled to the brim with industry jargon like lead qualification matrix, click-through rates, customer value optimisation and more. In your first meeting, the marketing manager is going to ask you if you’re interested in a retainer, project work or ad hoc work.

And you’ll go:


A retainer is a long-term agreement between you and a marketing firm, lawyer or other similar persons and agencies. The retainer is usually prepaid for the coming time period, either month, quarter or whatever was agreed upon and is a contractual commitment to working on your behalf in the given industry.

Did you find that a bit vague and confusing? Good, I did too. Back to our more relevant real-world example: As the aforementioned owner of a small business, you tell your marketing agency that you’re not looking for a short-term specific thing, or having a couple of things done here and there.

You’re looking for meaningful, proactive long-term management - your newfound marketing manager nods. You are looking for a retainer. 

Now, the cost and contents of a retainer will vary depending on your company, the marketing agency, and the services you are interested in. 

Hypothetically, a retainer could be $1,000 per month and include 10 hours of work across some predetermined areas. It could look something like this: 

  • 3 blogs written and published on your website
  • 1 monthly newsletter written and sent
  • Graphic design, as needed

There are optional services that you could add to your retainer for an additional cost. Things like Facebook ads, Google ads, search engine optimisation, social media management, and website updates could be examples of optional services.

If you want social media marketing or other advertising for your company - which most do - a separate advertising budget has to be included because you have to pay for the creation of the ad campaign as well as paying Facebook, for example, to run the ads on their website. 

In the end, signing a retainer is similar to hiring an employee: you pay a certain amount of money and receive a particular set of services in return.


There are several benefits to having a retainer with your marketing agency. 

  • No surprise billings

Where a project only has an estimated cost and can easily (and quickly) go over budget, you’ll know the exact cost of your monthly marketing if you have a retainer.

  • Long-term collaboration builds understanding

The longer you work with someone, the better you understand their needs and wants. You’ll get a better sense of your agency and what they’re like as people. You’ll get an insight into how they work and what their real strengths and capabilities are.

  • Dedicated time for us to focus on your business

Marketing retainers typically specify the weekly hours of work to be performed. Us marketers typically have a very limited amount of weekly hours where we’re free to focus on ad hoc work, which is why paying to lock someone down is a good idea. It allows your marketers to set everything else aside and focus solely on your needs.

  • Priority service

If and when it’s possible, we will try to accommodate long term clients’ ad hoc requests, especially if they are urgent.

  • Fixed rate provides higher value

Buying in bulk always gives the buyer better value, and marketing is no different. The price you pay per hour of work in a retainer will be lower than in ad hoc or short term project work.

There are benefits for the marketing team as well, and they are more or less the other side of the same coin.

  • Predictable income

Where predictable cost is a benefit for the client, predictable income is a benefit for the marketing agency. Doing projects and short term ad hoc work is great and can be very rewarding, but the downside is that it’s short-term fun. You’ll have to hunt for a new project when the current one is finished.

  • Long-term collaboration builds understanding

The longer you work with someone, the better you understand their needs and wants. Long-term retainers arm us with the experience to know what works for your company, what doesn’t work, and when to change things up. 

  • Dedicated time for us to focus on your business 

The big benefit here is “traffic control”, as Csek Creative puts it. Retainers give us predictable income, yes, but they also give us predictable workflows. Retainer clients let you know exactly what to do, when to do it, and how much of it to do. Ad hoc work can quickly become an uneven mess of 60 hour work weeks followed by tumbleweeds rolling by.


  • Project work

Generally only used for one-off short term tasks. Building a new website would be a good example of a project. Time frame is often just an estimate, and so is the cost. Unexpected delays can end up hurting the deadline and budget.

  • Ad hoc work

Ad hoc is Latin for “when necessary or needed”, meaning that ad hoc work is on an even shorter timespan than a project. Typically used by clients without contracted marketing agencies who need urgent work done, this type of agency engagement could be pretty pricey.


Margin Media has been in the digital marketing industry for 13 years and is still run by co-founder Mat Lewis.

Our team is a group of driven and creatively focused individuals, from content creators to graphic designers and marketing managers. We strive to push the boundaries of creativity online, both in the realms of web design and digital marketing, and collaborate to offer each client something truly unique to their brand.

You can contact us at any time for a non-committal chat about your marketing needs.

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Topics: marketing, retainers

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