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?