Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 4 of 12: “O, Canada!”

In 1985, the Ontario fiasco left us over $750,000 CA in debt. Technically we were nearly bankrupt. We asked Claude Castonguay, then a Canadian insurance company CEO, to help get us back in gear. The previous summer I had run into him at our Quebec City show. He was looking for tickets, but the show was sold out. I gave him courtesy tickets in the front row of the big top and a tour of our humble facilities.

In the weeks that followed, he sent me a thank-you letter, offering me his support.… It was far from a hollow offer. In fact, he and his marketing vice-president, Pierre Melançon, helped us devise a sponsorship plan, injecting a little more rigor and professionalism into our business. Claude Castonguay also signed a letter addressed to our creditors and the Montreal business community, vaunting the merits of our project and dynamic young team. The object was twofold: to win people’s trust and gain time. Mission accomplished!

In a matter of weeks, we were awarded an important Canadian government contract that took us to Vancouver. Our show opened the Canada Pavilion at Expo 86. Our team also acted as host for a month. Meanwhile, we took part in the Vancouver International Children’s Festival. Both operations were a success, enabling us to get the Canadian tour off to a flying start.

My analysis of our Ontario setback revealed that our success in Quebec in 1984 and 1985 had no impact whatsoever in the English-Canadian market. I learned what everyone around me already knew: Canada is divided into two worlds: one Francophone and the other Anglophone. There are two separate communications network and little crossover between them. Our Quebec triumph failed to resonate in the English-Canadian media. In a way, we were total strangers in our own country. But success in Vancouver meant scoring points in Toronto.

In communications, I swear by the principle “When you pee in Lake Superior, the water rises in San Francisco.” An action in one place may have consequences elsewhere… You’ve probably guessed! I had the chance to confirm the theory that year: our success in Vancouver resonated throughout English-Canada, especially in Toronto. A few months later, Cirque du Soleil’s excellent performances in that metropolis completely eliminated the losses we had incurred the previous year. Still, nothing had a bigger effect in Canada than the success we registered in the US. The exchange rate, the population density, and climate all have a negative impact on the Canadian market. As a result, we have a minimal “sea-to-shining-sea” presence in Canada.

Are you familiar with the expression “who says what to whom, by what means and to what effect”?

The Art of Recruiting

Like any good manager, I valued the people I worked with, particularly those under my direction. I loved what I was doing and, to maintain the right atmosphere, I surrounded myself with people who shared my passion. As in most organizations, the jobs were demanding. Expectations were high, so when the time came to form teams, we needed individuals we could count on.

Indeed, the daily workload and multitude of tasks to be performed obliged us to be open, and highly focused. Often, the members of your team made the difference in the quality of work that you could do. I set simple hiring criteria: above all, I wanted people who were autonomous, proactive, and creative. I encouraged them not only to identify the problems but also to find solutions.

This brings to mind confrontations I had with Human Resources: some of them disagreed with my opinions and my decisions. I believed that will and determination displayed by candidates in their interviews were much more important criteria than their current skill level or previous experience. I wasn’t too shy to step up and declare that I was willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of my decisions. Time and events proved me right. Most of my staff became indispensable to the organization. They set standards for excellence in their sector.

I was proud of my employees and associates. Together, we made a formidable team. Our strategic position in the company constantly forced us to seek fresh ways of doing things. Our approach to planning led to success. Many times, we served as a model for other departments. And I welcomed the situation. At the office, I always emphasized the organizational climate. I long felt that my primary role was to foster a work environment that encouraged and rewarded individual expression and initiative by every member of the team. A poor atmosphere makes people uncomfortable. So, it’s a manager’s responsibility to maintain the right environment.

Starting at the Top

We entered the American market, starting at the top: HOLLYWOOD. The Quebec delegation in Los Angeles helped us get in touch with Robert Fitzpatrick, the founder and director of the Los Angeles Festival. An outgrowth of the Olympic Games, this arts festival saw the light of day in 1984 but was not repeated. Then, at the request of Mayor Tom Bradley, a group of promoters launched it again in 1987. It was a somewhat elitist event with great works, big companies and famous names… Festival directors were on the lookout for a show with a little more popular appeal. Not surprisingly, our exotic, and novel presentation appealed to them. Thus we quickly reached an agreement that involved considerable risk for us.

At the time, the troupe numbered over 80 people and had to transport hundreds of tons of equipment. It was an enormous operation and the Los Angeles Festival did not want to foot the bill. Festival officials thought that the event was too risky for their young organization. If our show failed, the consequences would have a disastrous impact on their operating budget and their reputation in the American entertainment industry.

We struck a deal: the festival didn’t produce our show; it assumed no financial risk; we shouldered the risks. But we did get some advantages: the festival included us in their programming, and its advertising campaign supported our ticket sales. Our show enjoyed the same benefits as the other shows for which the festival actually assumed production costs. And even better, we were on the front page of the festival program, a million copies of which were distributed in the Los Angeles Times. What a coup!

