In this modern world where middle men get cut our due to technology -- disinter-mediation is the term, one can often find direct contact information to reach speakers.   But should you?   Or can you be better served using an agency?

The first speaker to receive a fee is thought to be Daniel Webster, and the first bureau is thought to be the Redpath bureau so this industry is not quite the oldest profession -- This I learned from listening to a cassette deck by Dottie Walters and Sommers White titled: How to Start and Build a Successful Speakers Bureau. [ I have a original copy of the deck, and frankly it is the most frequently loaned out item the IPA offers as a member benefit. -- Dottie founded the IGAB -- The International Group of Agents and Bureaus.  Dottie has past away, Sommers White is still going strong, having keynoted the Institute of Management Consultant's 2013 convention. 

But speaking and the business of speaking has been compared the oldest profession.   At a recent meeting of IASB, the International Association of Speakers Bureaus, the successor group to Dottie's IGAB, there was a presentation of interest that piqued the imagination to suggest the comparison.   The authors of the book Freakanomics spoke of a chapter in their book about the decision of a prostitute to book direct via the internet or to engage the services of a pimp.  In speaking with the authors after the presentation, they grinned when it was suggested they were saying all the agents and bureau executive in the room were pimps for speakers

There are several types of Agents and Bureaus, what we here at IPA call Catalysts, that includes those who assist with speaker bookings.

  1. Agents that directly and exclusively represent a speaker --- Think of the Harry Walker Agency representing President Bill Clinton.
  2. Speaker Bureaus  who doe not have a large number of exclusive speakers, like EaglesTalent Speakers Bureau.
  3. Speaker Offices, who represent and partner with a limited number of speakers who are sponsors of the 'office." like the one aptly named Speakers' Office.
  4. Then there are the websites and associations that offer direct access to find speakers -- where you can directly contact speakers for booking. is good example.
  5. Groups that cater to finding spokespersons, and can be engaged for a fee to find a famous person to do more than speak, but be a partner is your mission.  Rita Tateel from Celebrity Source is a good example --
  6. Direct only speakers like Rudy Giuliani whose office only books direct, and does not share commission, so his bureaus is his office.

But the better model to understand the economics of speaker bureaus are sort of like Realtors, in that some are listing agents who have exclusive contracts with speakers, while most are buyers' agents who represent buyers.

Agents and bureaus often share commission when they jointly make a deal to book a speaker from the Agent, to a client represented by the Speakers Bureau.  There are not set commissions, so part or any arrangement is the negotiation between the agent and bureau. Typically in standard practice the speaker offers a discount that is paid to the agents and bureaus that bring them the business.  

There are lots of speakers, and most of the best have exclusive arrangements , so the real action are the Speaker Bureaus who work tirelessly to find meeting planners who will hire them.  The are several ugly things that have come from this arrangement of middle men.

Bureaus will advertise and promote with the names of speakers they do not have under contract as a way to attract meeting planners then offer other speakers that they may make more commission on.  This seem innocuous but as the real money is made by bureaus when they get both sides of the deal it is a common occurrence. .  Think of it this way, if you ask a bureau for the cost of Hillary Clinton, only Harry Walker knows they get both sides of the deal,  But a crafty speaker bureau knows they will only get a smaller shared commission from Harry Walker.  So right off the bat hundreds of speaker bureaus are motivated to not book an exclusive, and will suggest to the client other speakers where they can earn both sides of the deal.

So the question is -- should you hire an agent or bureau -- our answer is an unequivocal -- YES  

But we really suggest meeting planners hire from two places.

1)   If the speaker you want is exclusive, by all means contact that agent, for they will give you the best access.  Or use your regular bureau if the speaker you want is not exclusive.

Then 2)  Hire a local bureau near where your convention will be for they give you two great things: 1)  Boots on ground at your event from the bureau so you are assured that all goes as planned.  2)  Local contacts and local speakers who can quickly and affordable ensure your event stays on track and on budget.

Should you hire speakers directly -- Yes, if you have the relationship, you should, but for speakers you don't know having the help of professionals can be instrumental to a great events.  .... and the services of the agents and bureaus are most often, free as paid for from the fees collected from the gross booking fee.   Some agent and bureaus are now upfront about showing their costs as part of the transaction, and this can be of great value for your are being shown what you, the meeting planner is a paying for.  

It just pays to ask, who is being paid from the fees you pay.  Otherwise they may be players at the table you don't know.

As the International Platform Association is not a bureau, but we are often asked to suggest speakers or asked advice on how to reach a speaker, we always try to suggest the best way to reach a speaker is use a bureau.

---Mitchell P. Davis, September 27, 2014

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