I’m being bombarded with requests to speak at conferences. This isn’t unusual; I show up to the opening of an envelope if it provides me the opportunity to gasbag about brand and employee engagement.
But there’s a new twist. Here’s the new conversation:
CONFERENCE ORGANISER: “Hi! We’re running a conference on employee brand engagement. Would you be interested in presenting?”
THE SPEAKER: “Of course! I am always keen to present best practices, ideas and case studies to people in my profession. In fact, I’ve just completed some cutting edge work with Coca-Cola [insert leading brand] that would be really interesting and valuable to your delegates.”
CONFERENCE ORGANISER: “Fantastic. Our sponsorship packages start at 7,500 euros.”
THE SPEAKER: “Oh. Well, I’d just like to speak as a practitioner, not as a sponsor.”
CONFERENCE ORGANISER: “We only allow in-house people to present if they aren’t sponsors.”
THE SPEAKER: “I see. Well, my client at Coca-Cola would be happy to present — they’re very proud of the work we’ve done together, and your delegates would love to see what Coke is doing.”
CONFERENCE ORGANISER: “Only if they don’t mention your name. Otherwise you would have to pay the sponsorship fee.”
THE SPEAKER: “Oh.” [uncomfortably long pause]. “So let me get this straight, the only presentations people who pay to see at your conference are from companies that are paid sponsors, or from practitioners who can’t say who did the work with them?”
CONFERENCE ORGANSIER: “Yes. That way we can attract people to our conference with a reduced price, since we’re getting speaker-sponsors to cover the difference.”
THE SPEAKER: “Aren’t you concerned about what this means about the credibility of your conference?”
CONFERENCE ORGANISER: “Not really. People accept that these things are commercially motivated. They’re willing to trade a couple of hundred euros off the price of admission in exchange for a narrower range of presentations.”
THE SPEAKER: “But this just turns it into a big sponsors’ advertisement. Every presentation will be a sales presentation. People don’t want to go to conferences to be sold to.”
CONFERENCE ORGANISER: “That’s what they always were. We’re just formalising the arrangement.”
THE SPEAKER: “Do you tell your delegates that presentations are from a paying sponsors?”
CONFERENCE ORGANISER: [silence]
THE SPEAKER: “Ah.”
(if you don’t believe me, here is an ACTUAL extract from the email I got from those running a VERY HIGH PROFILE conference ….)
“I found a way how can we invite one of your clients to provide a case study about a common project with SAS Design. I hope it will help in the decision making process. You asked if the end user speakers were allowed to mention the name of the agencies they were working with. Unfortunately as far as the agency is not there as a sponsor partner, the end user (client) company is not allowed to mention it.
This way if you have a client on the conference as a speaker he/she can involve SAS Design into the speech only if you are there as a sponsor partner. As a solution I can offer you the opportunity to be a Business Partner and invite one of your specific clients to provide a case study about the topic of the event, obviously mentioning SAS Design. With the Business Partner package you can send two person to networking, branding before, during and after the conference, and have other benefits for the investment of 7500Euros. Your client will be invited for free to speak as an end user expert of internal branding and employee engagement.”
Look, when I present, of course I am presenting to raise my (and my employer’s, and my client’s) profile — it’s a brand building exercise. But I’m not so cynical to believe that it isn’t about genuinely sharing ideas and approaches with people who can benefit from our experience, expertise and approach.
Having spoken to some of my clients at high-profile organisations, they agree. They were in fact unaware that this is the game the organisers have all started playing: Pay to Play. In the old days, that was called Payola. It was, in fact, considered unethical and, moreover, fraudulent and a criminal offence.
Anyone else think we should consider doing something about this?
Let me know.
‘Cos I think it sucks, and it means ultimately the only thing you’ll ever see at a conference is some agency jackass who paid a fee saying how great they are, as opposed to some agency jackass who says how great they are, but were invited to present because they are, um, actually great. I know which I’d prefer to sit through.
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Afterward: The Plot Thickens.
I’ve also just been told that “vendors” are not allowed to attend to another “pay to play” conference. I can understand that, in a way. Of course, attendees don’t want to be sold to when they’re going to a conference. Um….