How are Contingency and Retained Executive Search Firms Different?

The key differences between two types of search firms

Contingency and Retained Executive Search Firms

There are two traditional types of executive search firms in the recruiting industry: contingency and retained. If you have an important executive to hire — important enough to use a search firm — you will have to decide what kind of search firm to use. In the world of leadership talent acquisition and executive recruiting.Their approaches to search and their pricing could not be more different.

This Way That Way sign metaphor for contingency and retained executive search

In order to select the right executive search firm, it is important  to understand the inherent strengths and weaknesses of traditional contingency and retained executive search firm models. Those shortcoming make an argument for an executive search firm model that is more evolved. With that caveat, what follows are the general differences between the two search firm models:

Search Firm Type

Retained Firms

Contingency Firms

Type of Position


Middle level executive and individual contributor roles.









Conducts search assignments often on a non-exclusive basis. Only paid for candidate placement. In other words, successful searches are never free.

The Relationship

Recruiting process is transactional and placement-oriented.


Rarely conducts original research. Presents active candidates as rapid as possible in race against other firms, often without thorough appraisal.

With no guarantee of payment for services performed and no budget for research, contingency firms may abandon difficult searches and leave positions unfilled.

The Good Search falls within the retained executive search firm category. We are a national executive recruiting practice headquartered in the Greater New York City Area. We specialize in advertising, media, games and all-things-Internet.

For employers that would rather not go “out to search”, our research practice Intellerati offers month-at-a-time support for internal executive recruiting and talent acquisition teams.

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