Back in university, Jeff Jacobson started working in the career he loves – being a talent agent. (photo from Jeff Jacobson)
“When I was a kid, my favourite movie was Jerry Maguire. He was an agent, and I wanted to be one, too,” said Jeff Jacobson, co-owner of Talent Bureau. “Whenever my buddies and I talked about some famous athlete or musician, I wanted to know who represented them.”
Jacobson started on the road to the career he loves when he was at the University of Victoria. “I was a promoter, organized concerts of rap and hip-hop music at UVic,” he said. “We tried to get the performers all they wanted, but I was getting tired of the musicians’ ‘diva’ attitude. I wanted to work with a different kind of performer.”
His chance came in 2007. Still a student at the time, he arranged for Al Gore to speak at the university. “Amazingly, Mr. Gore agreed. He came to Victoria. And I thought: that’s what I want to do. Many people and organizations want speakers at their events. Speakers are much better than musicians. The logistics are easier, too. Musicians often have an entourage, so you need hotels and transportation for at least a dozen people, while a speaker comes alone. Easier to arrange.”
Jacobson graduated in 2008 with a degree in American history. That year, he also organized an event featuring Colin Powell as a speaker.
“History teaches us about great men and women. It’s all about storytelling,” he said. “It’s exactly what I do professionally: bring great men and women to speak to people and help them tell their stories.”
With two powerful speakers behind him already, Jacobson went to work for the National Speakers Bureau. In 2014, he left the company and opened his own, then called Jeff Jacobson Agency.
“I don’t organize concerts or events anymore,” he said. “I’m a middleman. I bring talent and event organizers together.”
He said about 80% of his business comes from speakers.
“When people invite a speaker to speak at their event, they expect more,” he said. “They want social media. They want a YouTube video. We make sure it happens. We facilitate all the extras and help the speakers produce content. We’re a 21st-century agency. We represent the social media generation.”
For Jacobson, being a modern company means that he and his employees aren’t at their small office 9 to 5 every day. Most of their internal communications and business with clients can be done online or over the phone.
“My partner Jeff Lohnes is based in Toronto. We have staff members in Ottawa and in Nelson, B.C.,” Jacobson explained. “At the moment, our team is six people. Last year, we booked talents for approximately 300 events all over the world. We booked speakers for events in Latvia, in New Zealand, but the majority of our business comes from the events in Canada and the U.S.”
In addition to speakers, the agency handles entertainment, mostly bands, but other activities, as well. Companies will come to Talent Bureau, as the company is now called, when they want a celebrity to endorse their product or service, for example. Jacobson listed some of the speakers and organizations he has helped bring together.
“We worked with Rogers and Google, American Express and Sysco, Pfizer and Microsoft. We booked speakers for universities like UBC, McGill and Georgetown,” he said. “Recently, I placed the speakers at the SFU Public Square’s Brave New Work Event – Van Jones from CNN and Anne-Marie Slaughter. I booked former prime minister Stephen Harper to speak at the FarmTech Conference in Edmonton.”
As word-of-mouth has spread about the good job they do, more and more exclusive speakers have been asking Talent Bureau to represent them.
“To handle this level of clients, an agent needs a very thick skin,” Jacobson joked. These clients, he said, “They always want things their way, and we make sure they are satisfied. We also help the organizers to realize their ambitions for their events. We are matchmakers between talents and events.”
In addition to a thick skin, Jacobson said a keen interest in current events and a deep familiarity with pop culture are absolute necessities for his hectic profession. “I have to talk to people in different industries: sports, agriculture, manufacturing, art, science. I have to speak their lingo,” he explained, “be up to speed about everything that happens, be aware of the biggest trends.”
An obsessive consumer of news, Jacobson tweets multiple times a day, but his main focus is people. “You need a sense of humour to handle such a job and you need humility. I always remember that, although I deal with celebrities, I’m not one.”
He also stressed the need to care, to be passionate about his work. “Sometimes, bizarre challenges or obscure requests spring at you, and you must be prepared to deal with them,” he said. “For example, once a client canceled on me…. He was booked to speak at an event but, at the last minute, he remembered his daughter’s graduation and canceled. I had to find a replacement fast. Another time, a client asked the event organizers to build him a canoe on stage. Flexibility is the key.”
In general, Jacobson said he has to prove his value as an agent, earn his reputation every time he books someone. “One of the modern challenges for an agent is the democratization of talent,” he explained. “Everyone has a website. Anyone can approach him or her online, so why do they need an agent? I prove myself by caring about the people I work with. Everyone has a chaotic schedule, and it’s my job to juggle those schedules, to find good opportunities. Every day is like a Rubik’s Cube and, one day, I might even solve it.”
It was just this year that Jacobson and Lohnes rebranded the agency, changing the name to Talent Bureau. “It was a collaborative decision but it’s the right direction,” Jacobson said. “When you say Jeff Jacobson Agency, nobody knows what it is, but when you say Talent Bureau, it’s clear what we do. And we are still new enough in the business to be able to rebrand without damage.”
To learn more, visit talentbureau.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].