While we revamp our FAQ page, please enjoy this extremely candid interview with David Lavin. (Actually, every interview with David could be rightfully classified as being "extremely candid").This conversation took place on a late Friday afternoon. I was interested, mostly, in talking about the history and philosophy of the agency. At one point, I asked David about what motivates him, what keeps him going, even after more than two decades. He smiled, and said, "Why waste even an hour of your life?" Exactly.
-Charles Yao, Director of Speakers
How do you see The Lavin Agency in relation to other speaking agencies?
We are definitely the outsiders of the speakers business. When I go to the speaking industry association, I realize that we're not in the same business as everybody else. Everybody else is in the business of giving their clients what they ask for. I'm in the business of trying to anticipate the zeitgeist. My job is to know who is hot next year, and why, and book that. That's my job, that's what makes it interesting to me.
Let's face it, there are probably a hundred thousand speaking events booked in North America every year. We book 1,600 of them, which is not a lot. It's a lot for us—and maybe we can book two thousand, or three thousand, but even with three thousand out of a hundred thousand, I can still just concentrate on working with good speakers. I don't have to do the other 97%. I can work with the 3% of clients who really get it, who want to do something of fundamental value for their organization, and not the 97% who just want to fill a slot with a speaker and move on.
How did your early life inform what you do today?
Nobody grows up thinking, "I can hardly wait to be a lecture agent," and I was no different. I didn't know what I wanted to be, and I didn't know what a speaking agent was. I spent my youth traveling around the world. I was Canada's youngest chess master. I took my college grant money and went to California. I lived in Paris, San Francisco, Vancouver, London and Berlin. Even Ibiza. I talked to a lot of people, learned a lot of things, and I read thousands of books.
I came back to Toronto, and settled down. I started thinking about what I was going to do with my life. Then I started thinking, “What am I going to do tonight? "Do I want to go to The Horseshoe [a local club] and see a band? Not really. Is there a movie I want to see? There wasn't. I didn't own a TV. I refused to own a TV set until I was 30. So, I looked at my bookshelf and thought, "I want to go see Hunter S. Thompson give a speech." But he wasn't giving a speech. So I decided to make it happen. Somehow, I contacted Hunter S. Thompson to come to Toronto. He was here for a week, and a few hours before he was scheduled to go on, he left town. We were completely sold out. 1,200 seats! I was standing in front of the theatre, telling people it was sold out, that he was not here, but people were still trying to buy tickets. They wanted a souvenir!
Later, I managed to track Hunter down, and he came back three weeks later and did two shows. It was also the worst storm of the year, so he was an hour and a half late. As soon as he stepped onto the stage I collapsed in sheer joy. I was just so glad he was actually there. I swore I would never do something like that again. There was a journalist covering it, who came up to me and said, "You have no idea what you've pulled off. I've never seen anyone deal with pressure the way you have." I had no idea at the time that it was going to turn into a 20-year career. It's turned out okay, though.
So, with one event behind you, what happened next?
I put together a lecture series and went to The Toronto Star and said, “How would you like to sponsor me?” I was twenty-seven, I'd never done anything like this before, and the Star was the biggest paper in the country. They came back and said, “Yes, we're going to sponsor your speaking series.” Over three years, they gave me $1 million in ad space, and I thought, “Oh, I guess people just give ambitious 27 year-olds a million dollars.” They gave me complete editorial control. We brought in people like Noam Chomsky, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, and Eldridge Cleaver. We had great events and got between 1,200 and 1,700 people for every one.
How did that series turn into an actual full-fledged speaking agency?
Well, being a promoter is great. But you make $10,000 one day and lose $10,000 the next. It wears thin. You can only do so many events. We were doing ten events a year, and that was the limit of what we could do. I had been doing it for three years and the person I was working with at The Toronto Star passed away, tragically. He completely understood what we were trying to do, and was happy to sit back and watch us go. With a kid on the way, I decided I needed to move on. That was the beginning of The Lavin Agency.
What was year one of The Lavin Agency like?
