I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around this topic lately.  The traditional client-agency relationship pits us against each other, constantly fighting against budgets, best practice, creative freedom and our desire to make something awesome.

Clients want:  an awesome website, with cutting edge design, breathtaking interface, goal-oriented content strategy and oh – it has to work. You want your input to be considered. It also has to be cheap and done tomorrow.

We want: a portfolio piece, time to try new techniques and methods (responsive design or HTML5, for instance), cutting edge design, to be trusted for our expertise, to be compensated according to the value of our talents, breathtaking interface, goal-oriented content strategy, and enough time to do our best work.

While there are certainly a lot of common goals, you can see there are some conflicts.

I’m working hard on finding a way to resolve these conflicts, but I don’t think there’s a perfect solution.

My colleagues in this industry all tend to work differently: either by project basis, by the hour, or on retainer. And they all complain about why what they’re doing isn’t working or what’s making the relationships tenuous.  Some of them ditch client work all together and head to app development.

At Big Sea, we love – and thrive – on client relationships.  We love collaborative building processes – seeing the fruits of your domain knowledge with our design and development expertise coming to being.  It’s at once thoroughly fulfilling and unbelievably frustrating. It’s rewarding, annoying, pushing-and-pulling, testing and trying.  It’s so much fun.

Every project – and yes, I mean every, single, project – has very different needs. Sure, some overlap with regard to design or development, but the relationship – the number of emails, the phone calls, the level of input from us or trust from the client – that’s all different every. single. time.

Everyone asks for the same thing:  easy to use, elegant, simple.  Yet, every single website looks very, very different.  Every web app has varying levels of complexity; every blog needs different levels of customization.   Some of you are perfectly happy with Thesis out-of-the-box and just want some great fonts and a header;  some of you want to look totally different than anyone else and demand a completely customized layout.

It changes.  Constantly.  That’s the nature of the process and in my opinion, it’s what makes good websites awesome.  

The ability to adjust on-the-fly to improve a project or rethink our initial approach is vital to the creative process, and it’s severely limited when we bill on a project basis and simply want to get the work done so we can invoice.  We very rarely work on a project basis.

We choose to work on an hourly basis (and provide estimates as accurately as possible) because it allows the fluid process of building a website to remain fluid.  We tell our clients that we bill “hourly and honestly.”  We track our time using Toggl and literally charge per minute (we don’t round up) because that’s what feels right.

If we estimated your site would take 35 hours but you decide to add some neat functionality or want to rework the header three times, we don’t feel slighted by doing additional work.  If we estimated your site would take 35 hours and you fall in love with our first-crack mockup and green light every decision we make together, you don’t feel slighted by paying for the worst-case-scenario.

But hourly isn’t always the best choice for emergencies – and they will pop up – or for engaging us to improve and grow your site or app.  A third-party plugin will go down, a server will misbehave, or an upgrade will be necessary.  You’ll find usability snags or want to increase speed inside the app.   In these cases, we usually engage in retainers or prebilled hours at a reduced hourly rate.

When we work hourly, we are happy to work on your project as long as it fits into our schedule. When we’re on retainer, we can be emergency designers.  We’re committed to the growth and optimization of your web presence. When we work on retainer, we’re happy to make sure that time is a part of our schedule when you need it because we know it’s coming.

Our clients tend to enjoy retainers because they can be guaranteed that we’ll be spending a set amount of hours each month on their projects without any surprises – and they enjoy a reduced hourly rate.  We can make staffing and project commitments without hesitation. And we can both work together throughout the month to build a better website, design incredible brand pieces, build a stronger social media platform, create a stellar email campaign, improve search engine rankings and of course, optimize everything for killer site performance.   Retainers rock – for everyone involved.

That said, I don’t think that retainers are the perfect solution for every client and project.  I think we’ll always have a mix of hourly and retainer-based clients, and there will always be a level of unpredictability in workload and project planning.  Keeps me on my toes, if nothing else.

I know I’m not the first one to contemplate the client-agency relationship.  Our industry is still young (10ish years?) and still pushing boundaries and establishing best practices.  We’ve been operating on a traditional advertising agency model, but I think there’s got to be a better way.

Now it’s your turn:  if you’re a client, what do you honestly think of the hourly billing model?  What do you think of retainers?  What do you suggest as a fair and reasonable approach to billing for our time/work and being available to meet your needs in emergency situations?

8 Responses to “Reinventing the Client-Agency Relationship”

  1. Sean

    At my firm we’ve used all 3 models in some way or another (hourly, project, retainer) and I can’t say that any one is superior. You’re right that with a project-based model our incentive is to rush so that we can bill sooner, but doesn’t an hourly model essentially just shift that burden onto the client, making them want to use as few hours as possible? (This is a great counter-point article that explores the downsides of hourly billing: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/pricing-strategy-for-creatives/).

