Do We Need to Rethink the Retainer? Enter Assurance

Curated Digital
5 min readAug 13, 2020

Now I’m not here to say anything controversial, such as the ‘retainer is dead!’. If executed right, the retainer model still offers a mutually beneficial relationship between brand and agency. However, the landscape is shifting and COVID-19 was only the spark that lit the powder keg.

The state of the nation

Like it or not, there has been a shift away from a customer-first mentality towards an onslaught of advertising at scale. “One way or another we will drive the customer into our marketing funnel” — it’s a mentality driven by the larger media providers and agencies. However, is this a game that we can play anymore? With spiralling costs on Google, the furore around Facebook advertising and the transparency of display advertising, there is growing evidence of a sizable shift of power.

But with this movement towards channel advertising becoming a commodity, and the growing trend of ‘in-housing’, brands are looking for more effective and efficient ways to drive value from the supply chain.

Driving a new value exchange

Let’s be honest — value perceptions are always in transition, regardless of what has occurred throughout COVID-19. A recent webinar delivered by INSEAD/Google recognised the impact of changing value perceptions in the context of brands and agencies.

The key takeaway was that, in all likelihood, the effectiveness and efficiency of how agencies are serving their brands today is failing, or already outdated.

We think that by simply putting together a schedule of weekly calls, monthly meetings and QBR, we are providing our clients with value. As a service framework, this is all well and good. However, are you asking the right questions? Are you stretching the gap for your client? Do you understand the impact of the macro-environment?

Customers are always on the loose. We know this, our brands know this, and the power is with the consumer. This is leading brands to reconsider their own value exchange — where is the added value? What is having a negligible effect on the business? Where can they drive the marginal gains? And this same mode of thinking is applied to their agency partnerships.

The future of the retainer

The retainer package has become somewhat like an endangered species. Not dead yet, but dying. The days that I worked in a large media agency in a performance marketing capacity were easier. Paid media skills were not as prevalent, it was easier to provide your client with new ideas and options every week, and the environment was less competitive. We were early adopters and were seen as so.

This is no longer the case.

There are a multitude of channel-focused agencies to choose from, with many intelligent, highly-skilled individuals working for them. Here, choice brings competition. And competition brings threat. The onus is on finding a way that we can avoid that inevitable ‘retainer fatigue’. How can we move from a service to solution mentality?

Enter assurance.

What the heck is assurance?

Welcome to the future. Assurance is not a term that you see coined often in reference to marketing. It has connotations with insurance and is linked to risk-mitigation within business.

Definition of “assurance”

There remains risk within marketing. Are we missing out on key opportunities? Are competitors stealing a march on us? How can we stop ourselves from becoming obsolete? This is where assurance comes to the fore.

An insight-lead framework that provides the ammunition to continually deliver a brand point of difference, across multiple touchpoints, at speed.

How it works

Now for the theoretical bit. Assurance is based on strategic fluidity. It is all well and good having 5-year plans, however, it’s wishful to think that the environment will sit still and let you implement without challenge.

The OODA Loop

Assurance is based on a 4 stage framework called the OODA loop:

  • Observe — what is happening
  • Orient — ensure the business is aware
  • Decide — collaboration to determine the best course of action
  • Act — deliver the response to the situation

It is delivered by monitoring trends and changes in the environment using a range of tools and bespoke techniques, harnessed by our consultants. Science meets art. Everything is backed up by data, so we can quantify the level of trend, change and opportunity and the impact it could have for the business.

Why is it effective?

The whole premise of our assurance framework is having the ability to steal a march on your competitors and move from a follower to leader mentality. Always leading from a position of strength, rather than being left behind.

So, how does this develop into a winning marketing strategy?

Understanding your customer is at the heart of marketing. Winning the battle for hearts and minds. This gives you something different and more resonant to say, which drives more impact from your media channels. Move away from this endless split testing of acquisition focused messaging and move towards providing the end customer with an improved value exchange.

This is where we can revisit long-term goals. More loyal customers? Tick. Competitive advantage? Tick. Business growth? Tick.

We have fully documented the process here.

So what impact does this have on the future of the retainer?

As mentioned before, the classic model of the retainer isn’t fully dead. This plug ‘n play media channel focused retainer will remain for a while longer. However, brands are beginning to demand a new value exchange. How can they derive strategic value out of their agency/consultancy relationships?

This is where customer-focused insight steps in and assurance takes the lead. Understand the environment better, deliver channel activity that actually stands out, drive improved commercial results.

Who knows where the future is going? But a move towards an assurance-based relationship is the horse I am backing.

David Angus is the Strategy Director at Curated Digital, a London-based digital marketing agency, turned consultancy, where he has been leading on the strategic approach for clients and Curated itself for almost 5 years now.

If you want to learn more about Curated’s approach to strategy, or to reach out to David directly, you can get in touch here:



Curated Digital

Clever digital marketing for ambitious brands. Founded by an ex-Googler, based in London.