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Leadership

EPISODE

26

Creativity with Cirque du Soleil Executive Daniel Lamarre

Creativity with Cirque du Soleil Executive Daniel Lamarre

When McKinsey looked at the financial results of companies whose Award Creativity Scores were in the top quartile, they found they performed better than peer firms on three key measures, one of them being that 67 percent had above-average organic revenue growth.

The absence of creativity poses a significant problem for businesses as it hampers innovation, a key driver of growth. Despite today's emphasis on data-driven strategies, sidelining creativity stifles a company's ability to innovate and succeed in a competitive market. To address this issue, businesses should focus on specific practices: prioritizing creativity in daily operations, fostering a deep understanding of customer needs beyond traditional methods, embracing agility to swiftly act on insights, and continuously adapting based on market feedback. 

By implementing these practices, companies can create an environment conducive to fostering creativity, thereby driving innovation and sustaining business growth in today's dynamic business landscape.

Our guest today is a genius at transforming creativity into unparalleled riches, Executive Vice-Chairman of the Board at Cirque du Soleil, Daniel Lamarre.

Daniel, thank you so much for being with us today.

Daniel Lamarre: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk about my favorite topic, Cirque du Soleil.

Could you share a pivotal moment or story from your journey and co-creating Cirque du Soleil that reflects the importance of creativity in business?

Daniel Lamarre (01:38): First of all, what when I joined the organization, in 2000, that company was ready to emerge, and the brand was ready to explode internationally. And my contribution to the creativity of the company was to take the creativity that was already well located within our show department, and nurture this creativity throughout the entire organization, because that was important for me that you're not only creative, when you produce a new show, but you have to be creative, whatever you do in the organization. 

It doesn't matter if you work in human resources, or finance or legal, you can always be creative by bringing in new ways of doing what you do in life. And that's why I often say to people, that doesn't matter in what sector of activity you are working, you have to be creative. 

How did you spark that creativity, when you came into the company in 2000? 

Daniel Lamarre  (02:42): Yeah, I tried to send a clear signal to the team. I remember one day the Vice President of Creation walked in my office, and he was very excited. And he says, Danielle, you won't believe this. There is this teacher in Switzerland, that as invented a drone that we can use in our new shows. And I look at him and I said, What are you doing in my office? And he says, Daniel, you don't like my idea? I said, I love your idea.

But take the next plane to Switzerland, meet with this teacher and bring back the drone, because that will be awesome to have it in our new show. 

Guess what, an hour later, everybody in the building knew that I have said, and that's the way by sending a clear signal to your people, that you are open to new ideas. That's how you can nurture creativity within your organization.

In your experience, what are the key factors that differentiate companies that successfully leverage creativity from those that struggle to do so? 

Daniel Lamarre (04:02): First thing is to be open to new idea. I'll give you an example. For instance, Kodak. Kodak at the time, knew and they had the digital technology. But guess what? He says, No, no, no, no, no, no, never, ever, ever will people watch photographs on their telephone. People have to have paper to have their album of photographs. Guess what? Kodak doesn't exist anymore. And at the other spectrum of creativity, you have a company like Apple that never stop reinventing themselves. 

And to me, I like to say to people without creativity, there is no business. And I truly believe that because if you take a show of Cirque du Soleil if you have a great show you have a great business. If you don't have a good show, you have no business.

Felicia Shakiba  (05:05): And I can see how that moves into other industries. Even a FinTech company, constantly reinventing itself, like a Cirque du Soleil show, if you will. Apple, I thought was a great example. I know that Cirque du Soleil is known for its unique blend of artistry and business acumen.

How do you balance creativity and commercial success within the company? 

Daniel Lamarre  (05:34): Yeah, obviously, it is a balancing act, as I like to say, because on one end, you have the creators that never have enough money, they could spend forever. On the other end, you have the business people that say that we are investing too much money in a new show. So what's important is that the creators, the team that is developing a new show, understand what are the business parameters. 

And if you define clearly with the entire team, what those parameters are, then you at the end of it, established a sandbox within which our careers can work. So I will tell them, you will have total freedom within that sandbox, but you have to respect the business parameters that we have, because otherwise, it won't work. 

What does that include? Does that include a timeline or budget? Or how do you set those parameters? 

Daniel Lamarre  (06:45): Yeah, first and foremost, you have to give a very clear mandate to your artists and creators. So you have to be very specific about the timing, the budget, but also about what kind of music you're looking for, what kind of costume you're looking for. So that when you do your check in, that is happening every second month, the game is very clear for everybody, they know what we're going to be looking for, what we're going to evaluate in the end product that they're going to present to us.

