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Contingency vs. Retained Recruiters: What is the Difference?

Contingency or Retained

Contingency vs. Retained Recruiters: What is the Difference?

If you are looking to hire new talent, working with a recruitment agency may be the best option to find the right candidate for the job. Most recruitment agencies work in two ways – Contingency or Retained. What are the main differences between the Contingency or Retained model?


The retained search model, often referred to as “Headhunting”, is a proactive recruiting method. Most candidates are already in similar positions and are not actively looking at job listings, also known as passive candidates.

A client chooses one agency to represent their external search for an ideal senior or executive candidate. A client pays a small deposit upfront to retain a search agency. The client therefore carries some of the risk due to amount of time and resource involved.

The retained agency then works very closely with their client. They will take their time and use an agreed methodology to find the best person for the job. This entails involving all stakeholders in the role. This may include the human resources department, executive management or even board, to really define the profile, experience and characteristics of the person they’d like to hire.

jason-bourne sniperOnly the most qualified candidates sourced from across all networks, who aren’t just talented but who are the right fit culturally are presented until the right person is hired. As opposed to the contingency model, the retained model has a guaranteed placement result.

This type of executive search is a partnership between the client and the search agency, often leading to the best and most qualified candidates.

A retained recruitment assignment doesn’t come cheap. The client can expect to pay up to 50% of the projected first annual salary of the successful candidate in some instances.


Contingency search, on the other hand, is when the candidate is the bargaining chip. It is sometimes described as No Win, No Fee and are paid only upon the successful completion of a search. Typically when the candidate accepting and starting the position.

In the contingency search model, one or many agencies may be simultaneously engaged without clients paying upfront fees and without the guarantee of placement. The contingency agency typically has a less intimate relationship with the client and has fewer resources invested because no upfront fees are paid.

The Spray and Pray Approach

For recruiters to be successful in this model they have to represent the best candidate or candidates faster than the other channels. This includes the client’s internal HR department, advertising, direct applicants and often many other agencies that have been briefed on the role. Contingency is seen more of a “spray and pray” approach ie send as many CVs as possible, not necessarily the best ones.Spray and pray

If for instance, the vacancy is hard to fill, chances are there will only be a few candidates out there qualified for the position. Getting to these before everyone else is vital for the successful no win, no fee recruiter.

When engaging with a contingent search agency, the agency determines what resources to dedicate to each search. The recruiting and search strategy or approach belong to the search agency, and is typically not customized to your needs

The placement fee is lower than a retained search fee for the above reasons. In the Food industry typically 15% but can be as high as 25% or as low as 7% based on the starting salary

This can be a good option to use when a high volume of resumes is needed or with searches, which do not require a customized strategy or approach.

What makes the client relationship different?

Retained search relationships are typically more consultative advisory, where time and resources are invested to deeply understand a client’s business and needs.

Retained search gets under the skin of the company and they get to know what their strategic objectives are. They learn the thought processes of upper management, how the companies are structured, where the person or people will fit inside the organization, and what the culture is.

Due to the more rigorous, in depth and time-consuming work, retained agencies generally control the number of clients they can service at any given time.

Whereas retained relationships tend to evolve into long-term partnerships, contingency client relationships tend to be shorter-term, and task focused.

The retained recruiter takes their time to get things right using processes and agreed methodology. They know they will eventually fill the position thanks to their exclusivity terms. The contingency recruiter will be a lot quicker. They will most probably deliver more candidates to increase the odds of making a placement.

Another difference is that the retained recruiter has signed up to a service level, sometimes a retained search can be challenging, and these projects can be rather lengthy. The contingency recruiter will simply move on to another vacancy or client. This happens where they believe they can get a more straightforward win.

What does the retained search process look like?

When searches begin, the entire food manufacturing industry without regard to geography, even globally – is scoured to find the best people. Even the passive candidates not considering leaving their current job.

Candidates are informed about new opportunities they didn’t know exist. This is because retained search can be a very discreet process as many companies don’t wish to be identified. This is often the case in C-Suite confidential searches. So they utilize retained agencies to be intermediaries for talent who may work for their direct competition.Retained search timeline

The process is usually rigorous with a shortlist of anything from three to ten names being presented before interviews commence. In a perfect world, the retained recruiter will be able to present five candidates with the ideal skills, location, salary, etc. All the client has to do is select the one they like the most.