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said something along the lines of ‘everyone asks for the same thing but every project is completely different.’ The creative process is so unpredictable that it seems nearly impossible to come up with one pricing model that will solve everything. Every client is different and some prefer to pay one way vs. another, and you’ll never be able to please everyone.

    I think the ideal position to be in is to have enough business that you can pick a model that works best for you and stick to it, and kindly say “no thanks” to those who want to do it any other way.

    Great post!

    • Andi Graham

      Thanks for your comments, Sean. That List Apart article stemmed my research months ago – and I’m eager for Paul Boag’s book releaase in April to see what they’re doing. I just keep trying different approaches and keep falling back to what’s worked for us in the past, despite the conflict. And yes – working hourly DOES make the client feel rushed. I agree. That’s my issue: the nature of the relationship starts with conflict. It shouldn’t be that way when we are striving for partnership. Sigh. I’ll keep thinking :)

  2. Nancy Markoe

    For over 10 years, I chaired and lectured for the Arts Business Institute. I have mentored 100′s of American Artisans, not only on their body of work, but on their business practices as well. I stress that every Artisan should run their business on terms that are comfortable to them. And as said above in the previous comment, if a Gallery does not wish to adhere to those practices, they can’t represent the artist. But there are standards and business practices on the other end as well. Most Artisans don’t have a clue on how to price their work.

    I have also counseled many Artisans (who had the strangest of business practices) on how to make their clients feel comfortable, as well. I teach both “Relationships with Galleries and Relationships with Artists.

    I understand the nature of your business, having had a graphic agency many years ago in Washington, D.C. Yes, now you need the knowledge and expertise of translating to the internet, but prior to this new technology we had as many technical issues and labor hours and I know…the same client issues.

    Now, on the “other side” for 20 years as a client to programmers for our computer system and now
    working setting up our e commerce system with a design and computer production team, I am experiencing similar issues that I feel come with the territory. And, I cannot tell you the amount of conversations I have had with folks who experience the same as I do.

    Your industry is very young and came so incredibly fast into being, that there are very basic pieces that need to be addressed that go beyond the billing issue. When both parties feel satisfied, no matter how you wish to bill is not the issue. The process itself needs work. The process itself needs work.

    For a great percentage of clients – they are heading into un- chartered territory. There has to be comfort zone. It is that curriculum that needs to be established in this new industry in order for so many conflicts that arise to be fixed.

    I am not being critical. I just am aware of easy solutions on the front end to make the process easier for all.

    • Andi Graham

      Hey Nancy – thanks for posting. We’ve been around for six years as an agency, and have always used a very similar process (Discovery, Design, Development) with varying levels of investment in each stage.

      For the most part and in almost all cases, that works well. We try to outline that process in our estimates and proposals so clients know what to expect. Where we struggle is with whether, as a client, you’d rather see “this project is going to cost me $XX dollars” or “this project will take XX hours at XX rate.”

      Unfortunately, a lot of clients lose sight of the fact that a website is a living, breathing, dynamic thing that requires maintenance, change and care to function – so the “costs me XX dollars” approach is very limiting.

      It’s a question we’ll always struggle with and until now (and I”m sure going forward) we’ll just be bending as necessary to each client’s particular approach and what we think suits the project.

      For instance, the system you’re building is on a managed content management system – so maintenance and growth are managed and covered in the fee you pay to them. You don’t need an ongoing retainer with a web agency – you just need to learn to use your system and you’re up and running. Technically, you don’t need us at all if you’re happy with the themes available through the provider :) And that’s ok! It’s a great way for small businesses to leap into eCommerce – but it’s time consuming, laborious and has a learning curve.

      In many other cases, we’re building something custom for a client that will require updates and grooming to maintain search engine rankings, add functionality and refine usability. In those cases, the retainer approach makes sense though right now, we’re mostly billing by the hour. And that’s a tough call too. No one wants to invest more than they need – or believes they need as much as they do until they see their bill.

      Anyway – just pondering and seeing what feedback is out there :)

  3. Ester Venouziou

    From the client perspective, I think it makes it a lot easier to budget when it’s on a per-project basis. Having estimates (budget and completion date) means I can better work my marketing, finances, etc.

    I think for this to work there needs to be detailed plan, in writing, of what the project will entail. That way developer, designer and client are all on the same page. If client then requests something that’s not on the plan, he/she would of course have to pay extra.

    As a freelance writer and editor, I charge on a per-project basis, based on my estimates on how long something will take. My estimates aren’t always right — sometimes I get wrapped up researching a topic and it takes me longer than I thought; other times

    • Ester Venouziou

      Oops. Hit Post Comment too quickly, by mistake …

      … other times it’s not as time-consuming.

      Maybe best way is per project, but paid based on mini-milestones, rather than partial payment upfront, and rest all due at time of completion?

      • Andi Graham

        That works for smallish projects, but the big projects that span months *always* change – and they should – because we can never account for each and every behavior/interaction in the code until we write the code and test it. It’s almost impossible to “estimate” big projects like that as a per-project because we never know all of the issues up front. Ever.

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