The first year was tough. I made the mistake of doing what everyone else was doing. I said, “We have ten thousand speakers, tell me who you want and I'll get them for you.” After a while I realized that was just a stupid way to do business. It made no sense. All of my assumptions were terrible, and I realized that all of the other business models that the other agencies were using didn't work for me. I didn't want to do what everyone else was doing; it wasn't very intellectually stimulating. So I just started doing what I wanted to do, crossed my fingers, and hoped it would work. I started to look for speakers I believed in. I went out and found people that I thought were interesting—incredible people who, sometimes, had never given a speech before. Since nobody else thought to represent them, they were happy to be represented by us. So that's what I did: I found interesting people and called up organizations and said, “These people are interesting, here's why, and here's what they'll do for you. Here's the fit.” Over a few years, we went from zero events to over 450 a year.
That first year was lean, but year two was okay, and year three was amazing. In fact, we’ve literally grown every year we’ve been in business.
What was the landscape of public speaking in those first few years of business?
The public speaking scene was limited—not just here, but everywhere. I think what I did was I recognized something in lectures that others didn't: that thinking is fun. That people who used to go to school and stay up until 5 o'clock in the morning to talk about philosophy and economics and politics miss those days. They love that sense of engagement. They love being able to go out to a lecture with friends, and then go away and talk about it. That's what I think I picked up on—that people miss thinking.
Do you think you've had an influence on the public speaking world?
We've been told that we revolutionized the industry, yes. I think that's true. We changed all the rules. People now don't even realize that the rules got changed. There's still a lot to be done. This is a very fragmented industry and there are far too many speakers. 95% of the people who give speeches shouldn't be giving speeches. Those people are doing it because they want to make money, not because they have ideas that are worth sharing. That's one of the sad things about the speaking industry.
It's one of my pet peeves, too. Why does this persist?
Some of the event organizers simply don't have the time to discern quality vs. the not-quality stuff. It's not their fault. They're busy people. It's not their job. It's our job. I read so many of these bogus resumes of popular speakers. If you look at their accomplishments from before they were speakers, it's nothing. They're just okay speakers who've written an okay book. And that book is just a rehash of 37 other books. They don't have a single original idea, yet they make money speaking. I think that's just sad.
Okay, then: what makes for a great keynote speaker?
What makes a great speaker is actually pretty interesting. People always say they want a great speaker, but I think they have the wrong adjective. What they want is “compelling.” You want a speaker who is going to move an audience—who’s compelling. People too often want a speaker that jumps up and down, yelling, “You can be all you can be,” or they want a speaker who can tell a joke. They don't recognize that the most compelling speakers genuinely have the most interesting ideas.
What really motivates people is a solution to a problem that they're having, not somebody yelling at an audience that, “You can sell!” People look for solutions. People look for content. One of the unfortunate things about the speaking industry is we've been in the placebo business for too long. Some other bureaus sell people crap, call it content, and hope it'll make an organization more effective.
What's the worst part about booking a bad keynote speaker?
The most aggravating thing about seeing a bad speaker is knowing it was so unnecessary. You don't need bad speakers. In 2008, I was at our speaking industry conference and everyone was saying "times are tough." But, at that time, our business was going up. One speaker got up and said he dropped his fee by half. I said, look, he didn't drop his fee by half. If anything, he wasn't worth what he was originally getting paid. The only reason he'd get $20,000 to give a speech was because all the good speakers were already booked. I liken it to those champagne towers you see in Las Vegas: these huge towers made up of glasses that get filled from the top. Well, in 2005, 2006, 2007, and even now, when times are better, there's an unlimited amount of champagne, and all the glasses are getting filled—but they shouldn't be. During the economic slump, the good speakers were getting booked as much as ever, but the bad ones disappeared. And I think it's unfortunate that they're back.
Where do you find good new speakers?
Finding new speakers is incredibly difficult—and too easy. Because, first of all, there's no lack of people who want to make $10,000 for a keynote. However, there is a lack of people who should make $10,000 a keynote. So we actually have to say “no” more often than we say “yes.” A lot more often. We might look at someone and say, “This is amazing, this is interesting.” But we have to ask if there are dozens of organizations that can benefit from this idea. If the answer is yes, we sign them. If a speaker has a great message, you, as an agent, are constantly trying to think, “Is this a great message I like personally, or a great message that can be expanded to fit different groups?”
