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Retained Search: What Is It and Should I Consider Using It?

The common way to refer to retained work used to be headhunting. This meant something different from contingent recruiting, which tended to be led by advertising and using a database to find talent to fill a job. In the wildly evolved talent market of today I can’t believe any recruiter gets by simply advertising and using a database to find a role anymore though – certainly with us, a contingent role involves a good dose of headhunting as reaching out to passive talent has become critical to success in any brief that is being worked by true experts. So what's the difference when you brief a recruiter to conduct a retained search for you?


I’ve always felt the contingent model of recruitment was a bad idea. There I’ve said it! I can’t think of any other professional services where consultants will work for free, with no guarantee that a brief won’t change, be closed down, or be taken by an internal candidate, leaving them with no invoice to produce at the end of a month’s work, for reasons which are out of their control.

In a successful recruitment agency, contingent recruitment produces a 1:3 ratio of jobs filled to jobs worked. This means consultants know they only have a third of a chance of getting paid when working on a contingent role. Does this affect their mentality when they prioritise their days work? You betcha! With retained work, there is a 1:1 ratio of jobs filled to jobs worked. So the consultant who plans their week’s work and has 2 retained roles and 5 contingent roles, is certainly going to be covering off everything for their retained clients before they even think about getting into their contingent roles.


There’s also the motivational issue of accountability. In contingent, knowing a client has briefed you and four of your competitors, there will always be a safety net for the consultant who says to themselves, ‘the client isn’t relying on me 100%’. With retained work, you know the client has placed 100% trust in your work being a success, and any true professional will rise to that promise and give them 110% back in return.


With priority status and a consultant who is 100% accountable to you, comes a strong sense of process. It’s standard when working a retained brief for a client to have a weekly status report, check in call, for the consultant to share their market intel and progress. The client is reaping the rewards of all of this management information and reporting the whole way through the retained search, which leads me onto my next point: value.


When running a retained search, a client has a dedicated consultant who has prioritised them, who is developing weekly status reports and vacancy management information for them. If you’ve ever briefed an agency and then wondered what was happening during the radio silence before CVs came over, wonder no longer. Your retained consultant can tell you how many people they’ve been speaking with, what was their feedback on the vacancy, the company? Where does the ideal talent work at the moment? Are they willing to move? What motivates them, what would they need to accept a new role with your company? By the time you get to interview stage you’ve built up a bank of information you can choose to find the best candidate who will accept the right offer.

This is a high value recruitment model which could save you money at offer stage when you are exactly aware of market conditions and make the right offer. It will also help you recruit the best person in the market rather than the one whose CV is sent over first, which is a high value decision relating to this person’s success in your company.


Wrap this all together, and you are in a position of strength and knowledge when you make your final offer. If there’s a candidate shortage locally and you need to relocate someone, now you know why and can feed this back to internal stakeholders who are asking why there’s a $10k relocation budget tied to your new hire. If there were any reputational issues around your company, you’ve had chance to iron them out. Perhaps you need to recruit more than one role, and you and your consultant now have a talent pool of warm candidates that you’ll be able to dip into to increase speed and efficiency next time a vacancy opens up.

For me the extra value this brings to a client is so apparent, that at 33 Talent we recommend retained recruitment as the best option for briefs at all levels, not just executive search. The value it gives to 33 Talent is also important to us and all our contacts – when we’re working retained we form true partnerships with our clients and come to understand their business and gain their trust in a more meaningful way. The business efficiencies mean we’re often able to pass some cost savings onto the client as well, so all in all retained work can often actually be cheaper than running a contingency search. With all of these conditions, now you may also wonder why anyone invented contingent recruitment in the first place!