Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 5 of 12: “Persuasion”

Cirque du Soleil mastered the art of information control or, if you like, public communications. Media relations played a pivotal role in our company’s success. Above all, much like publicity it helped boost ticket sales. Media relations directly affected everything written or said about our shows and organization.

For over 50% of the clientele, the rumor mill and word of mouth were the most important factors in drawing their attention to our product. Media relations fed the rumor mill. It was people’s perceptions of the company that mattered. I was so conscious of this that in the souvenir program for the 1985 tour, I included a quotation by Laurence J. Peter: “Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, are in the eye of the beholder.”

In 1984, on its first Quebec tour, Cirque du Soleil was just a small-scale operation, but it was already earning full-page reports in the major dailies. Already, it was as if we were giants. The whole series of reports in the media was meticulously planned to support the sales effort. And this applied to every other marketing operation.

Before a tour got underway, we mapped out our media relations activities. We determined the content of our press kit containing all the information we wanted to give the media as we traveled from town to town. The kit was completely adapted for every show and updated for every town on the tour.

From the start of our second year, we established relations with journalists and the media. Journalists were always hungry for content. More specifically they’d ask us what subjects to cover. So we crafted a series of press releases indicating newsworthy coverage angles. It was astonishing to see newspapers gobbling up our press releases and reproducing them word for word. Sometimes the papers copied our spelling mistakes! It’s still like that now. That’s the media for you! But over the years, we met outstanding journalists who went way beyond our humble press kit.

In 1985, we launched our Quebec-Ontario tour. The new show debuted in Montreal. But a week went by, and the Montreal daily La Presse still hadn’t deigned to publish a review. When I queried our press attaché, Lise Huneault, and our local media relations agent, Danielle Papineau-Couture, they confirmed that not a single journalist from the paper had attended one of the performances.

We needed the article; press coverage was essential to the success of our operations. Friends informed me that La Presse’s Arts and Entertainment editor refused to cover the event, claiming that Cirque du Soleil wasn’t really a circus. What an insult! I was doing a slow boil. My friends tried to calm me down. But I wasn’t having it. I called him up and told him I’d be dropping by in an hour and that it would only take a few minutes of his time.

He was courteous enough, but he reiterated that the paper had no intention of covering the event. I calmly pointed out that we were a young cultural organization in Quebec. I added that the average age of the employees was about 20 to 21, that we were taking enormous risks launching the enterprise, that we were doing our utmost to succeed and that the artists were giving their all on stage to please the audience.

“Can your newspaper, the biggest French-language daily in North America, just out of respect for them, give them a review?” I asked. “Write what you like, but at least, write something; they deserve some feed-back!” To sweeten the pill, I reminded him of the wonderful two-page article on Michael Jackson that his team had published in the Arts and Entertainment section on the previous weekend edition. We finally got a review the next week. It wasn’t exactly glowing, but we got it. It was the last time I had this kind of trouble with the paper.

In every city on the tour, we hired a local media relations agency, ideally, a small firm specializing in theatre. It’s better to be a big client with a small agency than a small client with a big agency. We liked to work with enthusiastic people who had direct control over their activities. A number of these agencies had a contract with Cirque du Soleil for many years; some still have.

The agencies were a key component in our operations. They helped us figure out the “who’s who” in a town. We needed the information for our premiere invitations. The first performance was a turning point in our whole marketing operation. In a way, that’s when our artistic and marketing teams came together on the ground. On the night of a premiere, I used to tell my colleagues in the creative end of things: “The ball’s in your hands now!”

In the months and weeks before we arrived in a town, we wove a vast web of advertising and media relations. On premiere night, the web was deployed. The premiere was the spark that gave our whole undertaking meaning. It crystallized our marketing activities. Our best sales argument by far was the show itself. The show triggered an informal but extremely powerful communications process: the rumor mill, word of mouth.

To enhance the force and quality of the rumor, we carefully selected our guests working closely with our media relations agency. Invitations were sent out to partners and sponsors and to people in the media. Then I made sure to invite everybody who’s anybody in the arts and culture milieu. My reasoning was quite simple: our show was a cultural product that redefined the standards.

So what’s more natural than to be judged by your peers! They had earned credibility in their community. So systematically, our guest list included poets, sculptors, writers, singers, dancers, actors, theater directors, painters and art critics. They enjoyed expressing their opinion in public; we simply gave them the chance to do it.

From town to town, from tour to tour, we executed the same marketing plan. Important aspects of the message we conveyed went unchanged. For every show, we grouped all the press relations parameters and activities in one document: the media relations guide. Basic but extraordinary tool, it contained all the distinctive elements of the show: the story angles to cover, the sequence of press relations activities for each city as well as the ways and means. Everything was there. The guide was an ideal tool for the agencies and for us as well. It enabled us to exert greater control over media activities and content.

