Cirque du Soleil’s Daniel Lamarre on How to Put Creativity at the Center of Your Strategy20 min read
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Daniel Lamarre is the executive vice chairman of Cirque du Soleil, a position he took after serving for nearly two decades as the circus and entertainment company’s president and CEO. 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 in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Lamarre in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:
- Reviving the company after a disastrous Covid-inflicted shutdown of Cirque’s operations and painful layoffs.
- His decision to leave a comfortable position as TV network CEO to “run away” and join the circus, and what it taught him about being true to his own values and ambitions.
- The surprisingly analytical side of Cirque, which relentlessly tweaks and perfects its show formulas based on 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. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. 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. And it’s a great, great time to talk about creativity and how we’re going to innovate. So I’m blessed to have the opportunity to talk with you today.
ADI IGNATIUS: Well, thank you. We feel the same way. Just to set context, could you talk a little bit about Cirque du Soleil’s mission and maybe how you came to the 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. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 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. Talk about that, the challenge of taking something that people love, because it is unique and maybe they love because it’s small, taking that brand and making it big.
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. Because if you try to describe a Cirque show, it’s very difficult. You will probably start by saying, it’s not a circus show. It’s not dense, it’s not theatrical. And I would say that it’s a blend of all of that and at the end of the day became a very unique global brand called Cirque du 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 Renée Mauborgne had highlighted Cirque du Soleil as an example of an innovative company. And their whole idea is that you find a blue ocean, an undeveloped market that’s brand new, you create a whole new category. So do you have any advice for people who aren’t in the circus business, how to find an open space that’s not being addressed already by business?
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. I had the opportunity through all those years to observe amazing creators, such as our founder, Guy Laliberté, but also international people like James Cameron and the Beatles, and watching them work has changed my personal and my professional life and really made creativity the forefront of everything I do. And today that’s what I want to do. I want to promote creativity because I take a very radical stand, which is that without creativity, there’s no company, there’s no organization. And I truly believe that.
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. You have to have your core business central in everything you do, and in your environment. In our case, the founder hired me a clown called Madame Zazou, and Madam Zazou became a symbol of what we are. And internally every day I used her to remind our employees what our core business is. I’m not suggesting that everybody is hiring a clown. I’m suggesting that everybody find the right symbol to bring out the core of what they do, a reminder of the purpose they have in life as an 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. But at the end of it, he almost wanted to kind of wipe everybody’s brains clear so that with the next project, they didn’t fall back into, “Well, this is how this company does things.” That there was a freshness with every project. Is that something that you think about as you’re creating 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. I will say to all the administrative staff to stay away from them. I don’t want them to think about some HR policy or some financial issues. I want them to really breathe and sleep and eat, just thinking about making our next show very innovative, very entertaining. And that is very, very important that every show create an entertainment breakthrough. And that’s the challenge I give to the team every time we start a new show
ADI IGNATIUS: And you’ve had an amazing record of success. There are probably some shows that were not a success. Are there one or two examples you could talk about that didn’t work and maybe what you learned from that?
DANIEL LAMARRE: I think it’s very, very important that you understand that you take risk and sometimes you fail. And in our case, I remember we wanted to reinvent Vaudeville as we did with circus. And unfortunately using the brand of Cirque du Soleil was a big mistake because people were expecting to see an acrobatic show. And there was some learnings from that. And we took the time to do the postmortem and to evaluate why it didn’t work. To make my long story short, the reasons why it didn’t work is that we couldn’t bring the brand of Cirque du Soleil on a Vaudeville show. That was counterproductive. And that’s something that we’ve learned and we will always remember, you cannot put your brand on any type of shelves or in some situation or any type of product or services. So be very, 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.
So you’re talking about creativity, encouraging creativity, sustaining it. I’m sure there are people watching this who say, “Yeah, okay, fine. This is a circus company. I work for nothing that exciting.” How is your message relevant to the large number of viewers we have who don’t happen to be in the circus business?
DANIEL LAMARRE: We are blessed because Cirque du Soleil is a creative powerhouse. But my point is more fundamental than that. My point is, it doesn’t matter for what company or what organization you are working. You cannot use an excuse that you’re not creative enough. If you’re not creative enough, it’s because you are not putting that priority in the forefront.
I can challenge anybody in any type of organization. You can be creative in your employees’ communication. You can be creative in your marketing. Most importantly, you can be creative in redesigning and innovating the way you are shaping your new products or your new services.
