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 Help! I need a speaker! But why use an Agent? The value of a good agency...

The conference and business tourism industry is worth billions of dollars on a global scale every year. And for many of those conferences and industry seminars, the highlight of the event is the keynote or closing speaker.

With so much money being spent on these events, how does one ensure that the chosen speaker will deliver the necessary message with the required "oomph", punch, pizzazz and flair to add that finishing touch and make the whole event memorable?

Much has changed on the Professional Speaker and Speaker Agent landscape of late... Google has come along and changed our lives – forever. It's so easy to find whoever you're looking for now, it's a joke.


"So why bother with an agency?" I hear people ask, more and more often.

With the image of agents in this country having been sullied by unethical operators who charge fortunes of commission on the sly in the past, and then having had that image further tarnished by some speakers who have expressly - and publicly - gone out to "put the agents out of business" (with some level of justification in some cases, I must concede), it's small wonder that clients have started believing that all agents behave the same way, and thus shouldn't be dealt with, unless absolutely necessary.

But, let's think about it – how many times has some very smooth, clean-cut, silver-tongued "motivational speaker" sat opposite you and convinced you that he (or she!) is the absolute best speaker ON EARTH for your next conference or gala dinner?

That no matter what your theme, he can tailor-make a talk just for you – even if it's about Purple Mountain Goat Farming in Outer Mongolia! And you've believed him: after all, he's a very good communicator (obviously!!), he's so charming and his brochure is fabulous!! Why, it says there, right on the cover: "SA's Number 1 Speaker!!!!"

Why wouldn't you believe him (or her!)?

And yet - on the day - he wasn't quite as good as you believed he would be ... and his talk about Purple Mountain Goat Farming turned out to be ... well ... not quite what you thought it would be ... In fact, perhaps he even stood up and did his usual "canned" presentation, with a few references to your company thrown in (if it occurred to him), which is his interpretation of "tailor-making" his presentation?

This is exactly where a good agency comes in.

A good agency doesn't represent just anybody, there's a whole process they go through with the speaker before they'll start marketing them, not least of which is seeing them actually present a talk. It's disconcerting just how many so-called "agents" market speakers they've never seen in action!

In fact, this seems to have become a somewhat alarming trend – agencies basically selling space on their websites to anybody who will pay for it. To me, this defeats the object of being an agent.

At Speakers Inc, we firmly believe that Rule No 1 of Professional Speaking is that one must be a "Passionate Expert on Your Topic", to quote Dottie Walters. Anybody who claims they can speak about "anything!!" makes us more than a little bit nervous.

In this way, an agency worth its salt will know who will be the best speaker for your event, based on your needs and your audience demographic. This – we strongly believe – is a good agency's value to the client: their experience and intellectual capital. Such an agency appreciates that it's their reputation on the line and will not put somebody forward who will put that hard-earned name at risk, not to mention the organiser's or client's!

So the question then becomes, how does one know the good "agents" from the rest?

The simplest way I can think of is to simply ask them whether they've actually seen the speaker they are recommending, deliver a presentation. A few further leading questions about the content of the speaker's message and presentation style, as well as how and why they believe he or she will fit in with your specific conference theme, should help you establish fairly quickly whether they know what they're talking about or not.

You could also establish whether that agency belongs to any professional bodies, both locally and internationally. Local bodies would include SAACI (the South African Association for the Conference Industry) or MPI (Meeting Planners International) and then there's also the IASB (the International Association of Speaker Bureaus).

Agents who do run ethical businesses, who have the best interests of their clients and speakers at heart and who are concerned with the life-time value of a client, will not jeopardise all of those things for a quick buck through a once-off booking, and these are the guys and girls you should be happy to work with.

A last, sure-fire way of sniffing out those greedy sods who behave without conscience is to ask the speaker directly, at the first available opportunity, (with grace and discretion, naturally) what his fee is. If they have been instructed by the agent not to do so, that's a very large warning bell. Be warned, he might just mention a figure way, way lower than what you've been quoted, and both of you will be angry, but wiser, about the people you're dealing with. As a rule of thumb, speakers pay agents 20 – 25% commission from their fees, so if you've been charged more than that, you're paying too much. Then again, he may mention a figure that sounds right and you'll both be reassured and happy to work with that agent again.

So what exactly is the value of a good agent? I would say that a good agent is someone you can rely on to provide you with un-biased, honest feedback on the speakers who are available on the corporate circuit; sound advice on which speaker will be best suited to speak to your delegates; and who is happy to work on a basis of transparency about the speakers' rates – after all, if the agent doesn't recognise their own value enough not to hide it, why on earth should you?