An Excerpt from Daniel Lamarre’s Book: How Creativity Turned Cirque du Soleil Into an International Success

In an excerpt from his new book Balancing Acts, the circus’s longtime leader reveals the source of the business magic.

People began bursting into my Montreal office, one after another, with bad news—another city locked down, another show canceled, another border closed. We held emergency meetings, but every decision was outdated by the time the meeting was over. Soon came word that the big casino resorts hosting our long-running Las Vegas shows—“O,” “Mystere,” “The Beatles Love,” “KÀ,” “Michael Jackson One”—were closing indefinitely. With the NBA and Broadway shows already dark, the entire live entertainment industry was being felled by a virus.

In less than a week, our company had to cancel all 44 shows around the world, and revenue plunged from $1 billion a year to zero. The global pandemic of March 2020 had left us, quite literally, without a business. Bankruptcy protection seemed inevitable. As chief executive officer, I knew I had to stay calm. At this terrifying moment, I would need every ounce of tenacity I could muster to save our beloved company.

Today, the sun rises. Cirque du Soleil’s spectacular productions have returned to stages in the U.S. and abroad. Our creditors—seeing the enormous value in our creative output—acquired us in November 2020 by absorbing our debt and investing an additional $375 million.

When the pandemic struck, I was writing a book about creativity in business that made me think long and hard about why our company became so successful after its humble beginnings in 1984 as a ragtag group of local street performers and what companies in other industries might learn from our experience.

During my 21 years at the company, we have expanded by leaps and bounds, with our touring shows reaching 450 cities in over 90 countries. Overall, more than 365 million spectators have seen our productions, and our 15 million tickets sold in 2019 were more than all Broadway shows combined.

How did we achieve such astounding growth? I kept coming back to one word: creativity. By that, I mean the standard dictionary definition of “making or bringing into existence something new.” Which raises the question: How can a company reach the cutting edge and stay there?

First, forget the traditional pyramid structure. That tends to stifle experimentation. We found that employees need smaller, more intimate groups, which we call “innovation cells,” to express themselves openly and play around with new ideas. That’s why we were able to grow so large without compromising quality. We don’t act like a big company.

To maintain our creative edge, we have several cells devoted exclusively to research and development. Our trends group has three full-time employees who search the world for new ideas and talent in music, fashion, architecture, theater, film, games, and more. A larger research department, called Nextasy, selects a few major projects per year to focus on, including new stage technologies and biomechanical breakthroughs that reduce performer injuries. One exciting innovation, developed with Microsoft Corp., is a pair of augmented-reality smartglasses, called HoloLens, that allows our directors to visualize the entire stage before it’s even built.

In establishing a creative culture, how you choose your projects and partners is crucial. Informally, we call our guidelines the Four Criteria, which can apply to any company or industry:

1. Is it a creative challenge? This is the most important question. Ask if your team can get truly excited about a new project. Employee engagement is a huge problem—especially now that workers are quitting their jobs in historic numbers—because managers don’t give them enough reasons to get excited about what they do. A creatively challenged staff is far more productive and works longer hours because they’re deeply engaged.

2. Does our partner share our values? Our greatest partner has been MGM Resorts International, which understands the creative process and has always supported our Las Vegas shows no matter how far-out our ideas or how expensive the theater construction. We’ve mistakenly worked with other resorts that had no interest in the artistic content of our shows. With our values out of alignment, we clashed constantly.

3. Can it make a profit? Although making money is obviously required, we don’t consider it until the first two conditions are met. When we broke this rule—forming partnerships with a casino resort that guaranteed us a profit in exchange for the prestige we conferred—it was a disaster. Almost empty theaters damaged our morale and brand. We should have rejected this deal for the very practical reason that our company has never been driven by a lust for money.

4. Are our partners socially engaged? If the answer is no, we introduce them to causes such as Cirque du Monde, our nonprofit arm that helps at-risk youth. Once our new partners get involved, they are always glad they did.

When Covid-19 hit, we had to quickly repatriate 1,500 cast and crew members stranded in 13 cities before national borders slammed shut. Then we had to find warehouses for almost 500 trucks full of stage equipment. But all that was nothing compared to the trauma of March 19, 2020, when we had to lay off 95% of our 5,000 employees without any idea of when we could rehire them.

During those bleak days, as we went through bankruptcy protection, I was astonished to get a series of calls from blue-chip investors. Despite our crippled state, they were attracted by the tremendous power of our brand and the value of our intellectual property. The winning bid by our creditors put our market value at a stunning $1.28 billion.

That improbable sequence of events illustrates, better than anything else I could say, why creativity is so crucial in business. Now that I’ve moved on from CEO to executive vice chairman of the board, I plan to travel widely to spread my message: Whether you are an executive, an entrepreneur, or a professional, if you aren’t placing a high premium on creativity, you’re wasting your time. No company deserves to exist unless it’s constantly discovering ways to make its customers’ lives better. Simply put, without creativity, there is no business.

Taken from Balancing Acts by Daniel Lamarre Copyright 2022 by Daniel Lamarre.

{ SOURCE: Bloomberg }