When not to use retained search

by Jack Gunn

Jack is Head of Executive Search at Kite, leading senior appointments across Technology, Operations and Regulation.

Recent appointments include Divisional COO (LCH), Global Head of IT (Marex Spectron), Head of Compliance (RJ O'Brien) and Interim CTO (Euroclear Group).


Retained search assignments bring many benefits when used appropriately, however, knowing when it should be turned on is very important.

Knowing when, is mostly a case of knowing why to use a retainer. For this, we must understand the benefits of retaining a recruitment agency for a search assignment. In most cases, when using a recruitment agency, there is simply no need to use a retainer.


When Not to Use Retained Search

  • A typical junior / mid-level (or senior) vacancy with reasonably open requirements, and no specialist experience needed.
  • Urgency of start, if you need someone to join quickly, generally spreading the vacancy across a few agencies is the best approach.
  • The hire is not confidential and can be publicly advertised.

Generally speaking, a vacancy that meets some or all of the above criteria will not need to be retained to one agency. However, if role requires higher levels of sensitivity and/or made a priority, a retained search really shines.


When to Use Retained Search

Traditionally used in Executive hires, the first important aspect of using a retainer is to give a recruitment agency exclusivity for the hire. Exclusivity means that you are not only improving your ability to set and uphold timelines, but it also ensures you can manage messaging to the market much more effectively. In most cases, senior hires carry a level of sensitivity, and in some cases require confidentiality to be supported with NDAs, this makes managing who is approached and the level of information delivered to them even more crucial. In short, retaining one sole agency and keeping close to the detail of their progress is the most efficient way to oversee these aspects.

In a busy market, retaining one agency is also an effective way of ensuring the priority of a hire, and incentivises the agency to deliver the highest level of quality. A retainer allows an agency to invest more time in understanding a vacancy, market mapping a targeted group of potential candidates and provide deeper levels of pre-screening. It is also essential that you fully trust the agency you engage, and you are comfortable facing them off to the most senior people in your business.



Unfortunately there can be an ugly side to retained search. This surrounds the way retainers are structured. Typically retainers are paid in three instalments (1/3 engagement, 1/3 shortlist delivery and 1/3 when a hire is made), meaning you will have spent two thirds of the recruitment fee before your successful hire has even put pen to paper on a contract! Naturally, requirements are adapted as an interview process unravels, and if this leads to delays or changes, you could see this money wasted.

With this in mind, we recommend looking at retainers in a different way. The recommended solution is an initial deposit which is then deducted from the end fee when a placement is made. Not only is this more cost effective but will ultimately allow you to be more versatile as the process evolves.

We have been on a journey to improve and streamline the executive search process and are happy to give honest advice on when to use this kind of service.

If you’d like to know more, please do reach out to jack.gunn@kitehumancapital.com