Gini Dietrich

Why President Obama’s Fee Matters to the Speaking Industry

By: Gini Dietrich | May 9, 2017 | 

Why President Obama's Speaking Fee Matters to an Entire IndustryPresident Obama has been offered $400,000 to speak at a health care conference for Cantor Fitzgerald, a Wall Street banking and brokerage firm.


A former U.S. president making money off his experience?


How dare he?!

That is the sentiment of many, including the typical left-leaning The New York Times and others, such as The Wall Street Journal.

And the comments of people (I know, I know…you’re not supposed to read the comments) range from, “Doesn’t he have enough money?” and “Obama does not need the money and should not accept it” to “Obama the hypocrite.”

The New York Times editorial has this to say:

Is it a betrayal of that sentiment for the former president to have accepted a reported $400,000 to speak to a Wall Street firm?

Perhaps not, but it is disheartening that a man whose historic candidacy was premised on a moral examination of politics now joins almost every modern president in cashing in.

And it shows surprising tone deafness, more likely to be expected from the billionaires the Obamas have vacationed with these past months than from a president keenly attuned to the worries and resentments of the 99 percent.

But here’s the thing: President Obama’s two terms traversed a stormy period economically, militarily, and diplomatically.

He has experience only four other people in this world have.

Why wouldn’t he deserve to make what the market will bear to pay him?

What Other Presidents Have Made Speaking

When President Clinton left office, he reportedly was paid $700,000—twice—to speak in Nigeria.

The most he was paid was $750,000 to speak in Hong Kong.

Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State and former U.S. Senator, was paid $675,000 to speak at an event for Goldman Sachs.

President George W. Bush makes between $100,000 and $175,000 per speech, and he’s done as many as 200 events since leaving office.

(You can do the math.)

Presidents Bush, Reagan, and Carter all made $50,000 or more per speech, after leaving office.

Even Rudy Guiliani and Sarah Palin pull down the big bucks—$270,000 and $115,000, respectively—for speeches given at the height of their popularity.

And why shouldn’t they?

We live in a democracy that values capitalism.

And people, no matter how much money they already have, deserve to be paid for their time.

The Speaking Industry

Speaking for money is a very large industry.

Many people participate in it—journalists, influencers, professors, former politicians, consultants of all stripes.

Not to mention the people who work with speakers, such as speaking bureaus and agents, to place them at events for all sorts of industries.

Many of us, myself included, participate in this industry.

The fees, just in the marketing space, range all over the place.

Those who work for large corporations—aren’t allowed to take speaking fees.

Others, like me, make a mid-range fee, while pursuing other revenue streams, such as books, online courses, and client services.

And others make $20,000-$50,000 per speech and this is their livelihood.

It’s a very lucrative field.

Well-known Speakers Make Events Money

This is the way it works: The more in-demand you are, the more someone values having you at their event.

Because you’re a name that will draw a rabid and engaged fan base, you will help the event producers sell more tickets.

And, because the event will sell more tickets, the more likely it is they’ll make up—and then some—the speaking fee.

If your event budget has $50,000 to spend on a speech, you might hire the likes of Scott Stratten or Malcolm Gladwell.

If you have $5,000 or $10,000, you’d settle on someone like me who is less well-known in the bigger market, but has a very engaged community in a certain niche.

There are only so many former presidents…and only so many people who have name recognition by every single human being in this world.

In the case of Cantor Fitzgerald, they’re fairly confident they’ll make a profit on having President Obama speak at their event, so it’s easy for them to pony up the fee.

Every ticket they sell will be to people who know who President Obama is and cannot wait to be in the same room as him.

His name, alone, will make money for the brokerage firm.

The Entire Speaking Industry Suffers Without Fees

But there is a larger issue at play here.

Let’s say he gives into the critics and decides not to take the fee.

Now Cantor Fitzgerald has a surplus of $400,000 in their budget, plus the profit they were planning to make.