Finally, the key element that convinced us the risk was worth taking was that we had a very favorable place in the schedule… Our show would kick off the festival. Much to our surprise, the announcement of the agreement got a cold reception in Hollywood. Many media outlets and critics from the arts world castigated the organizers for opening the festival with a “circus.” What was a circus doing in such a major event? Criticism was heaped on the festival. Rumor had it on opening night that the cultural elite would be lying in wait for us under the big top in the industrial quarter of Little Tokyo. The outlook was decidedly grim. The media had no idea who we were. But they would soon find out.

During the months that preceded the event, we set the stage for our arrival in Los Angeles. My first working visit was also my first trip to California. Everything about the city impressed me; I’d never seen anything like it. But I was a little concerned. Los Angeles is a huge city and we had to market our show, work out partnership deals with the media, hire a PR firm, see to a thousand and one details, and, above all, create the event.

The first time I met people in Hollywood, I asked them, “Are you real?” touching them on the shoulder to make sure. They looked at me funny. It was hard to tell fact from fiction in the film capital, I explained. I wondered if the people were real or merely extras in a big-budget film. I was enjoying myself…

The same week, we set up our first meeting with the local public relations agency recommended by the festival operators. It was a highly experienced firm with a long list of show business clients and contacts. But they left us cooling our heels in the conference room for a good twenty minutes. Our appointment was scheduled for 4:00 p.m. and it was 4:20. I couldn’t understand what was happening. It was a crucial meeting but the head of the agency hadn’t showed up yet.

Spontaneously, I stormed out of the conference room overlooking the main work area where a dozen people were toiling away. And I bellowed, “Hello! I’m the client, I’m the client and I’m waiting. Hello!” In a matter of 30 seconds, the boss came racing down the hall; the staff was aghast. There was a crazy client in the conference room. I was the client.

I informed the gentleman that I was just as busy as he was, that I had no time to lose and that as a client, I had a right to insist that our meetings start on time. Finally, we all got down to work. The gentleman explained how complicated things were in Hollywood: the media had more cover stories than they could handle, nobody had heard of us, or our circus, we had to be patient and, above all, not expect too much. They’d do what they could to help us. Very encouraging wasn’t it? Our relationship with the man and his firm was short-lived.

The run-up to opening night was a real challenge. We lacked notoriety. In fact, to the people we met, we were complete strangers. We also knew zilch about Hollywood culture and had to bust our butts to get results and a little attention. Of course, some people did what they could to help us. For the premiere, only about 5,000 of the more than 55,000 tickets available were sold though we practically gave the tickets away: $15 for adults. The company had poured everything into its first American operation and we didn’t have enough money left to pay for the gas to drive back to Montreal. We had to lay everything on the line.

The troupe was under enormous stress. Despite that, our spirits were high. We had unshakeable faith in our artists and the show. Our advertising used our French name, Cirque du Soleil, accompanied by the slogan “We reinvent the circus.” People needed to know what we had to offer. Some observers considered the slogan pretentious, but I thought it reflected who we were.

Opening night would change our lives. The response by the press and the public provoked a media frenzy. The next day, the headlines read “There’s a festival in the festival.” Also, a lengthy debate began: Was it really a circus? Critics and the cultural vultures had been looking forward to lambasting us, but they were so enchanted by what they saw that they considered our show the only one in the festival worth seeing. A complete reversal of the situation. There was widespread astonishment. Many observers wondered what part of the United States we were from. We must be American! They’re from Canada? Quebec? You’re kidding!

We sold out in less than a week. The company had to erect a huge fence around the site and set up valet parking. I had never seen so many limousines in my life. Something incredible was happening in Hollywood and in our organization. It was almost overwhelming.

Within hours of the first press reviews, dozens of producers, managers, agents and sales persons of all sorts showed up. Americans, Israelis, Germans, Japanese, Arabs—they all wanted to see us to negotiate, talk, buy the company, rent our services, produce us, represent us, film us, finance us, assist us, advise us…

We had to stay calm and keep our feet on the ground. It was all so tempting, so very tempting. Finally, we decided that the priority was to keep expanding our market share in the US and building our distribution network. And for all the people who wanted to do business with us, we had a word of advice: “Take a number and wait your turn.”

Our principal sponsor, Canadian Airlines International Ltd., (CAI was a relative unknown in the market at the time), started getting hundreds of calls to its Los Angeles office. Their switchboard was flooded. CAI management couldn’t believe it: every travel agent in the city suddenly wanted to talk to them. People weren’t calling for plane tickets; they wanted tickets for the CAI circus… The airline even ended up selling the callers plane tickets!

Our festival contract stipulated that the show couldn’t stay in Los Angeles and we couldn’t hold over. We’d have to leave when the scheduled performances were over and then return. As the festival management had refused to share the financial risk for our show, it couldn’t share in the profits generated by our success. They rued their decision; what seemed like a wise position a few weeks ago had suddenly turned into a tremendous business opportunity lost. Oh well, that’s life. After a brief stay in San Diego, we returned to the Los Angeles area, this time setting up on Santa Monica Pier. It was the start of a long and remarkable relationship. America was ours!