Think:Act Magazine "The Circus of Transformation"
Behind the scenes at Cirque du Soleil
Former CEO Daniel Lamarre on creating a path-breaking business in a legacy industry and managing a creative enterprise
by Neelima Mahajan
Photos by Guillaume Simoneau, Anne Colliard, Matt Beard, Olivier Brajon
No circus acts come close to Cirque du Soleil. Extravagant scenes, exquisite costumes, gravity defying acrobatics and specially composed music scores. When Cirque began in 1984, it was an outlier. It was attempting to do something unheard of in what was considered a dying industry, and it very well could have failed. But it didn’t. It blazed its own trail and, in the process, it created an entirely new category within the circus industry, attracting academics like W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne who profiled the company as a case in their wildly successful book, Blue Ocean Strategy.
Daniel Lamarre, who had the privilege of steering the company for nearly two decades as CEO and now as Executive Vice-Chairman of the board, knows a thing or two about the chutzpah you need for pulling off something as ambitious as Cirque. Recently he wrote a book titled Balancing Acts, where he elaborated on what he learnt from leading Cirque. In this interview with Think:Act, Lamarre shares his learnings on managing a creative enterprise, walking the tightrope between creative ambition and business demands, and bouncing back from an extreme setback, in this case, the pandemic which brought Cirque du Soleil to a grinding halt. Excerpts:
How do you envision something completely different when there's so much history, tradition and status quo in the industry you're operating in?
It’s important to have a strong desire and a vision to create something different. We wanted to reinvent the way artistic content is presented in circus. In the past, you just had some human performance, one after the other and there was no storytelling. You didn’t have original music for the show, sophisticated costumes, scenography and dance. It's a blend of all those elements that has helped us create a new category of shows. But it started with a passion that we could reinvent circus art and bring it to the next level.
What gave you the confidence to launch yourself into this completely unknown category?
It's important to recognize danger, but you don't have to be scared. You have to be confident without being arrogant. And you have to believe in what you're doing. The only way that we could remain relevant is by always surprising people with new ways of presenting our shows.
When you have this need to surprise all the time and you have established norms, how do you decide which parts of tradition to keep and which parts to do away with?
We never throw away anything or anybody. When people come to Cirque du Soleil, they are expecting a high level of human performance. That's what we have to deliver. In a world where there are more and more new technologies and visual effects, we bring new technologies that will enhance human performance. Human performance remains the core of what we present, but we modernize it all the time by bringing new technologies.
How do you see your own role at Cirque de Soleil? An orchestrator of sorts?
My role is to create the best possible conditions for people to be creative. I have to create an environment that is creative and then people can feel empowered that they can really push the boundaries of their own creativity by bringing new ideas.
To do that, you have to be open to employees’ ideas all the time, because creativity is not exclusive to our shows. Creativity has to be a day-to-day activity within Cirque because we have all the time to review the way we do business, the way we do our shows, the way we deal with our employees, the way we deal with the business community. Creativity has to be embedded in everything we do.
In all your years managing Cirque what have you learned about managing creative people?
Artists by definition are very sensitive and they see the world differently. They are really touched by everything happening around them. You have to recognize their sensitivity because that's why they make great shows. You have to make sure that they are surrounded with less administrative things to do and focus 100% on delivering artistic content.
Daniel Lamarre is Executive Vice-Chairman of the board at Cirque du Soleil and was President CEO of the company for over two decades. He joined Cirque du Soleil in 2001 at the request of company founder Guy Laliberté. During his tenure as CEO, Lamarre made the company a global success and oversaw complex projects with The Beatles and the Michael Jackson estate to produce highly acclaimed shows such as The Beatles Love and One (based on Michael Jackson’s life and work). He is the author of Balancing Acts: Unleashing the Power of Creativity in Your Life and Work.
As a leader, how do you walk the tightrope to bring a creative idea to life but not let it get stifled by normal business constraints, such as the budget?
That's why the title of my book is Balancing Acts: I have to find the right balance between business constraints and the creative ambition. If I would listen 100% to our creators, we would never have enough budget to do our shows. And if I only listen to our business side, I would bring so many constraints on our creators that they couldn't do what they have to do. It’s my job to keep a balance between the ambition of the creators and the need to make it a profitable business venture.
People have to understand that in our business the show comes first. A great show means a great business. If you don't have a good show, you have no business. You can avoid disappointment by empowering both sides of the organization together. When we develop new shows, there is always a tradeoff because sometimes businesspeople are pushing to have more technologies which cost more and then they will be supportive to maybe invest a little bit of money to be more successful. On the other hand, the creators will be willing to do a little bit of compromise on stuff that is not crucial for the success of the show in order to have more money to do something else in the show that they need.