There is no excuse. Creativity has to be at the forefront, because if you don’t do that, then one day you will wake up and you will discover that your competitors have an edge on you and then you’re in trouble. So don’t wait for that. Just make sure that you are nurturing your creativity within the organization to keep your edge, to keep your leadership in whatever sector you are.
ADI IGNATIUS: You’re drumming up all that creativity within and trying to bring it out and celebrate it. How do you bring in the voice of the customer, of the consumer, as you’re in this creative mindset?
DANIEL LAMARRE: People will be surprised to see how an organization like us is so analytical. Every night, every show, we are asking the customer to react. And if for whatever reason we see that there is an act that is not liked as much as the others, we’re just going to take it out and we’re just going to replace it by a better act.
So it’s very, very important that you are listening all the time. Listening to your customer in priority, but also listening to your employees. You have to send a clear signal to your employees that you are on the lookout all the time for new ideas, new suggestions. And that’s what we’re trying to do here at Cirque, is listen to our customer, but also listen to our employees and mobilize them behind the mission, mobilize them behind our new shows that we also share the credit when we have a big success.
ADI IGNATIUS: There’s a passage in your book where you talk about when Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque, brought you into the company and you were already very successful in the PR and events business. And I think it was your parents who thought, “What? Run away and joined the circus?” Talk about how do we make these big life-changing decisions? How did you make that decision and what can we learn from that?
DANIEL LAMARRE: Obviously my parents, even my wife at the time, were not really excited about me leaving my job. I was the CEO of a TV network, and they were very proud of that. And the one thing that triggers the change is when Guy Laliberté said, “Daniel, I read that you wanted to be international, and it won’t happen to you with this Canadian TV network. If you want to be international, you have to join a circus.” And that was the trigger for me.
So you have to be true to your value and through your ambition. And even if it was a tough decision for me to join the circus, it was an easy decision when I learned and I realized that to become international, that was the right platform. And then after that, everything became clearer for me, and obviously I never regret that because I had the opportunity with Guy to travel the world and promote this most important global brand.
And I strongly suggest that when you are in front of a new opportunity, you should think about what’s your ambition. Where do you want to be five years from now? And I guess the answer will become clearer and your decision process will be much easier.
ADI IGNATIUS: That’s great advice. Let’s fast forward. You have this period of sensational growth, expansion, and then COVID hits and live performances are not possible. Obviously the company is hit hard. You end up with a new investor structure. So can you talk about how you survived that period and where the company is now?
DANIEL LAMARRE: That was a nightmare. That was the toughest period in my life, and I know it was for a lot of people in different sectors. 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.
So imagine the meeting. You’re meeting with the bankers, you have to tell them, “I have no revenues. I have no shows. And by the way, I need $375 million more to sustain the relaunch of our company.”
The only reasons why I got their support and why I’m here now so happy about the outcome is the strength of the brand. It’s the brand that saved the company, because the bankers were convinced that the brand will make this company successful after the crisis, and that’s exactly what happened.
ADI IGNATIUS: I’m going to go to some audience questions. And George, who is watching on YouTube, asks how creativity can be implemented in our own lives, in our personal lives? What personal strategies can we follow to unlock that kind of creativity that you talked about?
DANIEL LAMARRE: I think it’s important that we’re beasts of habit, and that’s what you have to fight first. You have to do things differently all the time and you have to find ways to be inspired by reading more, by visiting events, by talking to inspiring people.
People that I had the opportunity to meet, like the Beatles and James Cameron and others, have changed my life because they brought me some fresh air. They brought me some new ways of seeing lives. And kill your habits, think differently and make your life much more fun by meeting people that are inspiring, by reading more. And at the end, which is also very, very important, spend the time to reflect. We don’t spend enough time reflecting and I strongly suggest that you do. And that’s what I’ve learned and that’s why my life now is fulfilled by more creativity. But at the end of it, much more fun.
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. Talk a little bit about the process of getting the Beatles and their representatives to agree, which was pretty 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. And it took me two years of my life negotiating with them because it was not about money. It was about making sure that we will respect their brand. And after spending quite a bit of time with the four of them, including Yoko at the time, we showed them respect by working the creative process side by side with them and not positioning ourselves as the salesman of their intellectual property, but we position ourself as true creative partners. And that’s why at the end of ethe day, it ended up being an amazing adventure. Not only did we loved it, but so did they, because they understood that we were two creative power forces that could work together and make something fantastic. And that’s why I’m so proud of that achievement.
