For A Small Retainer, You Can Have Lab Rats Chew On Your Marcom Problems

Richmond Times-Dispatch is reporting on a new business model for Work Labs, the agency led by Cabell Harris.
The article describes Work Labs’ compensation model and their outsourced talent pool.

Harris will ask clients to pay his agency a small retainer each quarter.
For that retainer, Work Labs will present new marketing ideas to clients each quarter. The client pays only for the ideas it decides to implement, he said.
“The impetus is on us to keep bringing them ideas that they can move forward with,” Harris said.

To create these ideas worth buying, Work Labs, with a staff of five in Richmond, will reach out to their network of Lab Rats, consisting of 25 “founding members” who are top-notch ad industry experts.
“I want to unite the creative thinkers and doers of the world,” says Harris, who also teaches at VCU Brandcenter.
The idea isn’t without controversy. Because Lab Rats will only be paid if their ideas go forward, there’s a whiff of crowdsourcing here that upsets some people. For instance, a comment made on the Times-Dispatch Web site says,” Let’s see if I understand this correctly. You charge a client a monthly fee, plus a fee for the work, but the creative people only get paid if their concepts get approved. What a great opportunity for the creatives! Maybe a good alternative would be playing the Lotto, where the odds are better and the reward is much greater.”
Bottom line, do you believe in paying creatives for their bad ideas, as an investment in the good ones to come? That’s the reality of working as staff at an agency of old. You have a salary and you can stink the place up for weeks, and still receive your fat paycheck.
Harris is responding to the fact that creative services companies need to get lean and mean to survive. But what’s really needed is a balance between the extremes. I love the extended network as work force model, but I prefer to take the old world route of assigning projects to the best people for those particular jobs.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. That’s the reality of working as staff at an agency of old. You have a salary and you can stink the place up for weeks, and still receive your fat paycheck.

    Really? That’s the reality? The reality I think most agency creatives live in is this:
    You get paid a fraction of what you’d make in any other industry, but you keep at it because you have passion for the work. You work night and day and weekends. And if you have even one or two misses, you’re immediately shown the door.

  2. You’re right, Matt. I should not have ended that paragraph so abruptly. It should have gone like this…
    You have a salary and you can stink the place up for weeks, and still receive your fat paycheck (as long as you deliver in the end).
    And it goes without saying, that agency cultures (and pay scales) differ. Sounds like Karsh has a strong work ethic and dedicated staff. But that’s not a universal condition.

  3. This guy sounds like the stereotypical crowdsourcing con artist. Who are these Lab Rats? Are they employed in the field? Probably not. They’re likely roaming freelancers at best.
    Has anyone not worked at an ad agency that didn’t seek to bring clients ideas outside of the official scope of work? Unfortunately, clients have cut budgets so drastically – coupled by holding companies doing likewise – that agencies have been forced to stay within the allotted budgetary confines and FTE numbers.
    If a client were really interested in receiving extra ideas, they would be better served to give Harris’ “small retainer” to their main ad agency. The main agency should be more familiar with the client and its needs, and therefore, more equipped to deliver extra ideas that fit for the brand.

  4. I don’t think Harris is the stereotypical anything. He’s much better than that.
    And to my mind he’s very close to a great solution here. The one glitch is the work for free thing. If the Lab Rats were also put on a small retainer, with bonuses for winning ideas, then it would be much more workable, at least for me.

  5. Agreed. After all, what is the role of a creative director? Are creative directors so good that they’re capable of producing stellar work with what amounts to free freelancers? If so, then why do most of them feel it necessary to clean house and bring in their hand-picked writers and art directors whenever they migrate to a new shop? The A-level talent that Harris might know personally is hopefully too self-respecting to work for free. He would be better off simply creating his own shop with a stable of paid freelancer pals.

  6. Crowdsourcing the way it is sucks. Hopefully anyone that knows me or has worked with me knows that I care about the people who do the work. Only time will tell if my model will work. Will great ideas get produced? Will individuals be well compensated? What will members get?
    Something needs to change. How many are happy with their jobs today. Take a look at the link below. I think discussion on this is good to have. Much of what is happening in our business makes me mad. My goal is to unite like minded souls. I need more fans that believe there is a better way.

