We asked you to work for free to protect your ego

The Next Web conference presents itself as a big huge deal. Founded in 2006, based in Amsterdam, it claims to be “an unmissable fixture in the European tech scene, bringing together a week of side events and a 2-day conference consisting of 7 Stages of content, 250 game-changing exhibitors and 5000 m² of business floor…”

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Luvvie Ajayi

But apparently it’s also a pathetic little shoestring operation cutting corners everywhere it can. Like on paying speakers.

They asked Luvvie Ajayai to speak. Ajayi’s a writer, speaker, and digital strategist. When The Next Web invited her to talk at their next conference she forwarded the request to her agent. The agent sent Ajay’s rates to The Next Web, who replied that they have “no budget to pay any of the speakers and everything they make goes back to production. They don’t offer travel. All they can offer is experience, audience and publicity.”

Forget that. Ajayi has those things already. She doesn’t need to work for free to get noticed. Why, SorryWatch itself recently referenced Ajayi’s hilarious post on Kellyanne Conway as the reason people put plastic covers on furniture.

The no-budget-for-speakers part didn’t sound right. Ajayi asked around among a network of women professionals in her field. Do they not pay speakers? Not even travel expenses?

One woman said she’d spoken for free, but had her airfare covered by The Next Web. Someone else checked with several men who’d spoken at The Next Web, and found that about half had gotten speaker’s fees, and about half hadn’t. “So it’s not a ‘policy’ to not pay; it’s just policy to try and get people for whatever cheapest form they can so they can make money off that talent.”

Trying includes lying: ‘Oh we don’t pay anybody anything! We can’t! We don’t have the budget!’

Another guy who’d spoken there didn’t get paid – but instead negotiated a deal where The Next Web bought “a ton” of his books. (This means you get money from book sales, and it boosts your sales numbers. Frequently done.) Ajayi has a new book, I’m Judging You, which happens to be on the bestseller list. The Next Web didn’t offer to buy any.

Photo: Birulik. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The Next Web co-founder Boris “Let ’em down easy” Veldhuijzen van Zanten

Ajayi was annoyed by the insult. She tweeted: “Was asked to speak at an international conference that grosses 15 million EUROS. My agent emailed them and they said they don’t pay speakers”.

People responded with their own horror stories, and some suspected that The Next Web is more apt to pay white males and cheap out on women and people of color. As a woman of color, was Ajayi just lucky they didn’t ask her to pay them?

The Next Web’s photos of past speakers include women and people of color. But no word on which ones got paid and which ones didn’t. No transparency here.

Forbes, doing a story on this, inquired and received the following bizarre email from The Next Web co-founder Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten:

[W]e told Luvvie Ajayi that we didn’t have a budget for speakers, and don’t ever pay speakers. That’s factually incorrect. It is about as factually incorrect as saying “It isn’t you. It’s me”. Most people understand you are just trying to be polite but it would be more honest to say “I just don’t love you anymore, and feel the need to see other people.”

When we reply saying “we don’t have a budget for speakers”, the whole unpleasant truth is that we need to prioritize whom we spend our limited budget on, and in this case it’s speakers that are perhaps more relevant for our audience, more sought-after. That is far from saying we think Luvvie Ajayi isn’t worth paying – we’re absolutely sure that for the right audience and in the right city, she easily commands her fee.

The conclusion is that there is a pay gap for speakers at events, but a logical one based on a lot of factors such as knowledge, success, fame and most importantly, demand. I hope you also understand, based on what I explained here, and from the research you did, that the choice to pay speakers or not, is disconnected from gender, race, age or any other factor except quality and demand.

We can also conclude, however, that we should’ve been more clear in our explanation on why we wouldn’t pay Luvvie Ajayi. We will try to be more open and honest from now on. It will lead to more bruised ego’s [sic], but at least we will be less likely to be accused of discriminating.

To the extent this evasive communication (not directed to Ajayi herself) is an apology, it’s a poisoned apology. If she accepted it, she’d be accepting the ideas that they were lying to protect her feelings, that there’s no “demand” for her at the conference, and that she’s not of a certain “quality.”

The first paragraph uses the phrase “factually incorrect” for “lie.” It compares the lie to an unpleasant way of breaking off relationships, thus comparing an objective falsehood (we don’t pay speakers) to unverifiable subjective bafflegab (it’s not you, it’s me). There’s a hint of “Heh heh, I’m such a RAT OF LOVE. He also advances his personal belief about what “[m]ost people understand.” (Note: don’t let anyone you care about go out with Boris.)

The second paragraph suggests that if they can’t – or won’t – pay all the speakers they want to invite, lying is a useful practice for getting more speakers. It doesn’t answer the question of why they wanted Ajayi if she’s not “relevant” to their audience.

The third paragraph appeals to logic, but is quite toxic. Notice how Veldhuijzen van Zanten refers to knowledge, success, fame and demand – and then suddenly slips in “quality.” It’s important to him to defend the conference from suspicions of sexism, racism, and ageism, and he does so by suggesting that Ajayi doesn’t know enough, isn’t well-known enough, isn’t successful enough, isn’t wanted enough, and just plain isn’t good enough. Nasty. Nor are we convinced that “demand” is as useful a criterion as he suggests – we’ve certainly heard great talks from people we’d never heard of before.

The last paragraph starts well. They should’ve done things differently. They will be more open and honest – or at least they’ll “try.” Already it’s less persuasive. (Whaddaya mean “try”? Why not have a POLICY of honesty? We hear it’s the best one.)

Photo: Sara2. Public domain.

Snowflakes simply fall apart when they find out everyone’s airfare was covered but theirs.

Then the last sentence: “It will lead to more bruised ego’s [sic], but at least we will be less likely to be accused of discriminating.”

Oh those sensitive plants, the women, the people of color, and the old! They hate to hear that they’re just not quite good enough to be paid like the rest. Poor snowflakes are going to suffer now, and it’s all the fault of Luvvie Ajayi, the twitmosphere, and Forbes!

If The Next Web had a real interest in accuracy and didn’t want to discriminate, they would go back and look at their past speakers. How much were they were paid or compensated? How does that correlate with their gender, race, or age? How objective were their measures of “quality and demand”? Any chance they determined those things using unexamined biases?

We know, math is hard. But you can do it if you try.


(Thanks to Jonelle Patrick and Paula Span for tipping us off on this one.)

This entry was posted in Bad Apologies, Business Apologies, Poisoned Apologies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to We asked you to work for free to protect your ego

  1. tanita says:

    I think I gasped so loud reading this dude’s response, I sucked most of the air out of the room. His group offers the ephemeral nonsense of “experience” and then is like, “Meh, we didn’t really think she was worth any more than that,” when people question this, and that — THAT’s supposed to make her feel better about their interaction?

    I won’t even elevate that to being considered an apology. He just confirmed douchehood.

  2. As always, you skewered this far better than I could, with more humor than I’d be able to muster after reading that douchebag-on-toast’s non-apology. One of the most depressing thing about the organizer’s feeble excuses and his neanderthal pay policies is that they come from someone who is YOUNG ENOUGH TO KNOW BETTER. Hoping that every hot snowflake he hopes to break up with in the future sees this and runs in the other direction screaming “Ewwww!”

  3. Jon Carroll says:

    My jaw dropped. If ever prose more reflected the workings of a disturbed mind, I don’t know what it is. It’s almost novelistic; if you wanted to create a letter written by a clueless narcissist, that’s what you’d go for. We can be grateful for one thing; we are not spending any time inside his head.

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