Putting the Pop in Paid Speech Agents
For Don Epstein, whose A-list clients command up to six figures for a few hours of their time, talk is definitely not cheap.
The day Moneyball garnered six Oscar nominations, Don Epstein, CEO of Greater Talent Network, suddenly became the point man for three of the hottest speakers in corporate America: the book's author, Michael Lewis, and Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta, baseball executives who were portrayed in the movie and went on the road to talk innovative winning strategies. "I don't have the money that Hollywood studios have to promote this stuff," says the New York-based Epstein, 56. "So I have to ride the coattails of their promotion."
His timing for drafting on the currents of pop culture is impeccable. When Apollo 13 came out, Epstein already had signed as clients the real-life astronauts who were the basis of the film. Because he gets first looks at client Lewis' books, he was able to position and launch subjects like The Blind Side's Leigh Anne Tuohy on tour when the movie hit big; he's crafting similar opportunities for Max Brooks' World War Z and Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor, both GTN clients. The Harry Walker Agency, established in 1946, might be older (the more politically inclined Washington Speakers Bureau is another Epstein-professed rival), and National Speakers Bureau might be bigger, but GTN is perhaps one of the most versatile speakers' bureaus, representing a broad range of clients -- film and TV talent (Michael Moore, Conan O'Brien), media execs (Tina Brown, Howard Stringer), politicians (Jimmy Carter, Cory Booker) and authors (Tom Wolfe, Ken Follett). It has twice as many entertainment speakers as political and an enthusiasm for Hollywood and the lighter side of the zeitgeist (from directors such as Brett Ratner and Bully's Lee Hirsch to hosts like Giuliana Rancic and reality exec Mark Burnett). Says Don Walker, president of The Harry Walker Agency, "Don Epstein created, by dint of his hard work and imagination, one of the leading speakers' agencies in the world."
The public-speaking business is a lucrative parallel industry to Hollywood. Authors, because they're storytellers, tend to be among the highest-earning clients. "I must confess, I do cash the checks," says Wolfe. "Some people show up because they just want to say they were in the same room, others are really interested in the subject, and a few come because they are forced to by their professors." Epstein's top clients make $50,000 to $100,000 for a few hours, and he says the market has exponentially risen during the past few decades. (GTN typically gets a 20- to 30-percent commission.) "When we started with Burnett, he was $1,500 per night," he says. "Now, it's six figures." Epstein and the 22 agents at his New York firm generate about 1,600 speeches a year -- or, as he says, "3,200 legs," because they also make sure speakers physically get from one place to another and understand what the buyers expect.
"This is not a hobby," says GTN client Peter Guber, CEO of Mandalay Pictures, who gives talks on risk management, leading in uncertain times and entrepreneurial thought. "The speech has to be carefully designed to meet the company's needs. This can be a real value proposition for a corporation; I was encouraged by Don and his group, who have spent years coaching, to make sure speeches were engaging."
When Epstein founded GTN in 1982 after a stint at New Line, the public-speaking circuit mostly was reserved for politicians -- typically Democrats -- who because of ethics rules could only accept modest amounts. "I remember booking Joe Biden for $2,000 a night, the limit Congress had set," he says. When Ronald Reagan left the presidency, he began getting big paychecks for corporate events -- a transformative moment for the industry. Soon, Epstein's political clients were making fistfuls of cash. Some, like the late U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, would joke that taking a government stint meant Epstein would receive one type of e-mail from him: "Time for free speech." Exiting public life meant another: "Time for paid speech."
With a flair for showmanship -- Epstein once promoted G. Gordon Liddy by spreading the rumor that the Watergate figure would reveal Deep Throat's identity -- the agent continues to anticipate what's hot in the market, not to mention the culture at large. After 30 years of leveraging Hollywood's next hot properties, Epstein will celebrate GTN's anniversary in May at the U.N. "If none of my clients came, great," he says. "If I'm doing my job, they should be on the road, working."
- Epstein is pitching Hillary Clinton for when she exits as secretary of state. Husband Bill has earned $65 million in fees (with another agency) since he left office in 2001.
- Brooks, the World War Z author, will offer zombie survival "lessons" when the film, starring Brad Pitt, opens.
- Luttrell, the former Navy SEAL who wrote Lone Survivor, will talk "Courage, Honor, Patriotism." Mark Wahlberg plays him in the 2013 movie.