In choosing reporting angles for journalists, I targeted every section in a major daily. The aim was to place an article or a photo in each section of the key dailies in every tour city. My approach was clear: “We have news for you!” We would target the main News section with the arrival of the convoy; the Around Town section with the assembling of the big top; that of Arts and Entertainment through in-depth interviews with the director and the artists as well as the review of the show; the Style section with anecdotes of life on the tour; Fashion with the show’s costumes; the Food/Cooking section with our restaurant, the kitchen team and our menus; Business with our sponsors and the growth of our company; and the Sports section with the Olympic-class caliber of our athletes…

At the very least, we were determined; not aggressive, simply determined. We were candy for the media: we offered them youth, fashion, performance, logistics, business, creativity, a touch of the avant-garde, and exoticism.

In 1992, when Saltimbanco was created in Montreal, I organized an event that would become a fixture in the organization, an annual meeting with all the press relations agencies and our principal associates to present our new show, inform them of the latest developments and let them know about projects in preparation. We discussed every aspect of our activities. It gave everyone a chance to benefit from other people’s experience. A genuine happening! The meetings soon became highly popular not only because they were extremely useful and effective, but also because the participants got to meet collaborators from all over the world. Thus, we were able to harmonize our communications activities worldwide.

Globalization imposes a certain rigor. When we have a message to deliver in one town we must disseminate the same messages all over the planet. An interview with a journalist in London may appear almost simultaneously in newspapers in Los Angeles, Toronto, and Sydney, Australia.

Are you true to yourself and your principles?

Choosing Your Partner
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Right from the beginning, our sponsors were also our suppliers and creditors. We negotiated with them as best we could in the early years. During that period, Cirque du Soleil’s attitude towards sponsorship evolved. We had little money and means at our disposal; so we were open to any interesting proposal from sponsors. But the proposals didn’t come when we needed them. As a result, our position hardened somewhat about sponsorship, and we came to appreciate the notion of artistic integrity.

As time went by, we became increasingly protective of our product. We found it difficult to accept proposals that might detract from the show. The artistic dimension predominated; we got used to functioning that way. Lacking sponsorship, we were forced to rely on ticket sales and merchandise to maximize revenues.

Better to offer a superior artistic product of integrity than a mediocre heavily sponsored work. We received some curious requests made in all seriousness: to paint in giant format a sponsor’s logo on the outer canvas of the big top, to place a car in the ring when the public arrived, and to make a sponsor’s product part of one of the acts.

We used to say, “Look, we’re not a shopping mall!” Certainly, the distinction between the world of entertainment and that of consumption has been blurred. Shopping malls entice their customers with extraordinary cultural experiences, offering exotic environments that put them in the right frame of mind for shopping.

We made every effort to point out to potential sponsors the obvious differences between a music festival and our product. For example, a business that had a stage bearing its name in an open-door festival would also benefit from the exposure generated by televised reports. With Cirque du Soleil on the other hand, the sponsor’s banner inside the big top would disappear from view the moment the show began. In the late 1980s, I met a director of a big Canadian oil company who said that our trademark enjoyed greater notoriety than his firm. He feared Cirque would eclipse his firm… Nevertheless, we were well aware of the value of sponsorship and partnering with companies.

The partnerships developed an extremely stimulating business dynamic. I found those relationships enormously enriching. They presented new challenges and forced us to be more rigorous and more professional. We also had to be creative in reaping the benefits of sponsorship. During negotiations, we endeavored to make sure that sponsors fully grasped the meaning and extent of their investment. We asked a simple question: How can we help you meet your marketing objectives? This may seem strange, but we sometimes met business executives eager to sponsor us without really knowing how to integrate us into their marketing activities. They just wanted to be associated with Cirque du Soleil.

In assessing the performance of a partnership, it is a good idea to recall the objectives and determine whether they have been met. Before we became truly successful, we formulated a sponsorship policy that excluded certain companies from any future partnership: arms dealers, fast-food chains and, obviously, cigarette manufacturers.

There were many reasons why a sponsor might want to be associated with Cirque du Soleil: quality, originality, creativity, authenticity, and a sense of the avant-garde. But the one element that sponsors find most appealing is our extraordinary clientele. The majority of our clients are women, 60% of them aged 24 to 45. They had a higher level of education and family income than average. Children constituted only a very small part of our client base.

To obtain this kind of information, right from the start, I set up a survey mechanism for our patrons. In each city, year after year, we confirmed our client profile, assessed the performance of our communications activities and determined the public’s degree of satisfaction with our product and services (ticketing, reception, merchandise, etc.). It was a valuable investment.