A good speaker can come from all kinds of backgrounds: the arts, business, science, the humanitarian world. So you have to be aware of all kinds of things—you have to be culturally aware. You have to be a polymath. That's what I like about this job. It plays to my strength—that I'm reasonably good at many things. I know enough about economics that I can listen to a speech and say whether something is on the cutting edge or not. I don't know enough about economics to write a paper, but I know enough to be a highly educated consumer. That's what's exciting, but it requires a lot of work. You have to read a lot, and talk to a lot of people, and get a lot of opinions.
One of the best ways to get new speakers is to ask people, “Who have you read or heard of lately that's interesting.”
How many event and meeting planners—the people who book speakers—do you try to talk to every day?
I talk to dozens of people a day—it's one of my favorite parts of the job. But I don't talk to as many as I'd like to because everyone likes to use email. The only reasonable way to learn anything is to talk to someone. The best thing to do if you're an organizer or an agent is to talk to each other. Email is a terrible form of communication. If email were invented first, we'd all be ecstatic that we had this new invention called the telephone, so we could talk to each other and accomplish in 5 minutes over the phone something that would take us three weeks over email.
What are event and meeting planners telling you today that's different from 20 years ago?
The questions always stay the same, but the answers are different. “How do you run a great company?” “How do you lead?” “How do you change?” “How do you help your community?” “How do you get other people to take the intrinsic talent in each of them, and go out and make a difference in the world?” All of these questions have been asked for dozens or even hundreds of years. It's just the answers that change.
What motivates you to come into work every morning?
What excites me during the day is knowing that even though I've done this job now for 23 years, I have no idea what's going to happen on any given day. No idea who I'm going to talk to, what kind of fires I'm going to have to put out, no idea what things I'm going to build. Those bizarre little calls. Like a few years ago, I picked up the phone, and someone asked, “Is this David Lavin?” I said, “Yes.” The person said, “This is John. John Cleese. How are you?” Those are the magical moments. And they happen constantly throughout the week.
What keeps your enthusiasm high?
A lot of things. First of all, it's the intellectual stimulation. I was one of those people who stayed up all night long talking about “stuff.” Luckily I'm in an industry where I get to stay up late at night talking to interesting people about interesting things. So that's one of the things. Secondly, I'm just very competitive. If you're going to do something, you should do it better than the other person or you should at least try to.
If I'm going to run a speakers agency, I want to run the best speakers agency on the planet. That doesn't mean it has to be the biggest—it just has to be the best. Big is secondary. I want to run an agency that I'm proud of and which provides the intellectual content that I think is critical, whether it's for business or for culture. That's the primary motivation. I think there are enough people out there who also want this high level content, so we can do well.
Do you ever think about, you know, slowing down?
It's just not part of my DNA. If I coasted on laurels, I wouldn't have done this in the first place. Part of it is never being satisfied. I'm always asking myself, “Why did you do that? You should've done this, or this.” It's like looking at a chess game. You don't look at the games you won. You only look at the games you lose. You think, “What did I do wrong?” That's what I do every day: I think, “What did I do wrong, and what can I do better tomorrow?” Why coast? Even if I wanted to, it wouldn't be possible. Somebody asked me once, “What's going to happen when you retire?” It's an alien concept. In 20 years, I'll still be doing something. Why waste even an hour of your life?
What's on the horizon for the next decade of The Lavin Agency?
There are fundamental problems in North America that need to be solved. I think education is a huge issue. The idea that people bankrupt themselves for an education for a job that pays them $30,000 a year is unsustainable. The healthcare debate, the energy debate—these are all discussions I think we need to be a part of. I look for keynote speakers who can provide solutions to those things, because we have severe problems that need advanced thinking. We're not going to solve these problems with the same thinking that got us here. So that's what's exciting—looking for people who actually have solutions, and working with them to get their solutions in front of as many people as possible.
Call us at 1-800-265-4870. We'll take as much time as needed to make you an expert on booking speakers.
Call us at 1-800-265-4870. We'll take as much time as needed to make you an expert on booking speakers.