Public speaking's old bait-and-switch
A handful of public-speaking agencies are soliciting work for Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Oracle's Larry Ellison. One problem: Nobody told Bezos and Ellison. Fortune's Tim Arango investigates.
(Fortune Magazine) -- The business of booking after-dinner speakers for corporate events was once straightforward: A few established agencies - like the Washington Speakers Bureau, whose clients include Colin Powell, Alan Greenspan and Tom Brokaw - divvied up the talent and went about their business of oratorical matchmaking.
Now, however, several lesser firms have taken a more entrepreneurial approach to breaking into the majors: They are advertising the services of Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs on their Web sites even though they have no relationship with the CEOs.
Executive Speakers Bureau, All-American Speakers and International Speakers Bureau have decided to skip the hassle of contracting with (or even contacting) the high-tech heavyweights before pimping them as speakers. In fact, the founders of Amazon.com (Charts), Oracle (Charts) and Apple (Charts) were surprised to learn of their new careers.
"Jeff is not affiliated with either of those sites [Executive Speakers and All-American Speakers]. His office will be following up with them appropriately," says Patty Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman.
"I can find no evidence that Larry is engaged with any of these speaking groups," says Bob Wynne, an Oracle spokesman.
An Apple spokesman says Jobs is not affiliated with either Executive Speakers or All-American Speakers - nor is he ever available as a speaker for hire.
When contacted by Fortune, Angela Schelp, the president of Nashville-based Executive Speakers, acknowledged that her company had never booked Bezos or Jobs for an event.
"A lot of speakers are not necessarily exclusively with a bureau, but we'll list them because we can contact them," she says. "There are so many speakers out there that we work with." Still, almost immediately after speaking with this reporter, Executive Speakers took Bezos' and Jobs' profiles off its Web site.
Emily Boyd, an executive at International Speakers, which lists Ellison, says the appearance of a name in its database "doesn't necessarily mean we have an agreement with them. But we will ask, on behalf of a client, to arrange an event." (A representative for All-American Speakers did not respond to a request for comment.)
As in any industry, the public-speaking circuit has its blue-chip agencies that have exclusive deals with sought-after talent, such as Washington Speakers, the Leigh Bureau, which represents economist Jeffrey Sachs and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, and the Harry Walker Agency, whose client Bill Clinton has pulled down $40 million in speaking fees since leaving the White House, according to financial documents released by his wife.
Below this tier, there are other agencies that operate in a gray area, sometimes advertising personalities with whom they have no business arrangement. "It's entirely improper if they haven't gotten permission to represent them," says Danny Stern, the former head of the Leigh Bureau. "It's a bait-and-switch arrangement: 'If I can get them interested, I can get them someone else.'"
In its code of ethics the International Association of Speakers Bureaus, an industry trade group, is clear on booking practices: Agencies must "obtain permission from the speaker before using his/her name or their company's name in bureau promotions."
While acting CEOs often hit the convention circuit to promote their companies, it is almost unheard of for them to line their own pockets giving speeches. "To my knowledge, these guys just don't take speaking fees," says Tony D'Amelio, executive vice president of the Washington Speakers Bureau.
For former CEOs of large companies, speaking fees can range from the $30,000 to $50,000 that former Continental Airlines (Charts) chief Gordon Bethune and ex-Texaco boss Peter Bijur receive to the stratospheric $150,000 that Jack Welch gets per gig.
There are a handful of exceptions to the no-talking-while-in-office rule. George Bodenheimer, the president of ESPN and ABC Sports, is available for speeches at more than $40,000 a pop, while Jim McCann, the founder and CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com, is listed on numerous bureaus, charging between $25,000 and $50,000 per event.
McCann's and Bodenheimer's appearances are considered kosher because their speeches are a form of philanthropy: Both give away all their fees to charity. So the next time a corporate event requires a motivational speaker, you can always say it with flowers.