The only way to be successful is by bringing the two sides together to decide what's best for the content of the show. Because you can spend a lot of money and the audience will never notice. I always say the same thing: Are you sure that the money you're asking for is going to be seen on stage? That for me, is the main criteria to accept the budget.
You have hinted a number of times that Cirque du Soleil must never be boring. How do you ensure creative renewal?
The creative process is what makes it new all the time. The directors of our shows are always different. They come from outside of Cirque and they bring their own personal signatures to make the next show distinctive and different from previous shows. They're surrounded with key creators from Cirque who bring to the outside directors all the tools that they need to be able to direct a new show. The second thing is R&D. People will be surprised to see how much we invest in R&D even if we're not a huge corporation and we don't have an infinite budget. We compensate for our lack of financial resources by partnering: we've been partnering with Microsoft, Samsung and 11 universities.
You say that to be creative is to make yourself vulnerable. Why?
You have to accept to take risk and you have to accept that you will fail. The important thing is you have to have more successes than failures. Every time there was a failure, we learned from it. In a show a few years back, we invested a lot of money to develop a huge electric horse. At first rehearsal, we discovered that it wouldn't work and people said: ‘Are we going to throw it?’ I said: 'No, we're going to expose it in our creative department because I want people to know that you are allowed to fail.’ All the technology from the horse we're using in another show in a different manner. It has allowed us to create something else and we should be able to recycle a bad idea and turn it into a great idea.
When you are small, it's very easy to be unique. But when you operate at scale, how do you preserve your uniqueness?
We isolate the creative team of each new show from everything else in the company. I want them to spend 100% of their time eating, sleeping and breathing about the content of the new show. I don't want them to be bogged down with administrative, HR or finance stuff. By isolating every little show ‘cell’, they don't have the feeling that they work in a very large organization.
How do you handle stars in the team?
We're totally against this idea of ‘star’. The show is the star. The show is the result of a collective effort of a lot of creators and artists that are putting their heart and soul in creating the best potential shows.
You have 5,000 employees from 49 countries and you dip into a pool of 300,000 artists from your database. So you have this organizational culture which itself is made up of multicultural people. And then you have elements of culture also coming from external artists who join your shows from time to time. How do you maintain the same culture across the board?
If you walk into the cafeteria of Cirque du Soleil, you will feel that you are at United Nations because there are people from all over the world. We don't talk about diversity. We have so many nationalities represented within the organization. This is one of the key strengths of our organization because having people coming from different countries with different values, with different cultures, brings a creative brain that is much bigger than my own little brain. I can feed myself to being open to so many cultures that it brings me a mosaic of so many different ideas.
The artistic content of Cirque is so rich because it has been influenced by so many people around the world and I truly believe that's the main reason why we have been able to create a global brand.
Covid brought your business to a grinding halt, and you had to lay off 95% of the staff. How did you emerge from this huge setback?
Within 48 hours, we went from a billion dollars of revenue to zero, from 44 shows to zero. Within 48 hours, the organization had been totally shut down.
We had to let go of all our employees. We were three people in the building: myself, the finance guy and the legal guy. We spent 15 months talking with accountants, lawyers, bankers. But we were driven by the idea that the brand is so strong that whenever the pandemic will be over, we will rebound and in order to really keep contact with our employees even at the time they were no longer technically our employees, we treated them like they were. We stayed in touch with them by saying, ‘Guys, we're going to rebound. Be ready. So don't stay on your couch, continue to train, remain in shape.’
That was probably the best investment we did because when we reopened our shows, we thought it would take six months to reopen every single show. But because our artists were so in shape, it took us only two months per show, which has allowed us to go back to the same level of shows after 16 months. That was the main reason why we have been able to resurrect so quickly and be back with a very strong global brand.
Another fallout of the pandemic was all the artists you had to let go of and how your relationship with them changed: some wanted more autonomy. How do the dynamics of your relationships with artists work now? And as internal dynamics change within the organization – such as your relationship with the artists – how do you keep the external image, brand offering and the customer experience the same as before?
First, you have to distinguish very clearly what you do internally and what you project externally. Because when you diversify internally, it brings a lot of changes with your organization. When you promote that externally, it's very important that your customer is not touched by your own personal burden. All they should have is what they see on stage or what they see on the platforms, and that's where keeping the focus on the customer to see what they need to see – which is the end product. How we do it, it's our own responsibility internally.