Talent representation is the cornerstone upon which Beverly Hills-based Endeavor Group Holdings Inc. was founded, but subsidiary Harry Walker Agency Inc. (HWA) occupies a unique niche even within the structure of this entertainment industry standard bearer. Founded by its namesake in 1946, this New York City-based agency coordinates speaking engagements for a variety of experts and lecturers — not just from the artistic community but also the worlds of sports, business, science, politics and more. It is so well-known and established that when Endeavor Chief Executive Ariel Emanuel successfully convinced the company’s president, Don Walker, to merge their firms in November 2019, Emanuel changed the name of his existing speakers division to Harry Walker Agency to maintain the brand’s then 74-year legacy.
Endeavor breaks up its revenue into three categories: owned sports properties; events, experiences and rights; and representation. The representation business, which HWA falls into, generated $664.7 million during the third quarter of 2021, by far taking up the largest percentage of the company’s cumulative revenue of $1.4 billion for the period. But where its parent company’s clients include entertainers Ben Affleck, Denzel Washington and Whoopi Goldberg, HWA represents a roster of more than 500 exclusive speakers, including politicians Barack and Michelle Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton, athletes Serena Williams and Tom Brady, economist Mohamed Aly El-Erian, former Fortune 500 Chief Executive Ursula Burns and many more.
Based on their pedigree and the potential exclusivity of their audiences, these lecturers receive anywhere from $7,500 to $1 million in fees to speak to industry leaders, make personal appearances, conduct Q&As;, or provide a variety of other services and insights.
Disrupting the speaking circuitLong before it was handling titans of industry or heads of state, Harry Walker Agency began at Don Walker’s parents’ kitchen table in Boston, where Harry, a former social worker, decided to turn his recruitment of clergymen and local professors into a for-profit business. Moving heavily into the business market in the 1960s and ‘70s, HWA disrupted an existing circuit of speakers from within the same industry as the group that they were speaking to and convinced meeting planners that outside voices could contribute as much insight, if not more, to their operations.
“We convinced business groups it was important to know what was going on around the world,” Walker told the Business Journal. “Then we had to go to speakers used to leading the government and bring them to law firms, investment banks and think tanks and convince them that they could contribute to the marketplace of ideas in a positive way — and get paid for it.”
In that marketplace, the company was able not only to contribute but to flourish, leading to Endeavor’s acquisition, although Walker admitted that after decades at the helm, he was anxious about what it might mean to join a big company. But, he said, Emanuel promised him that HWA could operate independently within the family’s holdings, retaining HWA’s people, processes and culture, while also enjoying access to a robust list of some of the most well-known people in the world.
“My only regret is that I didn’t listen to [Ari] sooner,” Walker said. “These last two years have been the most fulfilling of my professional life because we are working with this amazing group of people who want to share their ideas, and we give them the platform to do it successfully.”
That said, in his five decades with his family’s agency, Walker said that nothing has had a bigger impact on HWA’s business than the pandemic — starting with the immediate cancellation of in-person events in March 2020.
“We decided to treat this new normal as if it was going to be a large segment of our long-term future,” he said. “I learned from running a small business for 47 years that the key to success was not waiting for the storm to pass but just learning to live in the rain.”
Virtual realityHWA Chief Operating Officer Amy Werner said that the company had to show its hosts what was possible in a virtual world, which meant that they had to educate themselves very quickly about what platform would best serve their events.
“We invested in AV equipment and we rewrote all of our speaker marketing materials to showcase how each speaker was available and suited to bring to a virtual program,” Werner said. “And we developed new sections of our website devoted to topics audiences wanted to hear about in that moment, such as resilience and leadership in a post-Covid world.”
Perhaps most importantly, the company developed a collection of case studies and shared best practices with prospective hosts to guide them in decision making for their virtual programs. With success stories to reference, hosts could then see the proof of concept.
Over a relatively short period of time, virtual fees climbed to near in-person fees for many of their speakers. Even as in-person events slowly return, the company anticipates that virtual events will remain a strong part of its host programming mix.
“Also, hybrid events are here to stay,” Werner said. “We had one of the industry’s largest trade associations, the Professional Convention Management Association, hold a large-scale event in Las Vegas. Some of the audience was virtual, some in person, and some speakers were virtual, and some in person. We even helped facilitate the appearance of Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsi, on stage in Las Vegas as a hologram.”
Werner said that in 2020, 80% of the company’s programs were held virtually, but looking ahead in 2022, the company anticipates that number will diminish to 20% — and she’s encouraged by that.
“That validates that virtual events are here to stay,” she said. “I think we’re going to see live events and hybrid events coming online as the year progresses.”
Walker added that “there is an appetite for in-person experiences, but we think of the virtual world as additive.”
While HWA’s leadership expressed confidence in how it has adapted its business to the changing needs of its clients, leading to more than double the “thousands” of contracts the company typically generates in a non-pandemic year, Werner said that the most important lesson that the experience has taught them so far was to remember the agency’s foundational purpose: to bring together people from different communities to share knowledge.
“We can get very busy with the doing of it all, but we wanted to remember the meaning of it,” Werner said. “Over these last two years, we wanted to take part in facilitating important conversations that opened people’s minds and hearts. We consider that the core of what we do, and during the pandemic when everything was so disorienting, we were really honored to be a part of that.”