Our findings were the same all over the planet. Analyzing the results enabled us to fine-tune our advertising campaigns and to determine the essential elements of our marketing operations. Compiling the data gave us feedback about the quality of our services. We forwarded the results of these surveys to the departments concerned. So, in each town, we could offer a product that met our customers’ expectations. The members of the artistic team were the only ones who didn’t want to let the results influence their work. Yet, they insisted on knowing them, though they denied using them.

People cautioned us against making shows based on surveys. I shared their opinion, and I didn’t wish to influence decisions affecting the productions, but I thought it was vital that the public had the opportunity to give their opinion about the artistic side of our activities. Sponsors were eager to see these reports, and the characteristics of our clientele never ceased to be the envy of their marketing specialists.

Over the years, we had the opportunity to work with very big companies and smaller ones, too. In some cases, the presence of sponsors was essential in launching a tour: Kirin Lager and Nissan in Japan or Schöller AG in Europe. In other cases, the quality and originality of the partnership set a new standard: AT&T in the United States, Oetztal Arena in Europe, Acura in the United States, Canadian Airlines International Ltd. in North America, Ultramar in Quebec, etc. In every case, at the heart of these agreements, were people who shared our passion and who were committed to the success of our business relationship. With them, we built precious friendships.

Internationalizing Cirque’s activities created a fair number of sponsorship challenges. Finding firms ready to work across boundaries in this domain was amazingly difficult. Most sponsorship decisions involving activities in foreign countries were taken in the capitals concerned in a context of decentralization. Though globalization is a fact it is yet to take effect in cultural event sponsorship. It has wider acceptance in sports, particularly in the Olympic Games because they have become highly televised and commercialized.

Do you have another way of looking at things?

Packaging
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Based on my experience in advertising, I decided that from the start we needed to control our communications and “do it ourselves.” I didn’t want to work with an advertising agency where the atmosphere is fiercely competitive. Besides, we couldn’t afford to pay for one! So, early in 1985, we decided to set up a graphics section. I remember calling Thérèse Mondor, my girlfriend at the time: we got married since then… Thérèse was a gifted, young graphic designer working in a small but excellent graphic design agency run by a friend of mine. I said to Thérèse, “I need someone in graphics and I thought of you. I’m offering you $50 a week more than you make now. But there’s one condition: you have to bring your drawing table and chair.” In graphics, people weren’t using computers at the time, at least not in Quebec. The company had hardly gotten started and already we had to think about cost cutting. Thérèse accepted the offer; it was the beginning of a long and remarkable work relationship.

That’s how we developed over the years, with the help of freelance collaborators, our advertising imagery, and line of merchandise. For every show, we created an original visual directly inspired by comments from the team of designers. Like the shows, our visuals and base lines were universal. Very rarely (in Paris and Japan) did we have to modify a visual. Michel-Thomas Poulin was one of the freelance artists who did the most to shape the Cirque du Soleil style. Michel-Thomas designed all the images and illustrations for the shows from 1985 to 1994. Some like Saltimbanco, Alegria, and Mystère visuals are still being used. Ideally, the marketing and artistic teams agreed on the choice of a show’s base line and visual. We held lengthy discussions, trying to identify the aim and intent of every show. These discussions would end just in time for us to launch the advertising campaign… Each group had its legitimate needs, and when the discussions came to an impasse, we let Guy Laliberté decide.

Every year, the Cirque du Soleil poured millions of dollars into advertising. The quality and extent of these investments directly affected our results; so it was hardly surprising that we were loath to leave as strategic an operation as an advertising campaign in the hands of strangers. In North America and in Europe, we conducted over 85% of the negotiations and media placement; this was a major marketing operation. And many people around the world made a valuable contribution. Selling tickets is a retail activity. So as in any business, we could measure the impact of advertising on sales.

As the years went by, one thing became crystal clear: our product was unique; it deserved exceptional marketing. We developed and experimented with a marketing practice that we adapted to places and circumstances. The ads in major newspapers and specialized weekly publications could represent up to 50% of our investments; outdoor signs, billboards and advertisement on buses, up to 20%; television, radio, and eventually the Internet accounted for the rest. We spared no effort in creating a veritable media event.

Cirque du Soleil established media partnerships in every town. By involving our partners in the presentation of the show, we were able to increase the value of our advertising campaigns two-, three-, even four-fold. We created our own ads and we produced our own radio and television commercials. It was important for me to feel that our show, advertising art and campaign deployment were intimately related. When every aspect of the process meshed, I felt like a violinmaker who has controlled every phase in the building of a magnificent instrument.