ADI IGNATIUS: In the book there’s more detail, more granular detail about that process. Two people have asked pretty much the same question. How do you filter ideas? What is the creative process to pick a show idea, to decide the theme of the next show or shows that you’re considering?
DANIEL LAMARRE: We have a very specific creative process. It starts with three people. It starts with the director of the show, the creative director and the production director. And we give them a general mandate about what we are looking for in term of the new show. The three of them come to us and present to us a first synopsis of what the show should be. And then when we agree to the general concept of the new show, then we will add to that three person team probably 17 more, like costume designer, music designer, set designer, 20 people all together, working together to define the exact content of the show.
One thing that is very, very important in that process is we have regular checkpoints to make sure that the mandate we give them at the beginning of the process is respected all along, and they’re not losing themselves with other directions than the one we’re hoping for. It’s an organic process. It takes between 18 to 24 months to come to fruition from the day you start to the day of the opening. And we’re very respectful of time because it takes time to produce a good show, as it takes time to develop a new product, a new service. And that’s our process.
ADI IGNATIUS: When Cirque du Soleil was first out there, it was so different from anything we’d seen and it was amazing. Is it harder now to impress people since you’ve already stretched the envelope so much? Do they want more, more, more? Is it harder to impress them now?
DANIEL LAMARRE: It is. It is because the expectations are much higher. That’s why we have a huge challenge to remain relevant. And the way to do that is by investing a lot in research and development. And that’s what we do. We work in collaboration with a lot of universities around the world. We work with big companies, such as Samsung and Microsoft and others. We are in the lookout all the time, not only for new ideas, but for new technologies.
Human performance will remain the core of what we do, but we will expand in new digital platforms. We will expand on new technologies that are going to enhance the human performance. But it’s an ongoing challenge and you cannot be complacent and think that the formula you have right now will last forever because it won’t. You have to reinvent yourself all the time and that’s our biggest challenge, yes.
ADI IGNATIUS: Richard in Italy has a question that really asks about what you just said about new digital platforms. Do you have any plans to perform in the metaverse?
DANIEL LAMARRE: It’s a world obviously, it’s a universe, that we are definitely exploring as we’re going through right now. One thing I want to be clear, we will remain a live entertainment organization because that’s what we are great at doing. But on the other hand, through the crisis, we have developed a platform called Cirque Connect that has allowed us to keep our brand alive by showing different content on Cirque Connect. So now we’re going to go through metaverse and other technologies, other types of platforms that are available to us, and then we will have to define what kind of artistic content we’re going to bring there to remain very, very relevant to that new universe of technology. And yes, that’s something we are definitely going to explore.
ADI IGNATIUS: All right, we will watch this space. By the way, I love the fact that we’re getting questions from quite literally all over the world. And here’s one from Finland, from Jerry. Ultimately, how do you measure success?
DANIEL LAMARRE: First and foremost, we have the NPS, which is the net promoter scores. Say simply what we measure is, “Are you going to recommend our show to your friends and family?” And that satisfaction level is very, very important. And that’s something that we measure. So the first criteria, the most important one is the satisfaction of our customer. Then is how it impacts on the brand. Is your brand declining, or is your brand growing? And that’s something we measure on a regular basis. And obviously the financial impact is also important because you need to be profitable if you want to remain alive, but if you want to have the right financial resources to make sure that you can continue to invest in new shows. Those are the three criteria that we look the most.
ADI IGNATIUS: Jacqueline, who was watching on YouTube, notes that you said you share the credit when there’s a success. So her question is, what happens when there’s a failure or things don’t go as well? How do you process that with your teams?
DANIEL LAMARRE: At the end of the day, if you’re the CEO of the company, you are responsible for the failures. You have to tell to the group that that’s first and foremost your failure, that you accept it, but more importantly, that you’re going to learn from it. Then you invite them to learn from it as well. And that’s why it’s important you have to go to a postmortem, a good evaluation to define what we are going to learn from that failure. And you have to understand that you have to take risk all the time. You have to mitigate risk. You have to measure risk. But you cannot be afraid of taking risk because you had one failure. Yes, you have to have more success than failures if you want to remain alive, but you should take the time it takes to learn from your failure.
ADI IGNATIUS: Other than your book, are there any other good books you can suggest on this topic of creativity?