(Not to mention the gads of publicity they’re getting as everyone debates this.)

They could quite possibly be up $800,000 to $1MM because President Obama still is their headliner—and they still will make buckets of money—but they no longer have to pay him.

Which means, his agent, whose livelihood is based on how much his clients are paid, makes zero.

And those of us who speak for a living (or partial living) now compete against former presidents who speak for free.

Which means we could also end up making zero.

The entire industry begins to suffer, and eventually dissolves, all because a former president has decided to donate his time when he speaks.

Of course, that’s running 600 steps ahead and it’s not likely to happen, but it is something to consider.

If President Obama will speak for free, the conversation becomes, “Well, we can get Obama for free. Why should we pay you $10,000?”

Or, “We don’t have a budget because we were expecting Obama, but had a last minute emergency. Can you do it for the exposure?”

Support the Speaking Industry

Minus the “We can get Obama for free” comments, these things already happen.

We live in a capitalist economy where things are valued, but people’s time is not.

And it is because there are big names who will speak for free.

There are organizations that don’t allow their employees to take a fee.

And there are some up-and-comers who will do it for free to build their portfolios.

While it’s a lucrative industry, it’s one that ranges from $0 to $400,000 (or more) per speech.

Which means there isn’t an industry-wide value placed on people’s brains.

So yes, President Obama should make $400,000 to speak at an event for an organization that was not his friend during his presidency.

At the very least, it should be to support an industry that helps many of us keeps roofs over our kid’s heads.

At the very most, it should be to donate to charity, which he and his wife are so keen to do.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • David J.P. Fisher

    I think you’re right on the money, Gini. As a fellow paid speaker, I know that organizations and events don’t hire me out of altruism, but because they think that’s the best way to get value for their attendees (and thus have more attendees who are willing to pay). All of this conversation has been normative jingoism about what he should and shouldn’t do – it’s just politics. I wish I could command Obama’s speaking fee, but I don’t have his experience (I don’t want to get it – did you see how fast his hair went grey). And he’s actually good speaker to boot.

    • You’re right. It is just politics. And it’s making me crazy. There is no reason on earth he shouldn’t get paid whatever amount anyone is willing to pay him.

  • Nancy Davis

    I remember meeting you at the event which must not be named. I went there to learn, and meet you and Danny, but I also went because there would be big names there. That’s the point of those things is to learn, and make money. SMH

    One of our state senators was making a huge stink about Obama getting paid and it makes zero sense to me. He is a great speaker first of all, and secondly, if I could afford it, I would want to go. I don’t get what the issue is.

    • Unless we want to live in a country that doesn’t value capitalism, no one has a right to complain.

      When we launched our first paid course two years ago, I got a NASTY email from a guy who said he would never support Spin Sucks again because we were just like everyone else—money hungry. He said, and I quote, “Don’t you have enough money?”

      I don’t know what he knew about me, considering he lives on the other side of the world, but he clearly thought I should just give away all of my intellectual property. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works—for me, for you, or for President Obama.

      • TJTruth2

        If a president makes decisions that benefit interests that have deep pockets, he or she is more likely to receive speaking invitations from them. According to the rules of free market capitalism, the speaking industry provides a financial incentive for presidents to favor the rich and powerful while they are in office. If Obama had prosecuted bankers for the 2008 financial crisis that wrecked the economy, do you think he would have received a $400K speaking invitation from Wall Street? This is just another form of political graft and one of the reasons Americans have such low regard for politics and politicians.

  • Reagan also visited Japan shortly after his presidency and collected a 7-figure fee for a series of speeches and events:

    The speaking fee also acts as a screening mechanism. Let’s say Obama decided to speak for $10,000 per speech. His staff would be inundated with more requests than they could possibly sort through. They will likely still get tons of requests, but the fee also ensures you’ve filtered for the prime opportunities.

    Finally, speakers are not paid for an hour of their time — they’re paid for the value of insights gained over a lifetime or through their unique experience. There are only four people on the planet who have sat behind the big desk in the oval office and made potentially world-changing decisions. That’s worth something.

