Don’t Sign on the Dotted Line: Retainer Versus Contract

No contracts. That’s a Bolder promise.

Bolder & Co. Creative Studios is so obsessed with strategy, that well before we hung our shingle out for business, we did qualitative research to help us best understand the key dynamics of the client-agency relationship. From those client-side interviews, we wanted to hear more than just what the general needs were, we wanted to hear about the pain points and frustrations.

Much of what we learned informed Bolder & Co.’s operations and values. But there was one aspect of that took a little more deliberating before committing to. It came from hearing too many disheartening stories about clients that had been burned by contracts and were stuck working with agencies that failed to deliver the level of quality, service, or results they had sold.

So, we asked ourselves a question: What would happen if we didn’t require clients to sign a contract?

The first answer was obvious. We would need absolute confidence in our ability to deliver outstanding client service; rock-solid branding and marketing strategy; inspiring, sophisticated design work; and proven results. If we fell short of those expectations and couldn’t make it right, the client would walk away since they weren’t legally bound to stay. But if we nailed it, clients would have no interest in leaving us for another agency.

The more we thought about it, the more questions were raised. First, how can we ensure we don’t get burned by a client that lacks the financial “skin in the game”? Second, without a contract, would a client simply sign on for a one-off project and then disappear? As a passionate group that invests a lot of energy upfront in getting to know a new client’s business, history, and goals, that kind of short-term assignment isn’t a good value for either the client or the agency.

The solution, we determined, was to replace a contract with a monthly retainer. It’s the kind of relationship that gives both parties what they need. For clients, that means they get the highest quality work and the option to easily walk away if the relationship goes south—along with the ability to recoup unused upfront payments. For Bolder, we get to work with clients that truly value what we offer, which encourages us to dig deeper and get better at anticipating client needs and opportunities.

Naturally, clients are sometimes a little wary about this arrangement, mostly because it’s simply not done in the industry. They often wonder, if there’s no contract, who owns the work—the website, the logo files, the digital assets. We answer simply: You do. If you leave tomorrow (and all your bills are paid), we package everything up and hand it over. It’s your business, your tools.

Since the humble beginning in 2010, Bolder & Co. has been operating without requiring a single contract, and the risk proved not to be terribly risky after all as we’ve engaged with an inspiring and impressive roster of organizations. We couldn’t be prouder to say that we have never lost a client to another agency—not one.

That’s not to say it’s always sunshine and roses with every client. As with all relationships, miscommunications happen, and frustrations can flare up. But ironically, removing the “handcuffs” posed by a lengthy contract has allowed for a deeper commitment between us and our clients, one that’s built on trust and a willingness to work through pain points together. The result has been a healthier, more dynamic partnership that adapts right alongside our client’s business.

In fact, one of our most rewarding partnerships of 2022 was with a client that was fold-their-arms skeptical of the agency dynamic having been soured from past engagements with other providers. Our approach was to start by building trust in the Bolder team’s ability to learn their business and competitive place in the market

So, as far as contracts are concerned, Bolder’s never going to have them. We’re happy. Our clients are happy. And secretly, we really love that look of disbelief when we tell a potential client: “There’s no contract.”