In Barron’s: Is the Marketplace for Ideas Gutted?

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?”

Photograph by Christin Hume

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, itself (one of which is mine:, 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?

3 Replies

  1. It’s a common issue for me too. I’ve written three books, and make my living off workshops and keynotes very much based on those books (unless you write Harry Potter, book publishing income is nice, but not all that much). Several times a year i get the freebie request, usually from associations, who without failing say, “You’ll probably make it worth your while just from the connections you’ll make.”

    News flash: in 18 year of doing this, I have yet to have a single lead pan out from a session like that.

    However: the answer isn’t to give up, or to bitch and moan. The answer is to decide if the general publicity, awareness and exposure is worth it to me in marketing terms. Often enough, I decide it is. Other times, I respectfully decline, because I decide it’s not.

    The takeaways for me: It’s never profitable as a sales opportunity. It may or may not be valuable as a general marketing opportunity, but the old advertising caveat always obtains: Half of it is wasted, you just don’t know which half. It’s a judgment I have to make. But at least I’ve learned to make it clear-eyed; they’re just not going to pay me, and it’s not a ‘hot lead.’

    1. While this has always been a challenge, the point of the article is to say something has seismically changed.

      I did the research with event organizers and such and found they are now being told not to pay for talent.

      In an attention economy, with free as the underlying core value, the value of new ideas is being undercut. Just today a friend wrote to me and said she’s being asked to pay to create a podcast for HBR. Play it out, and only the rich get to have their ideas heard. Because they’re the only ones who can invest the time for “free”.

      1. You might wryly say only the rich (and the retired) get to make any living off their ideas these days, and you’d be right, in effect. But I think it’s the very predictable side effect of the “commodification” you yourself have predicted. Pick your pundit, pick your problem solver, pick your passion, there are so many more capable fish in the same blue sea. This forces a radical change in personal business models.

        I suspect I am feeding you back your own advice, but let me say it anyway. You may now have to move to what you used to see as the minor leagues, and find new fans using new kinds of bait in new ways. Or to quit expecting to make new money in your old ways at all. Pay your rent differently (flip houses? smart investing? whatever) then keep your idea work as a passionate hobby, while being grateful if anyone’s still listening.

        Show business talent of every sort discovered this time and again last century, as has everyone else from physicists to professors and engineers to journalists, niche by niche, across so many fields since. It’s the same reason so many Japanese managers in the 90s wound up driving taxis after age 50. They actually felt obliged to get out of the way.

        We all have to shape shift repeatedly and few markets maintain their peaks unchanged.

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