I took a moment to sit back this weekend and think about what area of PPC I’m most surprised by as we head into 2016. For the first time in a while, it’s not a particular tactic, engine, etc. In fact, it’s a type of client engagement that started showing up at Hanapin’s doorstep at a much higher rate than usual in Q4 of this last year and isn’t showing any signs of slowing up this year. I’m talking about project-based relationships. To clarify, I’m specifically speaking about retainer and audit engagements.

Retainers and audits are generally closed-ended client relationships where a specific set of tasks or analysis is requested by a brand, however, ongoing management may not be the end result or even ever a piece of the conversation.

First let me put this increased interest in perspective – in the first two quarters of 2015 our team worked on just two retainer-based agreements, then in the last two quarters of the year there were four retainers and three audits. That’s a 250% increase in project-based business in just 6 months.

So where is all this retainer or audit interest coming from? I have a couple theories…

I believe many more businesses and PPC professionals are far more advanced in their capabilities than in previous years. There’s a greater focus on advanced training, specifically for in-house managers because an in-house team is generally able to focus the vast majority of their time on PPC (the key term there being ‘generally’) and they have tremendous knowledge of the brand since it’s their sole responsibility to run that company’s campaigns. Therefore, it is less necessary to rely on full-time agency management. Rather, these teams use agencies as a fresh set of eyes and extra sets of hands to analyze their accounts and provide an expedited implementation of projects & plans.

My second theory revolves around a scenario where a brand works with multiple agencies over a series of years and never finds themselves getting into the groove of a true partnership with an agency team, or even worse – they get burned more than once with poor management and decide to take things into their own hands and hire internal PPC managers. And hey – can you blame them? If they can’t find an external team that gives the proper care and attention to their account performance and progression, it makes sense they would just do it themselves and regain that control.

To be even more specific and “from the horse’s mouth” about how/why our recent retainer or audit clients have come our way, here’s a breakdown of their situations.

Need To Expand…No Time

This is maybe the simplest engagement when it comes to project-based work because performance is typically up to par but the in-house team simply does not have the time to take their hands off the wheel to expand (new service or products, engine, network, etc.). This means our team is basically doing their grunt work, which we’re completely OK with, and then they’ll take the reins once it’s ready to launch. This relationship allows the client to keep their eyes on the current campaigns and accounts and only requires them to take a small amount of time to review and approve what we’ve prepared for them.

Mystery Performance Issue(s)

This is a scenario also known as “it hurts, but I can’t tell where” from the client’s side. This tends to be more audit than retainer-esque, but can sometimes lead to retainer work if/when the pain is diagnosed and requires more hands on deck to alleviate than the client has available internally.

To be clear, there may not be just one key problem but rather a short string of smaller problems that have proven difficult to get under control. Again, this tends to be a fairly experienced team or account, however, a fresh set of eyes might be able to more efficiently flush out the pain points and outline a plan of action. That’s where the retainer need may kick in if the problem area proves to be something either large or urgent and the in-house team needs some assistance executing.

Proof Of Concept

While this isn’t the easiest PPC project on the list, it might be my personal favorite. Why, you ask? Because I love difficult things? No. The reason these scenarios are my favorite is because it means our team is involved and helping build a PPC account from the ground up. Keyword research, account structure, ad copy, competitor research, demographic targeting…the whole nine yards.

These clients may come to us with the intention of eventually managing themselves once the account is built, or they could have full management through an agency in mind come launch time. Either way, we’re able to help them prove how and where paid search can contribute to their overall marketing plan and bottom line and how could that not be completely refreshing? Nothing is broken. There’s opportunity to teach and illuminate a new channel. To be super cliché about it – the world is our oyster in this relationship.

Do We Need Outside Help?

Again, another situation that tends to arise from an audit engagement rather than a retainer, but some brands just aren’t sure what they don’t know or could be doing better so they reach out to determine just that. An audit could be pointed in a particular direction by the client, or it could be a wide-open “let us know any and everything you find that needs improvement.”

Depending on what comes out of the analysis once it’s complete, the client may then realize that a more experienced or strategic approach is needed to hit the targets or goals they’re aiming for – which means working with an agency (either for full management or ongoing retainer work) is going to be their best chance at success.

Final Thoughts

So what does all this boil down to? Even in a situation where an in-house team is advanced in their PPC skills or where a brand has had poor experiences with agencies in the past, there will always be a time and place for leaning on a PPC-specialized agency to get some extra effort toward the bottom line, particularly in those instances where the in-house managers are responsible for more than just the paid channels. We’re seeing the culmination of a few years of “we can handle it ourselves” in this uptick of project-based PPC engagements.

What are your thoughts? If you’re on the brand side of the conversation – what have been the reasons you’ve currently engaged or considered engaging with an agency? For the agency folks reading – where have the bulk of your project-based relationships focused? Tell us more about your experiences in the comments section!