“We have a remarkable team here, and one reason is that the staff is very diverse, politically and intellectually. I like people who want to contribute to the debate. At The Lavin Agency, what we’re trying to do is add to the conversation, because great ideas often come from conflicting ideas that are looking for the truth. We're never going to find the truth, of course, but if we’re trying to find it, chances are that things will be better today than they were last week. That's the quality—a searching quality—that is present in everyone who works here.
Founder & CEO
David created The Lavin Agency committed to only representing original thinkers and unique practitioners. An avid collector of contemporary art, David sits on the boards of The Power Plant, MOCA, and The Contact Photography Festival. His favorite artist is Auguste Rodin, his favorite film is On the Waterfront, his favorite TV series is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and his favorite book is The Brothers Karamazov.
Chief Operating Officer
Yvonne came to The Lavin Agency as a speaker about two decades ago! The fit with Lavin has been obvious because she lives by the idea that “blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures.” As Chief Operating Officer, she cranks all the wheels that make Lavin the most successful intellectual talent agency in the world.
Executive Vice President—Director of Intellectual Talent
Charles works closely with David to bring on new speakers, and is the point of contact—the relationships guy—for most of our exclusives. Outside of Lavin, he is the art director of Little Brother, the National Magazine Award-winning literary journal.
Executive Vice President
Tom joined the agency in 1998, and has enjoyed the challenging opportunity of working with, and representing, some of the Western world’s most influential figures. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife, son and the world’s most talented dog.
Executive Vice President, West Coast
Cathy has acquired more than 27 years experience as a speakers agent, and is actively involved in the meeting planning industry through her relationships with CSAE, MPI and others within the community.
Executive Vice President
Ken Calway is paid to have thoughts. This bio was invented while drinking beer after a long day at work. Drew Dudley is partly to blame.
Ian is always seeking to find the balance between nature, art and science. Outside of work you may find him in a canoe out in the backcountry, or in the studio with modular synthesizers, or playing avant-garde 20th century electro-acoustic composition and spiritual jazz vinyl at home.
If you have a problem and you worry about it, you have two problems
With a background in media production, Natalie joins us from the world of film and television. She holds a BA from the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University. Outside the office, she’s an avid podcast listener, vinyl collector and Jeopardy viewer.
Ryan has managed key corporate accounts for years, uncovering and solving clients’ problems using a consultative approach. Relying on his signature blend of curiosity, empathy, and attention to detail, he is always seeking to form win-win partnerships built on a foundation of service. A lover of cartoons, sports, whiskey, and classic Hip-Hop, he will never turn down an opportunity to learn something new or devour BBQ.
Business Development and Sales
Lover of Extreme Sports, photography and food, there won't be a time where you won't find her hiking or in the water. When she's not outside, she is probably listening to her favorite latest podcast or reading Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential for the 5th time. Favorite food you ask? That's a hard one, but definitely SWISS RACELTTE!
Sydney (they/them) is the author of The Pump (Invisible Publishing 2021). They are an alumnus of the Tin House and Lighthouse Summer Workshops.
Alethea is a Toronto-based writer and journalist. She’s passionate about telling stories that we haven’t traditionally heard. She loves a good mystery novel (or even a vaguely mediocre mystery novel) and supplements her diet with a constant stream of bubble tea.
Boyana is a certified coffee addict and proud owner of a Shiba Inu (Argus) and a cat (Bizou). She studied ballet in Europe and contract law at Harvard, each expressing her devotion to movement and improvement.
Senior Event Coordinator (Mat Leave)
An English transplant in Toronto, who’s worked at Lavin since ’05. When she's not ensuring her speakers' events are successful, she’s a TFC and Jays fan who loves travelling, seeing friends, curling, enjoying good food and wine. She’s even picked ice wine grapes in −12°C/10°F!
Belle is a natural creative with a strong passion for art, nature, and sustainability. She spends most of her time creating, binge watching horror movies, or spending time with her chunky bulldog Layla Beanz. Belle is passionate about the environment, and she recently started her own business as a Macrame Artist to raise money for conservation efforts.
Viktorija comes from a fine arts background, holds a BSW degree, and will never miss a chance to let everyone in the room know she has a minor in English. In her spare time, she enjoys taking her cat for walks (yes, on a leash), critiquing movies, and visiting new restaurants downtown.
With a BFA from Ryerson University, Rebecca joins us with a passion for events, culture and the hustle and bustle of city life. You can find her on the weekends shaking up cocktails on King West or petting all the dogs at Bellwood’s Park.
Jennifer Williamson has worn many hats within the events industry – from working in event staffing, catering, design, fundraising, and most recently talent coordination, she has a passion for learning and a knack for organization that allows her to thrive as an event coordinator. When she manages to pull away from work-back schedules and completing event deadlines, she enjoys relaxing with her daughter or going for dinner and watching live music with her partner.
In her free time, Rakshitha is a coach for caregivers with a specialty in Dementia. Her doors are always open for anyone who thinks today is not their day. She is also a lazy wife, and a crazy mother to a two-legged, a four-legged, and a winged child. She lives to EAT, likes to bring a smile on faces, and earns to travel.
Joy is a senior accountant and manager at Lavin and has been a part of the Lavin family since 2006. In her spare time she enjoys theatre, all things food and spending time with her husband, two children, and dog.
One of our fantastic accountants, Joan’s hobbies include reading, crafts, gardening, and baking. All her pets are of the human variety: children and grandchildren!
An Interview with David Lavin
Please enjoy this candid interview with David Lavin. I was interested 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, Executive Vice President/Director of Intellectual Talent
- 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.
- Then what?
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 favourite 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’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.
- More questions?
Call us at 1-800-265-4870. We'll take as much time as needed to make you an expert on booking speakers