The Speaking Industry Wild West: Are Transparency and Regulation Needed?

Buyers and sellers are protected by regulations and oversight in the real estate industry. Not so in the speaking world.

Could the ‘wild west’ speaking industry benefit from similar regulations to the real estate industry – as protection for speakers and event hosts and a consistency builder among bureaus and agencies?

The real estate and speaking industries have many parallels in form and function – but one has regulation, licensing, and oversight, while the other does not. Just like the real estate industry, the speaking industry involves large transaction amounts, commissions, agents, buyers, and sellers.

In lieu of a home for sale, the speaking industry’s “product” is the speakers’ expertise and time. Event hosts buy speakers’ expertise and time for their events – either directly (direct booking) or via an intermediary (brokered booking).

In the real estate market, intermediaries are real estate companies staffed with agents or brokers. In the speaking industry, intermediaries are speaker bureaus, speaker agencies, production companies, meeting planners, and SEO-optimized speaker aggregators. The titles for the people who enter contracts to buy/sell speakers’ services vary widely, but they function as an agent in these deals.

Unlike the real estate market, the speaking industry does not have any required disclosures on commission and dual agency.

In real estate, there are:

  • buyers agents, representing the home purchaser, and
  • sellers agents, representing the homeowner.

Each agent represents the best interests of their respective client. When an agent performs both functions, they must disclose their dual agency — so buyers and sellers are aware and only share what they want the ‘other party’ to know. Undisclosed dual agency in real estate is illegal.

Dual agency inevitably favors one side over another, and typically it is the party with whom the dual agent has a closer allegiance.

There is only one contract on an offer to purchase a home — and it is directly signed by the buyer and the seller. The total price and what is being purchased for this amount is clear. By law, compensation to the agent(s) involved (ie: commissions and fees) must be disclosed. There is also a known industry ‘average’ commission on real estate sales. Dual agents earn the full commission. In transactions that involve both buyers’ agents and sellers’ agents, those parties split the commission in a pre-determined manner and roughly equally.

There are no corresponding licensing, laws, or disclosures required in the speaking world.

Bureaus have historically been in the position of both buyers’ and sellers’ agent – but there is no required disclosure of dual agency. Bureaus’ top priority, broadly speaking, is to attract and retain event hosts (buyers) who purchase speakers to appear at events. It is in the bureaus’ best interests to ensure the widest selection of high-quality speakers and make the process easy as possible for the event host.

Bureaus frequently operate as dual agents. They balance the speaker’s desire for top speaking fees, manageable customization, and a reasonable amount of contracted activities, with the event host’s desire to get the best deal, maximize customization and optimize the benefit of contracted activities.

Being the dual agent puts bureaus in a tough spot. To further complicate matters, there are always at least two contracts involved in a bureau booking: One with the speaker, and one with the event host. Additional contracts are needed if a meeting planner or event production company is involved.

Typically these contracts require confidentiality. Speakers and event hosts cannot talk to each other about the confidential deal struck with the involved bureau or intermediary.

Confidentiality and lack of transparency have created a ‘wild west’ atmosphere to pricing, commissions, and fees on speaker bookings.

If this practice is applied in real estate:

  • one confidential contract would exist between the real estate agent and home buyer and
  • another confidential contract would exist between the home seller and real estate agent

Contracts could not legally be shared between buyer and seller. That lack of transparency would, understandably, make both parties very nervous. The real estate agency in the middle would know the confidential details of both deals and hold the lion’s share of the power in negotiations and on commissions earned.

That’s the privileged, yet difficult, spot speaker bureaus and speaker agencies have long been in.

When a New Leaf client receives a speaking appearance offer from a bureau, agency, meeting planner, or production company:

1. The entity bringing the appearance offer operates as the trusted Buyer’s Agent, representing the best interests of their respective client, which is often the event host.

2. New Leaf operates as the trusted Seller’s Agent, representing the best interests of the speaker.

Buyers agents and sellers agents each have an important role to play and it starts with being clear in the language used to describe the type of agents we have in this business. We think it would be helpful to clearly identify and define agent types involved in each speaking deal, such as:

Event Host Agent: The entity representing the best interests of the organization actually hosting the event where the speaker will appear. It is their name on the marketing or advertising about the event as the primary creator of the event.

Intermediary Agent: The entity representing the best interests of the meeting planner or production company involved in the booking, if applicable. Contracts with intermediary agents would need to specify the event host for the event.

Speaker’s Agent: The entity representing the best interests of the speaker being hired.

Dual or Multi-Party Agents: Any entity representing BOTH the event host’s or intermediary party’s AND the speaker’s interests in the deal. The dual agent knows the deal struck on both sides and straddles the best interests of both. This is a difficult spot to be in. The complexity of this role makes it tough to be neutral and balanced for both parties.

Agents would identify their agent ‘type’ in all offers and contracts. Those representing both parties would share that information with their clients and offer a way to level the playing field for speakers and event hosts to be treated in a transparent and fair manner.