The retained executive search process does not stop until the position is filled.

Implications for you the candidate:

If you are approached about a vacancy, ask the recruiter how they got the assignment and what the competition is. If you are dealing with a retained recruiter, you are more likely to get full briefings on the role, the timeframes, the interviews, a potential offer etc

Recruiters working in the Contingency model often identify candidates who are unemployed or actively looking for new opportunities. Those that are visible on the job boards. They are more likely to be open to a move, so will be less time and effort to get in front of their client. Remember it is a race to present your details in contingency recruitment.

Retained recruiters however often identify ideal candidates who are sometimes not so obvious in a search. These are passive candidates perfectly happy in their current positions, settled and building successful careers. Candidates like this are much harder to identify and attract. So if whether the recruiter is Contingency or Retained – it is actualy important to you.

Multiple For Sale Signs

When a strong successful candidate is repeatedly contacted, by competing contingency recruiters. They often surmise it’s on a non-exclusive basis and could be in a pool of many candidates. This does not give a good impression of the business and can sometimes eek desperation. It’s like putting multiple for sale signs outside of your house. It does not give a good impression does it?multiple-for-sale-signs-on-view-outside-a-property

Whereas when contacted by a retained agency, candidates often understand that the client is serious. Their time is extremely valuable. Candidates expect that their achievements, intellect, likelihood of success in the new role. The candidates culture fit probability, values and a little bit about their personal life.

It’s a thorough exercise that most candidates enjoy because it keeps them fully informed. It provides a clear understanding of the role, the process and timeframes.

Why choose Food Recruit – Search & Selection as your retained partner?

You can now see that there are clear benefits to working in a retained model. You are intrusting your business-critical senior or executive search to an experienced partner. A partner determined to find the best candidate.

So why retain Food Recruit? Well first and foremost, I care. About your business; that we locate the best possible candidate for your opening and not just one that will do. I care it is a perfect match for the candidate too and it meets their aspirations. Of course – I care about my reputation.

I take pride in my work, and I enjoy it! Speaking with senior candidates, learning more about the industry with every conversation and building meaningful long-term relationships.

Practical Industry Experience

Unlike other retained agencies who are often generalists and divert their focus to the market for a particular assignment. I work ONLY in Food, specifically the Food Manufacturing sector.

Having over 10 years practical industry experience as Supply Chain Manager and a Business Development Manager for two of the largest Food Importers/producers and over 5 years search & selection and CIPS (Chartered Institute of Purchasing & Supply) certified.

I have a strong industry network allowing me to source exceptional candidates that meet my client’s needs. This often requires out of the box thinking, utilising my previous industry experience.

I’m constantly seeking ways to improve my service, to make my clients and candidates lives easier. I have a point of difference and I provide a leading professional service. For this reason, I offer VIDEO INTERVIEWING with every assignment – not only does this give context, it humanises the CV and allows you to get a feel for the candidates personality and soft skills during the process

To conclude – Contingency or Retained?

Remember, companies might employ multiple contingency recruiters to fill a single lower-level position. But this rarely happens at the executive level. With executive searches, confidentiality is crucial. The fewer recruiters, the better.

So Contingency or Retained? If a critical searh which is difficult, time sensitive or confidential go the retained route if possible. Contingency recruitment just can’t put in the time needed to conduct an exacting executive search. They are also less likely to develop true and trusting relationships with their clients and candidates. However if you aren’t in any hurry to fill the position. If you have say, 6 to 12 months — then a contingency agency might work.

If you are looking to fill a void left by a departing senior colleague. You are looking to up skill the team or looking to grow or diversify your board. Please get in touch to arrange a discovery call.

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Scott Williams

Scott Williams

I’m an independent owner of Food Recruit - Search & Selection. Passionate about the Food Manufacturing industry having spent time as a Supply Chain Manager and Business Development Manager for two of the UK’s largest meat importers. High Care, Low Care, Chilled and Ambient I have worked across all markets including B2B, Foodservice, Wholesale and Retail.

I fell into recruitment in 2016 to start a Food & Drink desk in a long-standing Engineering Recruitment business in the West Midlands. Progressing on to Business Development Manager covering multiple markets before starting my own agency in September 2020.