Thriving In A Project-Based Environment

The existential crisis of the traditional Ad Agency is nothing new – and let’s be honest – not going away anytime soon. The relationship between consumers and brands continues to evolve, the capabilities required to serve them continue to expand, and the very definition of “advertising” in the age of infinite branded content grows ever fuzzier. All the while, we see many budgets stretched thinner than ever as shops admirably scrap to do more with less. It can make even the best of us throw up our hands and say, “what does it all mean?” as the warm embrace of reliable, retainer-based revenue keeps our CFOs from screaming into the void. 

Oh, wait.  That’s kind of gone, too.  So…now what? 

It’s true. More work is becoming project-based, as agency of record (AOR) relationships decline.  It’s been estimated that these types of engagements today only account for 50% of revenue for small and midsize shops, and I suspect that number will continue to drop. Despite this shift, many are still struggling to find a financially viable and creatively fulfilling path away from those retainers and the guaranteed revenue they provide. 



As the Founder of a creative content agency that has, for over nine years, happily nurtured many project-based relationships, I’m here to say this loud and proud: this is an opportunity, people. An opportunity for agencies to innovate, to redefine the outdated model of agency/client relationships, and to reach new levels of success. Here are some tips on how to adapt.

Be Positive

It can be hard to change your ways and test new models of engagement, especially when your current method is tried and true. First and foremost, you have to let go of any negative connotations with project-based work.  It doesn’t have to mean one-and-done, and a quality client with long-term aspirations probably doesn’t want that any more than you do. Be open, go crush it, stay in touch, and chances are that more work will come. 

Think of it as a gateway to a thriving pipeline – a means of developing a stacked roster of relationships. Brands desperately need nimble agencies that can slot in these short-term gigs and offer quality work on quick turnaround time. These clients will also become your biggest advocates, with less competitive complications gumming up the works.

Know Your Worth

Short-term shouldn’t mean less profitable, so be wary of discounted rates. The same level of effort and energy is required – heck, probably more, given the more frequent need for fresh discovery and strategy – and timelines tend to be rigid without a lot of runway.  Introductory pricing can indeed be an effective way through the door but setting unrealistic expectations can put future collaborations on shaky ground.  Keep it fair and remember what you bring to the table.

Ensure it passes the “case study test”

Ask yourself the following questions:

Does this project allow me to take creative risks?  Do something new?

One-off campaigns can be an opportunity to join brands in taking creative leaps. So, get your clients out of their comfort zones.  Remember, most of them are coming to you for things they aren’t able to do on their own – so take a risk, say something, and introduce them to concepts outside of their wheelhouse.

Will it compellingly illustrate the unique value my agency provides?

We all need revenue, but if what the client is asking for isn’t authentic to your capabilities or goals as an agency, consider sitting one out now and then.  This, of course, can be very hard for any growing shop – especially those living project-to-project – but sometimes, there’s value in saying no.

Will I be able to showcase this work for potential new business?

Sometimes, work gets white labeled…and that’s OK. However, in the project-based world, it’s even more critical to be able to merchandise your work. If a campaign goes well, it can open up a new category opportunity. Consider the long-term and always assess the potential for a project to lead you to more work.

Be Flexible

The project-based model can often necessitate a more fluid team or organizational structure.  Additionally, young professionals are increasingly drawn to a non-traditional work/life balance.  With this in mind, try to avoid an overly rigid approach to staffing. Consider how to best leverage reliable freelance and contract talent when times get crazy.  Be open to giving your in-house talent the space they need to thrive.  This flexibility will help you go with the flow and equip yourself with the best possible resources for a given project. 

Project-based work done right can keep things fresh and exciting for your agency and create tremendous opportunities – once you know how to best navigate it. Put your negative thoughts to the side, figure out how you can use this type of engagement to your advantage, and go get it.

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