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Why PR agencies shouldn’t charge a monthly retainer

PR, like many services industries, often has a bad name. It is an inconvenient truth – and one that continues to blight the sector to this day. The reason is a simple one. Traditionally, PR agencies have charged their clients a monthly retainer, which in effect buys a certain number of hours, with staff filling out and working to a timesheet each week. 

Since when, we would ask, has “hours” ever been a metric against which to judge PR success? It certainly falls short when trying to justify that dreaded return on investment.

Agency abuse

To make matters worse – and perhaps inevitably – the system has often been abused. If the agency were to write a hot topic article, for sake of argument, it would want it to take twice as long as it should do. Once it had been sent to the client for approval, if it needed rounds and rounds of amends, then happy days. More hours racked up on a timesheet, less delivered to the client. And if the agency uses up its allotted hours for the month, then it comes back to the client asking for more money.

By its nature, this retainer-based approach is great for public relations agencies, but less than satisfactory for clients – and that struck us as odd right from our inception as a specialist business-to-business tech PR agency. Over the last 25 years, we have become knowledgeable about PR-led tactics, how long they should take and what output they should achieve for B2B technology brands.

As a result, we don’t charge our clients a retainer and we don’t talk to them about hours or timesheets. Instead, we offer set fees for set deliverables, building bespoke campaigns that map to the client’s business objectives. Whether each deliverable takes us two hours, 20 hours or 200 hours, the fee to the client stays the same.

Best for clients

This means, right from the very outset, the client has absolute transparency about what their investment is, and what it is buying. But that’s really only half of the story.

If you build strategically-aligned campaigns from day one, you can set strict performance targets alongside them that link to the tactical plan. For a traditional B2B technology PR and media relations campaign, this could be coverage volume and key message penetration for example, and for social media this would be more tangible engagement metrics as a start.

Payback time

The final tip is to offer all clients a formal service-level agreement that simply states that if you do not deliver what you promise, you give money back on a pro-rata basis. If you miss coverage target by 10%, for example, the client gets 10% of their total fee back.

We believe this is a better way for clients to engage a PR agency, one that puts the pressure on the agency to be proactive and drive the campaign forward. It provides the client’s business with complete certainty in terms of investment, activity and results

Written by Simon Moss, business development manager at PR agency Whiteoaks International

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