The Tech Take

Celebrity keynotes — do they deliver?

I go to a lot of conferences. It's part and parcel of being a tech editor, as tech companies tend to have user conferences annually. As a result, I've seen more than my share of celebrity keynotes, and I've begun to question their value to an audience of accountants.

For instance, Ashton Kutcher, Common and Jade Simmons were the “celebrity” keynote speakers at the most recent QuickBooks Connect conference held in San Jose, California.

I want to level with you: They weren’t good.

No shade at any of them, and certainly not at the host companies that do put on great events overall, and merely want to reward their attendees for coming. But I am becoming doubtful that the tech conference mainstage is a venue that can deliver a valuable keynote at all. And that’s a shame, because celebrity keynotes are not cheap. According to Evan Bailyn, who runs a keynote speaker blog, household name celebrities are priced at between $20,000 and $50,000 per speaking engagement. I’m being conservative here — Common’s fees are advertised at between $50,000 and $100,000.

At a conference, keynotes are like highway mileposts. They attract they eye, give you some information about the direction you (or the company) is going, and some are more useful than others — even though they may all cost the same (or thereabouts) to install. But beyond their function as an attraction and a guideline, they generally fall into three categories: big-name speakers from the host company, like the CEO; subject matter experts; and celebrities. But their utility to the audience is usually inversely correlated to how expensive and/or how famous the speaker is. As a journalist, I get far more out of hearing the chief product officer’s keynote than Ashton Kutcher’s; and the same goes for the user attendee.

But celebrity keynotes are a big draw. I don’t have any insider knowledge as to how many users actually go to a conference solely because Oprah is a featured speaker (QuickBooks Connect did indeed snag the Queen of All Media to speak at their 2015 show); but I do know that the celebrity keynotes are the most packed events at any given conference. The audience cheers the loudest, and post the most on social media. Which might actually be the biggest value to the company paying for the big ticket speakers: free marketing from attendees. This makes attendees part of the product for which the company shelled out $50k.

ashton kutcher quickbooks connect
Actor and investor Ashton Kutcher, right, greets the crowd at Intuit’s QuickBooks Connect 2019 on Thursday, Nov. 7, in San Jose, Calif. (Adm Golub/AP Images for Quickbooks)

Let’s take Ashton Kutcher’s appearance at this most recent QuickBooks Connect. I, personally, am a fan of Kutcher’s, and not for his TV or movie roles. I happen to admire how he has made smart tech investment decisions, building a backup career for himself. By his own admission, he started with little knowledge, but he learned along the way. He has valuable insights for anyone interested in investing in general, and if you listen to his more intimate interviews, like those he does on podcasts, this comes across well. He has an ease about him, too, that all good speakers need to engage any audience. But on the tech mainstage, interviewed by tech journalist and TV host Katie Linendoll, none of this came through. The atmosphere was awkward — he was sitting on an armchair across from a person who clearly didn’t know him too well — and his answers were stilted. And most importantly, he didn’t have much to say about accounting, or even accounting technology. Which is probably why the whole interview came across as something out of place at a QuickBooks user conference.

Not that Linendoll attempted to ask him anything specific about accounting — she didn’t. She’s not stupid. She knows who Ashton Kutcher is. But I didn’t envy her job, either, which was to force relevance from someone who just ... isn’t. Not for an audience of accountants, anyway.

But Kutcher got the loudest cheers both upon entry and exit of the stage; and attendees had a ball (at least as evidenced on social media afterwards) taking photos with him. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out why people love being around celebrity — fame is interesting and exciting. But scratch the surface, and there’s not much there, for accountants.

But it only gets worse from there. Jade Simmons, classical pianist, opened for the rapper Common. I had never heard of Simmons, but upon doing some research before I saw her perform, I was impressed by her accolades. “Classically trained in piano performance at Northwestern and Rice Universities, Jade has eschewed the traditional recital in favor of taking her audiences on concert adventures that span Rachmaninoff to Rap,” her bio reads. “Today, she delivers stunning mainstage keynote presentations that potently combine music, virtuoso performance and riveting storytelling to speak into the hearts, minds and goals of a company’s most valuable resource … their people.”

Her appearance at QuickBooks Connect fell flat, though. It’s clear that while she may have once performed at a level worthy of the classical concert stage, it seems as if her pivot to mainstage speaking as a career may have cost her much of her skills as a pianist, and her message to audiences is trite: Believe in yourself; find your identity; don’t let others hold you down. Vague aphorisms can be found anywhere. They don’t need to have a thousand-dollar price tag.

And then Common took the stage. I was disappointed to see he appeared with no band, and indeed, he didn’t actually perform, which is what I expected him to do. Instead, he did a little freestyle rap about accountants and the San jose Convention Center (I’ll reserve comment), and delivered the same type of speech you’d expect to see at a middle-school assembly about overcoming obstacles. I left halfway through.

I know I sound harsh. Maybe I’m jaded because I’ve seen too many celebrities coast through a 20-minute appearance, collect their fee and leave, insulting my intelligence in the process. An example of another notable keynote was Gwyneth Paltrow and Zooey Deschanel’s double-act at Sage Summit 2016, where they discussed their respective lifestyle websites, GOOP and Hello Giggles. They discussed brand, and their connection to theirs'. If I worked hard, I could connect this concept to an accountant trying to build a brand for their firm; but beyond that, there wasn't much else to take home. Like Kutcher, Paltrow and Deschanel have at least some connection to the tech world; but ultimately, in the end, they didn’t deliver much useful information beyond the most obvious of insights, and if you’ve ever seen them keynote before, spoiler alert: They recycle material.

Celebrity keynotes aren’t going away. They’re flashy, they serve the purpose of making a company look hip, and, perhaps, they draw attendees. But beyond that? Don’t expect too much.

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