Cirque du Soleil was forced to deal with the worst case scenario during the pandemic. Executive vice chairman Daniel Lamarre says that it was the most difficult time in his life. “[I]n my case, within 48 hours, I came from 44 shows to zero shows, went from a billion dollars of revenues to zero revenue. And my purpose in life, I took great pride in creating jobs for artists, and then I end up in a situation where I had to let go, not only 2,000 artists, but all of our 5,000 employees. That was a disaster, and for 15 months, I was struggling to make sure that the company can remain alive.” But keep it alive he did. Adi Ignatius, HBR Editor, spoke to him about creativity and why it was so important to place it at the heart of every corporate strategy.
Daniel Lamarre, who has been the president and CEO of Cirque du Soleil for almost two decades, is the executive vice chair of Cirque du Soleil. He is the author of, Balancing Acts: Unleashing the Power of Creativity in Your Life and Work, which describes how others can unleash Cirque’s creative management techniques, even if they’re not in the business of clowns and acrobats.
HBR editor chief Adi Ignatius sat with Lamarre to discuss
in this episode of our videoseries “The New World of Work “.
- Reviving the company after a disastrous Covid-inflicted shutdown of Cirque’s operations and painful layoffs.
- His decision as a TV network CEO to “runaway” to join the circus and what it taught him about staying true to his values and ambitions.
- The surprisingly analytical side to Cirque, which constantly tweaks and improves its show formulas on the basis of continuous audience feedback.
“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. In a newsletter for HBR subscribers, he also gives an inside view of these conversations and invites questions. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.
ADI IGNATIUS: Daniel, welcome to the show.
DANIEL LAMARRE: I’m so happy and honored to meet you today. It’s a wonderful, great opportunity to discuss creativity and how we will innovate. It’s a blessing to be able to speak with you today.
ADI IGNATIUS: Well, thank you. We feel the exact same way. To give context, could you tell us a bit about Cirque du Soleil’s mission? And how you got to this company?
DANIEL LAMARRE: This company started with a bunch of street performers begging at the corner of the street and, move forward 10 years later, I had the opportunity to join the company when I thought the brand was ready to explode globally. That’s exactly what I have been doing for the past two decades.
ADI IGNATIUS: You come to Cirque du Soleil, it has a mission, it has some initial success, but as you said, you’re trying to develop it, to scale it, to blow it up globally. It’s the challenge of creating a brand that people love and that they can take to great heights.
DANIEL LAMARRE: And two famous teachers from your school, from Harvard, have described it in their Blue Ocean Strategy as we have developed a new category of show and I truly believe that’s what happened and that’s how we’ve been successful. It’s difficult to describe a Cirque show. It’s not a circus show, you will most likely start by saying that. It’s not dense and it’s certainly not theatrical. It’s a mix of all that, and it became a unique global brand called Cirque de Soleil.
ADI IGNATIUS: We were talking before the show, and I said that my family fell in love with Cirque du Soleil, we were living in Hong Kong and we saw a couple of shows, and couldn’t believe them. This would’ve been in the 1990s. It was, as you say, such a departure. You mentioned that the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne had highlighted Cirque du Soleil as an example of an innovative company. Their whole idea is to find a new market, a blue ocean. Do you have any tips for those who aren’t in the circus industry, on how to find open spaces that aren’t being occupied by businesses?
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DANIEL LAMARRE: And really, the motivation for me to write a book was that I was motivated to promote creativity because that’s what I’ve learned. Having the chance to see amazing creators like Guy Laliberte (our founder), but also people from other countries such as James Cameron and The Beatles has made my professional and personal life so much easier. It’s helped me put creativity at the forefront of all I do. Today, that’s exactly what I want. Because creativity is my passion, I believe that there can be no business without it. That is what I believe.
ADI IGNATIUS: How do you manage creativity?
DANIEL LAMARRE: First and foremost I think it’s very important that you create an environment that nurtures creativity. Your core business must be central to everything you do and the environment in which you live. Madame Zazou was a clown that my founder had hired to represent who we were. Every day, I used her internally to remind our employees our core business. I’m not saying that everyone should hire a clown. I suggest that everyone find the right symbol to represent the essence of their work, reminding them of the purpose of their organization.
ADI IGNATIUS: So Ed Catmull, who was the very successful creative leader at Pixar for years, he was similar to you trying to unleash extraordinary innovation and creativity with each movie. He almost wanted to wipe everyone’s heads clean so they wouldn’t go back to “Well, that’s how this company does it.” But he did. That was the point. Every project had a newness. Do you ever think about that when you create new shows?
DANIEL LAMARRE: First and foremost, I don’t think of Cirque du Soleil as a hierarchy organization, and that’s why every time we produce a new show, I will create a cell with all of our creators and artists. All administrative staff should be told to get away from me. They shouldn’t be thinking about financial or HR policies. They should be able to breathe, sleep, and eat while thinking about how they can make our next show innovative and entertaining. It is vital that every show has an entertainment breakthrough. That’s my challenge to the team each time we launch a new show
ADI IGNATIUS: And you’ve had an amazing record of success. You’re not the only one who has had a failure. Do you have any examples that you can share about shows that failed? What lessons did you learn from them?
