Contingency and Retained 

There are two traditional types of executive search firms in the recruiting industry: contingency and retained. If you have an important executive to hire, you will have to decide what kind of search firm to use. In leadership talent acquisition, the contingency and retained search firm models could not be more different. They approach search differently.

Different Search Firm Types, Different Candidate Levels

Contingency firms focus primarily on active candidates, while retained search firms focus on passive candidates who are not actively seeking their next opportunity. While there is some overlap at the VP level, contingency and retained firms focus on different levels. Retained search firms focus on senior-level executive roles, while contingency firms focus on more staffing level positions.

Different Pricing Models

Moreover, their pricing models are quite different. Contingency firms do not charge for the work that they do. They only get paid for actual placements. Retained search firms are paid a retainer to do the work of executive recruiting, regardless. Clearly, retained search, a form of management consulting, is a premium service, while contingency firms appeal to the budget-minded. For more on Retained Search Fees, check out our latest Guide to Executive Search Pricing.

To be clear, whether you use retained or contingency, you will likely pay tens of thousands of dollars to find the executive you need. So naturally, the question becomes, is it worth the price? We’ve listed the differences below to help you understand the value of each model.

Got Search?

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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