  7. There are always better ways. But how do 25 anonymous “top-notch advertising experts” translate to a better way? You say crowdsourcing the way it is sucks. What makes your version suck less? You’re asking professionals to do spec work. At least with typical crowdsourcing, you’re dealing with students and desperate types with nothing better to do. How does devaluing creativity suck less?
    Want more fans? Try more transparency.

  8. Sorry, wrote the last comment without reading your press release. Technically, didn’t read it in its entirety, as it’s too poorly written and too long. Now I see that your “model” is essentially using students. Brilliant. How is this different than crowdsourcing that sucks? I would recommend the students go to CP+B instead. If they’re any good, they will land an internship where they also won’t get paid, but will at least have a greater shot at producing work – and working alongside professionals. Just a thought.

  9. Hey, discussion is good thing but lose the anger. I’ll be more than happy to try and answer your questions. Who knows you may be part of a solution for finding a better way. Also, I know my writing sucks.
    Hopefully, I can clear up a few things.
    1. The retainer is for our core staff at WORK Labs
    2. I’m responsible of bringing work to clients with or without LAB RATS
    3. I can not pay individuals if there isn’t any money generated from their thinking
    4. It will be transparent.
    5. LAB RATS are not students. The majority will be made up from Brandcenter alumni.
    6. I’ve been a professor for 6yrs and know many of them well
    7. My ultimate cool is to provide the group with tools that will help them with their jobs. I want the industry to do better. I want people to be employed at good shops.
    8. A small piece of the site will be: Give feedback on stuff we are working on. Is there a project you see you would like to be involved on? Help find a home for some of our intellectual properties. and make 10%.
    9. I’m looking for a quality not quantity
    Maybe the prize for the best advertising agency doesn’t go to the one with the most awards stacked on a shelf, or the biggest client roster or the largest media spend. Maybe it’s not about that at all.
    Maybe it’s much smaller than that.
    Maybe it’s about you. And who you are. And what you believe. And what feels right to you.
    Maybe you are joined with others who question the status quo. And the questions are What if’s, Why not’s and How come’s. Maybe we aren’t talking about an advertising agency at all

  10. I’m with you, David. I like a lean and mean structure augmented by extended network of trusted talents who are paid for their contribution to the cause. I don’t care for the “you only get paid if it sells: model. Not because I am a freelancer, but because I’d like to ensure talented, full-time freelancers are able to make a go of it. Advertising creative is too subjective for the pure crowdsourcing model to be sustainable as a full-time gig. Even the best of the best aren’t going to “sell” all the time. Even if the eco-system gets richer, it’s going to a highly inefficient way to work (for the creator). I think Mr. Harris has an angle here in that it seems that most of his creative resources are not full-time freelancers or at least have steady clients elsewhere and therefore can risk having some additional skin in the game. I’ll be curious to hear how many of his participants have the enthusiasm to stick with it after some no sells. Ultimately, we have to determine a model that allows creativity to thrive. I don’t see how a pure feast or famine model is practical. I am curious about the retainer/bonus system you noted, David. Still, I’m a fan of Cabel Harris. Be interesting to see how this shakes out.

  11. Well, Mr. Harris, I think you still have not really answered how this is different from crowdsourcing that sucks. The big issue remains the ultimate devaluing of creativity. Why should someone be asked to work for free – especially at a time when the digital space and economy have already messed with the earnings of creative people? That is, there are still people making stupid money, as well as employers paying pennies per word. Are we doing your former students a favor by exposing them early on to the new pay realities, or are we accelerating the bad commission-style idea of pay per performance (and only when performance sells). And what happens if something does sell? How will monies be distributed at that point? BTW, I would hope that you personally are not receiving a single penny unless something sells. Believe me, there’s no anger here, as I won’t be participating in your volunteer corps. For me, there needs to be an initiative that goes in the opposite direction of your proposal. That is, we need to re-establish (to clients and the industry) the inherent value – including the monetary value – of the creative product.