Speakers should be paid. It's work!

19 Jun 2019  |  Jan Gooding 
Speakers should be paid. It's work!

The current model of non-payment at industry events excludes a huge number of voices and opinions, writes Jan Gooding as she calls for a sector-wide rethink

When I noticed the story last month of Liv Little, Nicole Krystal Crentsil and Paula Akpan withdrawing from the D&AD Festival, it stopped me in my tracks.

There are a number of issues at play here. Firstly, the discovery that some speakers were being paid and not others. Secondly, the fact that women of colour, as a minority, were made to feel unfairly treated and the ones not worthy of proper payment. And finally, because D&AD is a charity, by definition there was a view people should be prepared to volunteer their services for free.

Although the event itself was a ticketed, commercial event, the profits are used to encourage new talent into the industry. So that, in the view of D&AD, justified not paying fees.



Why aren’t speakers paid?

I imagine most people, if asked the question ‘should people be paid for their work?’, would answer ‘yes’ without hesitation. In creative industries like marketing, advertising and design there is great sensitivity on whether talent and ideas are properly valued and paid for. I would have assumed they would be the first to advocate that payment is fair. Intellectual Property is recognised and protected. Royalties are paid. Time is properly valued.

Except, apparently, when it comes to conferences and events.

The industry can certainly afford it

Last year the UK events industry grew by 8% and is now worth £42.3 billion. In spite of an era which allows more and more virtual and digital experiences, the human desire to come together and share a conversation or experience sport and the arts has not abated. We have observed publishers leveraging this growing market to compensate for declining revenues in their traditional areas of business. There has been an explosion of awards ceremonies, conferences, festivals and round tables.

Working lives have changed

Of course, the celebration and recognition of excellence, the showcasing of best practice and latest thinking and the dialogue between practitioners is to be applauded and encouraged. But there are new issues to address which means that the default setting of assuming people will contribute free of charge needs to be challenged. The dynamics and reality of working lives have changed considerably and will continue to do so.

Including a diversity of contributions is vital

We all agree that this is a time when the creative industries should be widening their horizons, listening to new voices and attracting talent from different backgrounds. The current model of non-payment excludes a huge number of voices and opinions. It is biased in favour of people on salaries, with something to sell (a book or service) and people known to the organisers who will come ‘as a favour’. So, in other words, these influential platforms are only really open to those who can afford to participate or have a relationship with the organisers.

The speakers are the most important element!

We are moving increasingly to a gig economy with growing numbers of self-employed freelancers and small consultancy groups who cannot afford to give away their time in the way large organisations have done in the past. What’s more the majority of events and conferences are hugely profitable, precisely because they don’t pay their speakers.

I have to ask the question. Given the speakers are the most valuable element why are they the only ones asked to participate without payment?

So, at this point I do want to declare a particular personal interest in this subject.

I now find myself excluded

Throughout my career I have happily spoken at conferences and events without a fee. I did it because I was salaried, and I saw it as part of my job to showcase the work of the organisation I was in at the time. I could justify the time spent as I believed I was not only ‘giving back’ by making case studies more visible, but I hoped it would make the prospect of working in the marketing department I was in attractive to talented people who might be in the audience.

There were times when I was offered a fee, but I felt my organisation paid me to be an ambassador for the company, and I shouldn’t be paid again for representing them.

The growing self-employed can’t give their time away

The way to remove the bias in the system and create more inclusive access is to change the default setting"

That is no longer my position. I am a part of the world of the self-employed. My time is precious, and my advice, thoughts, experience and observations are the basis upon which I am now trying to make a living. Participating in events and conferences is work to me. And the time spent on it is time I am not spending on other paid work.

No-one else is expected to work for nothing

I am constantly taken aback by the number of requests I get to speak, based on my reputation and presumably the premise that it will be a valuable contribution, only to be met with surprise and ‘there is no budget for fees unfortunately’.

This is for ticketed, highly profitable, mainstream events where the organisers, the venue, the production staff, caterers and everyone else involved is budgeted for.

What’s more, I am made to feel grubby for asking. I am left wondering why they contacted me so enthusiastically only to find that my contribution is literally worth nothing. If I insist on payment, invitations are quickly withdrawn. My assumption has been that my stance is unusual, as well as unexpected. And it is perfectly easy to get someone else instead of me. So be it.


Even charities are expected to do it for nothing

Sometimes I am asked to speak in my role as Chair of Stonewall. It has always surprised me that I even have to ask for a donation to Stonewall, and it is rarely offered as a matter of course. Charities need funds to do their work. Yes, of course advocacy is part of that. But again, is it not unseemly to ask charities to contribute at events at which profits are being made, and not compensate them for participating?

Of course, I have a choice. Not to do anything for free. To at least value my own time even if others won’t. And that is what I usually do.

It’s time to shake things up

But I think it is wrong that people like me, who for whatever reason can’t afford to give their time for nothing, are excluded. It’s quite outrageous that quite so much money is being made off the back of so many talented people. In the end it is quite simple. People should be paid for their time and work. Fees should be offered, and simply waived by those who are happy to volunteer. The way to remove the bias in the system and create more inclusive access is to change the default setting to automatically assuming fees are to be paid.



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Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of both PAMCo and LGBT equality charity Stonewall, the president of the Market Research Society and a partner of Jericho Chambers. She writes for Mediatel each month.

@Jan_Gooding

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 19 Jun 2019
“Of course, The Oatmeal covered this to some extent in his strip on artists being paid with "exposure" (here https://theoatmeal.com/comics/exposure). I don't have a strong view either way, but your points are very valid and should provoke further thought of how conferences are built. However, I take some issue with your point that:
"The current model of non-payment excludes a huge number of voices and opinions. It is biased in favour of people on salaries, with something to sell (a book or service) and people known to the organisers who will come ‘as a favour’. "
Paying people won't be a panacea for this. The current model of conference structure (regardless of pay or otherwise) excludes a huge number of voices and opinions. Arguably, having to pay speakers will only reinforce that pattern of bias, as organisers opt to stick with the speakers they know to provide 'value'. While there are many arguments for having to pay all speakers, reducing this exclusion and favouritism may not be one of them.”

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19 Jul 2019 

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