Project-By-Project=Treat ‘Em Mean, Keep ‘Em Keen

There seem to be more and more clients these days who are making use of their agencies on a project-by-project basis.

The reasons for this are obvious: it saves the client having to pay a retainer and it means they can engage all their ‘roster’ agencies in a pitchesque bunfight whenever they’ve got so much as a 25×4 price offer to put out. The agencies have to make twice their usual effort and in many instances their hard work will fall on stony ground. However, if they want the Goddamn privilege of being able to do some actual advertising for an actual client, they’d better step into line.

Some agencies are willing to be their client’s, ahem, bitch because, let’s face it, it’s still money. In addition, some theoretically ‘good’ clients such as Yellow Pages are now going that way and they might have a famous logo to stick on the ‘Our Clients’ page of your agency website, and there’s always the dim possibility of being given the whole business (yeah, like fuck).

Equally obviously, such arrangements do have their downside for the client: it’s difficult to build up a working relationship of mutual trust and respect, but what does that count for when there’s money at stake? In these tightened times, abstract niceties are not as sought after as they were.

On the agency side, non-retained clients make it harder to plan ahead because their income is much less predictable. Maybe that’s the way things will be heading after the recession: a majority of temporary staff to be called upon when needed, and a small core of the agency to keep it going and deal with the fewer retained clients.

Is that good, or bad?

Well, I don’t think I pay anyone a retainer. When I want a doctor, lawyer, mechanic, bus driver, newsagent, plumber etc., I employ them as and when I need them. I can move my business between them for reasons of convenience or cost and there’s nothing they can do about it. I don’t think I lose much by this (indeed, I avoid the tedious chats that happen when you use someone on a regular basis); maybe if I had the same plumber for years he’d know the vagaries of my lav to a slightly beneficial extent. But can you compare those jobs to an agency/client relationship? Agencies would point to the benefits of their longtime immersion in a client’s business, which can often last longer than the tenure of the average marketing director. But so what? Clients switch agencies all the time, with both positive and negative consequences, so why not do it regularly and reap the benefits of less money for more effort?

Perhaps treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen will be the greatest/worst consequence of the next couple of years. It’s always possible in an oversupplied market where the work is, for the most part, indistinguishable in quality and elusive in accountability.

And we’ll only have ourselves to blame.