Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 10 of 12: “Thinking Big”

Cirque du Soleil had a lot riding on a successful return to the European market in 1995. Repeating the errors we made in 1990 was not an option. This time we had to get it right. The company had grown in maturity and experience over the years. We had far more means at our disposal. We’d take Europe by storm. It would be an extraordinary adventure.

In 1994, we decided to set up a headquarters there. Several cities were considered: among them, London, Berlin, Munich, even Paris. Most of us would have opted for the latter, but we were in Europe to do business, and compared with other countries we were contemplating, France unfortunately didn’t offer the same advantages to foreign companies wishing to set up shop. Finally we chose Amsterdam. In fact, the tax people were the ones who convinced us. The Dutch government allowed the best tax breaks. We established a permanent division: Cirque du Soleil Europe. Holland also gave us access to a highly qualified, multilingual workforce, and Amsterdam turned out to be a fine city to live in.

I applied for executive director of this fascinating project. I was eager for a new challenge. My wife was more than willing to move, and our two sons, aged five and seven, loved to fly. Unfortunately, my application was promptly turned down; there was another candidate, Danny Pelchat, a friend of mine, who had been with Cirque du Soleil from the very start.

According to my bosses, they needed my marketing expertise for the entire operation. “Oh well,” I thought. “At least I tried.” I ended up spending a lot of time in Europe anyway. Guy specifically asked me to divide my time between the Montreal headquarters and the Amsterdam office until the project could fly on its own in Europe. So, for the next two years, I worked two weeks in Amsterdam and two in Montreal every month: a kind of intercontinental ping-pong!

The first thing we did was to put together a management team: a little band of mercenaries. Actually they were management types drawn from the ranks of the company. They were real go-getters. An odd assortment perhaps, but highly motivated, passionate and, above all, determined.

Europe had a great circus tradition. There were scores of companies from all nationalities. They’re mainly small local troupes performing under very basic conditions. Primarily catering to a family clientele, their shows are simple, charming, and unpretentious. Of course, France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany boast big circuses as well. Archaos, a nouveau cirque troupe from France was a sort of techno, Madmax–style circus. It targeted a clientele that I jokingly call hooligans. But the other circuses take a traditional approach emphasizing rigor, quality and professionalism. At the time, Roncalli from Germany was the biggest circus in Europe. It offered spectators a one-ring circus with animals and gave a great deal of attention to detail: it was a classic of its kind. We admired and respected all of these circuses. In a way they were our peers. We shared the same milieu, art and origins.

The entertainment industry was well aware that we were offering a concept, a product unlike anything else. Our reputation was solidly established and the principal European actors feared our entry in their market. Yet, for the general public, we were unknown, mere foreigners. Confident in the originality and the strength of our product, we prioritised on two additional aspects that could set us apart from the competition: venue and marketing.

By venue, I mean the site, the Grand Chapiteau, the big top, which we transported with us. In North America, we had a 2500-seat blue and yellow striped big top. It had a European look and a traditional form pleasing to North Americans. In Europe, on the other hand, there was a plethora of blue and yellow striped big tops. We also noted that most European reception tents were tiny. Circuses use these tents to check tickets and sell souvenirs and refreshments. Above all, they serve as a meeting place and the commercial center of the circus.

We were looking for something to set us apart from our competitors. So we built a spectacular white big top, the Grand Chapiteau, along with a gigantic modernistic reception tent. The interior was magnificent: mounted on the two main masts were huge mechanized sculptures in the form of aviaries revolving overhead. Absolute works of art! The creator, set designer Michel Crête, did a magnificent job. Visitors were literally blown away as they entered the service tent. The site had a futuristic look with everything in white—tents, trucks and caravans. Passersby craned their necks trying to find out what was going on inside the Grand Chapiteau. The mere sight of our installations amazed people. It was the talk of the town. Of course, that was the purpose of the exercise!

Marketing was the second component of our effort to rise above the others. In this domain, we combined an outstanding track record with extraordinary expertise. European traveling circuses tend toward the traditional. As a rule, they’re highly mobile. Their engagements last only a few days but they visit a large number of towns and villages. The nearly century-old practice of touring allows circuses to perform before sold-out audiences while cutting financial risks to a certain extent. Their advertising campaign consists mainly of plastering posters around town. It’s a tried and true method recognized by everyone, and the public in particular. Some circuses even advertise in the newspapers, often offering discount coupons. A little unsophisticated perhaps, but, we must admit, it works pretty well for them

We had developed another approach in North America, a highly effective advertising campaign that mobilized all the media. For a new market, the company invested up to 10% of the total projected revenue, or even more, in advertising. For example, if the sell-out revenue for a city was expected to be $5 million, it pumped $500,000 into an advertising campaign, including media relations expenses.

Compared with other types of shows, we always made very ambitious revenue projections for each city. In that respect, other circuses didn’t begin to compare. So we operated from a position of strength, with resources that allowed us to conduct advertising campaigns combining newspapers, television, radio, billboards, as well as posting in buses and on the streets. Our campaigns had an incredible impact on the public: they had never seen such a media blitz. But on the Old Continent, it seems form and protocol are everything. At least, that’s what’s some people tried to make us believe.

Germany accounted for nearly half of our first tour. With a huge population of over 80 million people, it is a major market. Germans are a proud and articulate people, eager consumers of cultural products. They have been called the Americans of Europe. The German press is highly diversified: powerful national dailies, avant-garde magazines, brilliant journalists, a numerous and active regional press with the same obsession for detail, research, analysis and accuracy. So Germany became a reference point for the entire first operation.