DANIEL LAMARRE: Yeah. There is a book obviously of Catmull that you talk about. I think it’s a great one, the guy from Pixar. I would also recommend to read the book from Bob Iger, from Disney. I think it’s a great book as well. Those two books put a lot of pressure on me because they were really, really great with two amazing organizations.
ADI IGNATIUS: In a similar vein, here’s a question from Julia from Boston: who inspires you?
DANIEL LAMARRE: A lot of people inspire me, obviously our founder Guy Laliberte, but also a guy like James Cameron. I was so, so rewarded to work with him on the live show that we did about Avatar. I was impressed by his intellectual curiosity. When he came to visit our creative center here in Montreal, I thought he will stay for an hour, he stayed for four hours because he wanted to know everything about our creative process. When Elon Musk went to visit our show, Kurios, in Los Angeles, he stayed three hours after the show, same attitude. He wanted to know everything about the technology we use, everything else. So the kind of people that are very, very impactful in our world, I’ve learned in watching them that the intellectual curiosity is probably something that had really inspired me to be now more focused and more curious when I have the opportunity to meet with people like that.
ADI IGNATIUS: Omar in Egypt asked how do you envision the future of entertainment, not just Cirque du Soleil, but more generally the future of entertainment in the next 10, 15, 20 years?
DANIEL LAMARRE: There are two schools of thought. One is saying, the future is only going to be through technology, new platforms and live entertainment is going to be absolute. The other school of thought is after the crisis, people understand now that it’s also important that you are going to see shows with real human beings. I personally believe that the two schools of thought are good. There will be more and more artistic content on new platforms, but I think live shows will remain a very, very popular form of entertainment, and that’s why we’re pursuing both at the same time in order to benefit from the new platforms, but remain a creative force for live artistic content.
ADI IGNATIUS: Not everyone on your team is a creative, and there’s a question from Shahid on LinkedIn, how do you balance? You’ve got the creative people and you’re always talking about them, but some of your stars are operational people working quietly to make sure things happen. How do you balance that?
DANIEL LAMARRE: Obviously, it’s a challenge today because creativity is at the forefront of who we are and we are perceived as a creative force, but the reality is we’re also logistically amazing because we tour with 150 people for each show around the world with 50 trucks of equipment, and in each city, you have to be local because we are a retail outlet in a city for two to three months. So those people are very, very important, and you are right in saying that we have to spend also the time to recognize their contribution to the success of the show, because they are integral in the success of the show. It’s more like an internal challenge than an external challenge, but we’re doing that. We’re doing that because they deserve our credit. I always say, today is the employees’ night in Montreal where we’re going to show our new show to our employees, and that’s the kind of event that we use to, again, thank our employees for their contribution to the success of the show wherever they are in our organization.
ADI IGNATIUS: We talk a lot about what the proper role of a CEO is, with a complex company, and we have a question from Sri Lanka about when you were CEO, how did you spend your time? How did you spend your day? What were your priorities?
DANIEL LAMARRE: The good news is I had a great team and because I had a great team, it allowed me to be able to focus on mobilizing our employees. I think that’s the number one responsibility of the CEO, because if the employees don’t believe in what you do, you’re bound to fail. So that was my number one priority is I love to go and walk in the building and go to the studio and meet with people, and more importantly, listen to them, because you learn a lot by listening to your employees. You go in a city where we’re presenting a show, our employees have been there for a month. They know more about what’s happening in that city than I do from my office in Montreal.
That’s something I spend a great deal of time of doing. Then after that, obviously reviewing the business model and spending a lot of time in the new business and new shows development, because this is very, very important. But again, nothing more important than mobilizing your employees behind your new priorities, behind your new objectives.
ADI IGNATIUS: Can you give us a hint about your next show?
DANIEL LAMARRE: First of all, I have to tell you that I’m very, very proud of our new show at Disney in Orlando, because we played with the intellectual property of Disney, that was a tribute to the animation of Disney, and this is a great show. We’re also working right now on two new shows. One is going to be about music. That’s going to be an arena show that is very impressive, and our new big top shows, we are going to shake up the entire environment within the tent that I hope is going to bring the customer experience to a new level.
ADI IGNATIUS: All right. So we’ve gone over time a little bit. There are a lot more questions, but I think we have to wrap this up, but Daniel Lamarre, thank you very, very much for being on the New World of Work.
DANIEL LAMARRE: Thank you to you. That was an honor to be here. Thank you very much.