    • Exactly, Rob! He’s earned the prestige of being paid for his experience, no matter what. Just like, as you build your speaking business, you deserve to be paid for your experience and expertise.

  • Well said Gini. Totally agree. I’m sure that the journalists who disagree with his speaking fee expect to get paid for their work, and my guess is they’d be unlikely to turn down a raise.

    • And, I imagine, they get their pay check no matter what. For those of us who make a portion of our living on speaking don’t get a paycheck if we’re expected to speak for free.

  • To those people who say “Don’t you have enough money?” I would like to invite them to do their job for free and see how that works out.

  • The problem with the speaking industry is the fees don’t often reflect the results.

    You share examples of some of the “names” in social and marketing, for example (and we paid Gary Vee 50k to speak at the Social Mix event we hosted in 2012, way overpriced but what you going to do), along with variable fees for the other speakers.

    Yet what doesn’t get tracked is how much fluffy crap often gets spewed, and repeated, year in, year out. Additionally, what actual actionable takeaways do speakers give?

    I’ve tended to find that, more often than not, some of the speakers mentioned in this piece, along with those that push their speaking gigs online all the damn time, give lots of nice soundbites, but no real learning moments.

    Hey ho.

    I’m pleased for Obama, though. The amount of shit that guy went through from people on all sides – yeah, if he makes some coin off their backs, more power to him.

    • I remember that speech and he did have people rolling on the floor. I have no idea if having him headline helped the event, profitability-wise, but he did have a packed audience.

      • But that’s the thing – entertainment is one thing, education? A whole different ball game. Especially when you go online and see essentially the same keynote from 8 months earlier…

    • its all celeb stuff. almost 100% of all thoughtleader speeches are really celeb speeches. Doers is whsat you mean. @ginidietrich:disqus is a Doer not a Thought leader.

  • Howie Kapowie

    I agree with your premise under the capitalist premise that everything​ is done for Max personal gain as what drives us all.

    So when looking at the Speaking Industry and Capitalism it is just like how pro sports unions work. Don’t take lessor hurts us as a group.

    But the other side where we want to believe some people aren’t hypocrites this hurts a lot.

    I was thinking about humanity and what drives us is the seven deadly sins. All of us. Being selfless is rare vs normal. We have moments but not more than moments.

    From a PR perspective the problem isn’t what he gets for a speech vs where the money goes. Give half to charity what a great guy. Use it all for living large not so much a great guy.

    • From every account I can tell, they won’t use the money to live large. It’s not in their DNA. They are VERY charitable. And you know what? If they decide to keep it all and invest in their future generations or buy a leer jet or whatever they want, that’s not really for us to say. There are only five former presidents alive today, which means he has more expertise than 7.342 billion people.

      • Howie Kapowie

        One thing you said above and one in your response I wish to address. 1] B-Money has a finite amount of time to speak I doubt he would speak just anywhere for free if he was free. So no worries about you being paid. Which brings me to point number 2] For companies that need PR/Comm help…B-Money can’t help those folks…so you command a premium in that space. And while his expertise is being President all these speeches by people like him are just Celeb speeches. Think of Cantor hiring him…they are a bond house. He knows little about bonds though plenty about global risk…or knew plenty everything has changed now. Just like Hillary became a thought leader who turned out wrong based on excerpts of her Goldman speech I saw.

        You are in a sub-industry with different speaking rates and opportunity than the celeb circuit. You can make Cantor more money as their PR AOR than their $400k spent on B-Money.

  • Tracey Thomson

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you say, but respectfully to you, why can Hilary Clinton not be named in your article as more that the wife of President Clinton?? I find it incendiary, so assume you dislike her; be that as it may, surely she can be named, and not referred to as a possession?

    • I actually adore her and see your point. I’ll make an edit now.

      • Tracey Thomson

        Thank you, that’s awesome!