We set up a sort of brains trust of friends and business associates from the entertainment, recording and television industries. We asked the group to assess our strategies, give us insights on people’s lifestyles, and establish new contacts. At a meeting in Munich in 1994, the “sages” described the highly complex and sophisticated German media. They underlined the importance of securing a proper introduction to the principal editors, bureau chiefs and journalists.

This phase of our entry into Germany had a decisive effect on the quality and extent of press coverage we could expect. For an operation like ours to succeed, our advisers were unanimous: we had to enlist a big German star, a celebrity from the entertainment community who knew the people who counted. We needed someone whose stature and credibility would enable us to obtain tangible results and excellent press coverage. The group was absolutely insistent about this recommendation. Guy bought into the idea and encouraged me to act promptly.

But I wasn’t convinced. I just couldn’t see myself spending a few hundred thousand euros to hire a perfect stranger who had nothing in common with us. I understood the reasoning, but the idea didn’t jive with my sense of who we were. Yes, the German press was sophisticated, but all the same! Surely, we could do something better with the money.

I returned to our Amsterdam offices to mull it over. Nevertheless I admired and respected the brains trust. Two key elements in their recommendations were indisputable. First, we needed to identify the key German media figures, recognize the decision-makers in each sector, and classify them according to their skills and credibility. In other words we had to put together a press list to meet our needs. One of our friends in Zurich, a PR agent in the cultural area, did business in Germany. We invited him to spend a couple of days in Amsterdam. For a few hundred euros, he helped compile a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers. That took care of the first point.

The second point concerned the need for adequate representation with these media people and institutions. Six months before, we had hired a press attaché, Andrée Deissenberg. A young woman in her early twenties, she had dual citizenship (French and American) and spoke fluent French, English and German. She was a graduate of the Université de Paris, and the Cirque du Soleil was her first real job. At the time, she admits, she was very shy, but her intelligence allowed her to overcome this slight handicap. As far as I’m concerned, she embodied many of Cirque du Soleil’s essential values and qualities: youth, originality, innocence, multiculturalism, and a promising potential.

So we assigned her to make the initial contact with the German media. She was well prepared and I was convinced she would succeed. A few weeks later, she visited the editorial rooms of the biggest German, Austrian and Dutch dailies and magazines. Everywhere she went, she was a hit, never failing to earn an enthusiastic response. She was a terrific representative. There was real synergy between her personality, the company, the show and our approach to the European market. Of course, Andrée didn’t go to the media with empty hands. She even offered some of them an incredible press junket.

In the fall of 1994, we gave a few dozen journalists, photographers, directors, and television people the opportunity to get to know Cirque du Soleil at our expense. The weeklong trip took them to Montreal to visit company headquarters, and especially to see Saltimbanco, the show that we hoped would conquer Europe. It was being presented in preparation for the major tour. Then our guests were flown to Los Angeles to take in Alegria on Santa Monica Pier. Finally, they were off to Los Vegas, to see Mystère; playing to sold-out audiences since 1993, the show was permanently located at Treasure Island Hotel. The junket could have been dubbed Operation Knockout… Everyone on the trip came away stunned by the world of Cirque du Soleil. They’d never seen anything like it.

It all added up to a dazzling media campaign. Our futuristic venue and innovative marketing campaign mirrored the show’s quality and originality. The campaign generated tremendous energy and enthusiasm. Some dailies and magazines even ran articles praising our marketing operations. More important, the tour’s bottom line fully met our expectations; the results were extraordinary.

Considering the frenzy of activity surrounding our European tour preparations and the many things that had to be put in place for a successful operation, Guy Laliberté advised me to “Go easy.” He thought we should avoid making a lot of noise and alarming people (other circuses, for instance). We didn’t want to be seen like a big North American company arriving on the continent and hustling everything under the sun … He urged me to keep a low profile. I shared his concern and promised to give the matter special consideration.

I did point out that we couldn’t hide our record of achievement from the press and the public. Besides we were in a development phase, and the costs for the whole operation were exorbitant and the financial objectives were equally high. No one on the management team wanted a deficit. Guy absolutely agreed with me on that point. So I thought we had to put our best foot forward. Ironically, not long after, once everything was in place, I came up with the name “The Bulldozer Tour.”

My European marketing strategy took account of the fact that the continent was laying the groundwork for unification. Negotiations, projections and debates had been the media’s daily bread for years. The countries concerned were preparing for a new status; they were about to give birth to one big Europe. It was the fulfilment of a dream. The negotiations were sending waves of exhilaration and excitement through every sector of society. Something extraordinary was happening. At the close of the century, people were witnessing a pivotal moment in history.

It was in this context that I put in place our marketing operation. It occurred to me that we must take advantage of the repositioning of the continent. And why couldn’t we? It was just a matter of perspective. In Europe, the time and the events were providing a magnificent opportunity that was well within our grasp. We would position ourselves as one of the advantages offered by the new Europe: a world-class show from Cirque du Soleil, a forward-looking company setting up a Pan-European tour network. Cirque du Soleil would reap the benefits from the current of change sweeping the continent.

We had encountered a similar situation on our first visit to Atlanta in 1991. The city had just been awarded the Olympic Games. Buoyed by the authorities and the media, the public was basking in the feeling that Atlanta had arrived as an international city. News of our coming was somehow associated with the new status by some opinion leaders in the world of culture and the arts. The local media quickly bought into the idea and people saw our arrival as a foretaste of the cultural events that the city would host during the Olympics… We could hardly have asked for better strategic positioning. We played to sold-out audiences.