DANIEL LAMARRE: I think it’s very, very important that you understand that you take risk and sometimes you fail. In our case, we wanted to reimagine Vaudeville just like we did with circus. Unfortunately, Cirque du Soleil’s brand was misappropriated. People were expecting an acrobatic show. There were some lessons learned from this. We took the time to review the failures and do a postmortem. The reason it didn’t succeed is because we couldn’t bring Cirque du Soleil to a Vaudeville performance. This was counterproductive. We have learned that your brand cannot be placed on any type or situation, or any type or product of services. Be very respectful of your brand.
ADI IGNATIUS: You can stretch your brand, but you don’t want to stretch it so far that it’s not who you are.
We’re talking creativity, encouraging creativity and sustaining it. There are many people who will be watching this and say, “Yeah. Okay. This is a circus. “I work for nothing that is exciting.” How relevant is your message to the many viewers who aren’t in the circus industry?
DANIEL LAMARRE: We are blessed because Cirque du Soleil is a creative powerhouse. My point is deeper than that. It doesn’t matter where you work or for what company. It is not possible to say that you aren’t creative enough. It’s not because you don’t prioritize creativity enough.
I can challenge anyone in any organization. Your employees can communicate creatively. Marketing can be creative. You can also be innovative in the way that you design and develop your products or services.
There is no excuse. You can’t afford to not be creative. Don’t wait. To keep your leadership position in any sector, you need to ensure that your organization nurtures your creativity.
ADI IGNATIUS: You’re drumming up all that creativity within and trying to bring it out and celebrate it. As you are in this creative state, how do you get the customer’s voice and celebrate it?
DANIEL LAMARRE: People will be surprised to see how an organization like us is so analytical. We ask the customer how they feel every night. If we find that one act isn’t liked, we will take it out and replace it with a better one.
It is very important to listen all the time. Listening to customers is important, but so is listening to employees. Your employees must know that you are always open to new ideas and suggestions. Cirque is trying to listen to its customers, but also listen and mobilize our employees behind the mission. We also share the credit for our big successes when they are a success.
ADI IGNATIUS: There’s a passage in your book where you talk about when Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque, brought you into the company and you were already very successful in the PR and events business. Your parents thought, “What?” How do you make big life-changing decisions like this? What lessons can you learn from this decision?
DANIEL LAMARRE: Obviously my parents, even my wife at the time, were not really excited about me leaving my job. They were proud that I was the CEO for a TV network. Guy Laliberte’s comment, “Daniel,” that he had read was that you wanted to become an international TV network. It won’t happen with this Canadian television network. You have to join a circus if you want to become international.” That was what triggered me.
Be true to yourself and your goals. Even though it was difficult for me to decide to join the circus, I was able to learn quickly and realized that this was the right platform to make my dream come true. Then, it all became crystal clear for me. I will never regret that I was able to travel the globe with Guy and help promote this important global brand.
I strongly recommend that you think about your goals when you’re presented with a new opportunity. What do you see yourself as five years from now, and where would that take you? The answer will be clearer, and you will find it much easier to make a decision.
ADI IGNATIUS: That’s great advice. Let’s move on. This is the period of explosive growth and expansion. Then COVID hits hit and live performances become impossible. The company is obviously hit hard. The company is eventually saved by a new investor structure. Can you tell us about your experience and where the company is at this point?
DANIEL LAMARRE: That was a nightmare. It was one of the most difficult periods in my life. I’m sure it was for many people from different industries. But in my case, within 48 hours, I came from 44 shows to zero shows, went from a billion dollars of revenues to zero revenue. And my purpose in life, I took great pride in creating jobs for artists, and then I end up in a situation where I had to let go, not only 2,000 artists, but all of our 5,000 employees. That was a disaster, and for 15 months, I was struggling to make sure that the company can remain alive.
Now imagine the meeting. When you meet with bankers, tell them that you don’t have any revenues. I have no shows. And by the way, I need $375 million more to sustain the relaunch of our company.”
The strength of the brand is what made me so happy that I was able to get their support. Because the bankers believed that the brand would make the company succeed after the crisis, it was the brand that saved them.
ADI IGNATIUS: I’m going to go to some audience questions. George is on YouTube and asks how creativity can work in our lives. Which personal strategies can you suggest to help us unlock the creativity that you spoke of?
DANIEL LAMARRE: I think it’s important that we’re beasts of habit, and that’s what you have to fight first. It’s important to think differently every day. You need to read more, attend events, and talk to inspirational people.
People I met, such as the Beatles or James Cameron, have made a huge difference in my life. They gave me fresh air and have made a big impact on my outlook. They gave me new perspectives on life. You can change your thinking and have fun. Meet people who inspire you by reading more. It is very important to take the time to reflect at the end. It is not enough to reflect. I strongly recommend it. That’s what I have learned, and it’s why my life is filled with more creativity. It’s also much more enjoyable at the end.
ADI IGNATIUS: We take for granted now that there is a Cirque Beatles show in Las Vegas and that it’s amazing and so many of us have seen it. Let’s talk about how you got the Beatles and their representatives on board. It was quite difficult.
DANIEL LAMARRE: For many, many years, all the live entertainment companies were chasing the Beatles to do a show with their catalog, their music catalog, and nobody succeeded. It was not about money. I spent two years negotiating with them. I