Barron’s published a piece for me this week: “How TED (And Its Copycats) Gutted the Market for Ideas.”
I’ve been thinking free is the most expensive business model we’ve ever experienced. It started with Huffington Post and people writing for exposure to get speaking gigs. It continues as FB guts the market for journalism. Then companies like Google want to get value for their internal teams but are unwilling (yet able) to pay for that work… It makes me worried. Not just for those of us who speak for a living and how we’ll eat … but for the marketplace of ideas.
Here’s the article:
All of us want to add value. And we also want to be valued.
But those of us in the ideas business regularly get asked to add their value for free.
Speakers and writers used to get paid; not very much, perhaps, but something. Now, increasingly, that’s a relic from a different era. Even outlets that could easily afford to pay for ideas don’t.
Consider an email I recently got offering a speaking opportunity at Alphabet. A mutual friend was inviting me down to Mountain View to speak at the company-formerly-known-as-Google’s diversity and inclusion speaker series. The emailer explained that my book Onlyness had fans at the company and said they were excited about my take on talent and leadership. “Let me know if I can connect you?”
Yes, of course, I quickly respond, drawing on my 60-words-a-minute typing skills from high school.
Then, the Alphabet employee explained the catch: they wouldn’t be paying me.
They’re far from alone. “I recently recommended you as a speaker” starts another note, before mentioning another unpaid gig. “Come speak to 1,000 CMOS at our top industry event of the year,” begins a third. Also for free.
Live speakers add value; that’s why organizations invite us to join them at events designed to inspire employees, impress clients, or raise money from donors. But increasingly, we’re finding that organizations don’t want to pay for this value — not because they can’t afford it, but because they don’t have to. But those of us doing this work? We need to eat. Only those who are valued can afford to create value.
It wasn’t always this way. Market dynamics have dramatically increased the volume of speaking requests and decreased the ability of speakers to get paid for their work.
What happened? In short, the rise of “thought leadership.” We might call this ‘The TED Effect.’ March 2019 saw the 10 year anniversary of the creation of TEDx, a venue where local organizers create events around “ideas worth spreading.” To date, there have been 27,000 TEDx events in more than 170 countries, with more than 2,000 upcoming events already scheduled. At last count, there are 130,199 live videos on the TEDx YouTube channel. Add the 3,000 talks on TED.com, itself (one of which is mine: https://www.ted.com/talks/nilofer_merchant_got_a_meeting_take_a_walk), and you have over a quarter million video reels of “thought leaders”. The democratization of the ideas marketplace has many benefits, but it has also flooded that marketplace.
Of course, it’s not just TED. Events have become more important to the struggling media industry. Outlets that once relied on subscriptions and advertising now sell tickets to events. Fortune, for example, was a pioneer with their Most Powerful Women (MPW) conference. That franchise now includes Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech, Brainstorm Health, CEO, and the MPW Next Generation Summit. The Altantic, New York Times, Wired, Forbes — take your pick — all have experimented with events. One event organizer told me they were given a $1 million budget for such an event, and when she allocated some of that towards paying speakers, she was told not to because “no one pays for talent.”
These dynamics play off of each other: In an attention economy, the marketplace of ideas is being flooded and devalued at the same time. Enough speakers accept working for free, hoping that fame doesn’t lead to famine.
Of course, for a great many speakers, the talk is a lead generator. An “expert” on marketing might be eager to speak for free to a room full of global brands, because it could lead to a million-dollar (or more) contract. Then there are those that aren’t selling the audience anything in the moment, but can use the audience’s size and prestige to sell their companies–or themselves–later. Speaking for free helps “personal brands” raise their professional profile. Authors hawking new books will also willingly waive their fee in exchange for guaranteed purchases. But not because they make any money on the book (many book contracts top out at around a buck a book). It’s a publishing industry non-secret that selling books the first week of release helps to garner that bestseller sticker (and thus drive the speaker’s next book advance, future consulting fees, and, if they are lucky, speaking fees).
So where does that leave those of us who aren’t trying to sell you something, whether services or a book? Spending our own time and money to developing our ideas. Hiring research assistants or speaking coaches out of our own savings accounts, and using our own, unpaid time to hone our ideas. Waiting for prestigious outlets, like Alphabet, to invite us to give away our best ideas for free. And there are only a handful of people who can afford to do that.
It raises the question: what kind of ideas are worth spreading, but not worth paying for?