So having clear and specific parameters. And then being able to tell people you're free to do it within those parameters provides that balance of creativity, and structure in order to move forward in a business with the business acumen, is what you're saying.

Daniel Lamarre: That's what I'm saying. Exactly.

And so what advice would you offer to CEOs or executives looking to infuse creativity into their strategies to stand out and outperform their competitors?

Daniel Lamarre (07:58): I think it's very important that they define clearly the mandate, and they also communicate it to their team. And then if the vision is very, very clear, then it will be much easier for the team to execute based on the vision that we are looking for. You have to have also a very clear, creative process. So you have to make your team understanding that, here's the mandate, come back to us with a concept. Let's have regular check point, when we are going to evaluate the kind of progress that you are doing. 

And that's to me is very, very important with very clear KPI. It's very, very important also, that creators artists are measured, maybe in a different way. But that are measured, like any other people in any other services within the organization are measured. 

The other thing, it might sound a little bit funny, but to me, it's very important is you also have to celebrate success. It's very important that when you have a success, in our case, having a great show that is working, that you pay tribute to the team that brought that success to the company. 

And by the same token, you also have to be able to understand failures.

Having a failure is part of life. And it's not that bad to have the failure if you learn from your failure.

What is very bad is if you have a failure, that you try to hide it under the carpet and ignore it. And in our situation we like to take the time to understand if we have a failure - what we did.

Again, if you want to be relevant, not only tomorrow, but then five years from now, or 10 years from now, you have to be able to look at yourself, and ask yourself, Where do I want to be in five years from now? And then it will tell you very early in your reflection, that you need to take risk. 

And by taking risks, yes, you will have some failure, but that's the price to pay in order to remain healthy. 

In order to have your people when they wake up in the morning, they know why they're waking up because they have a purpose in life. And their purpose is to bring your organization to the next level. And if you don't have that mentality, of reinventing yourself all the time, one day by being complacent, you're going to disappear. It's as simple as that.

Felicia Shakiba (09:54): I'm so glad that you brought that up, especially in startups failing fast is this phrase that they use often, and startups more, probably more so than legacy, older companies need to be reinventing themselves in order to stand out and get market share. And so this concept of failing fast is so pivotal in their world. 

Yet, how do you take a company that might have a very certain way of doing things, has done certain things in a way that has made them successful today, and perhaps failing could be shunned upon if you will? How many companies get through that? It's like a whole mindset change, if you know what I'm saying.

How do you as an executive nurture, failure or risk to the point where you're breeding creativity, but you're not encouraging people to not hit the mark?

Daniel Lamarre (12:04): I think there is only one way is to acknowledge your failure, because again, people don't want to talk about their failure. And obviously, you have to have more successes than failure in life. But when you have a failure, you should acknowledge it, and share it with your people. And more importantly, share the learnings of your failure.

Felicia Shakiba: Understood...and being an example for the team.

Can you discuss a particular challenge that you faced while fostering creativity? And how did you overcome it? 

Daniel Lamarre (12:37): Yeah, I remember one day, we had a very successful show at Downtown Disney in Orlando. And after 15-18 years, Disney says, so we're going to close that show. And you can keep the theater if you decide that you're able to do a show with Disney IP. And that was a shock internally because people were saying we don't want to have Disney characters to do acrobatics acts or stuff like that. And there was a lot of controversy here internally at Cirque.

And I said, stop thinking negatively about that idea. We have been able to do a tribute to the Beatles, we have been able to do a tribute to Michael Jackson, why don't we look at Disney the same way? And then our creators came to this idea of saying what is the most novel art of Disney? And that is Disney Animation. Because that's where everything starts with the founder of Disney. And then we have done a show, which was being a tribute to Disney animation. 

So we turn this negative situation to an amazing positive environment where everybody internally wanted to be involved with that, because it reminds them that there was in the culture of Disney, something that was quite similar to ours. So that's to me a good example of putting a problem on the table and saying, How can I creatively come up with a solution that will be innovative? And that's what we did. 

Wow, just thinking about that makes me want to go see the show.

Daniel Lamarre  (14:29): You should because it's a great show. It's called Drawn to Life. And it's amazing because it's the best of Disney, which is great images of their legacy in terms of animation, and then in the forefront having the acrobatic acts which is the best portion of Cirque de Soleil.

Wow, that's incredible. Cirque de Soleil has redefined entertainment through innovation, clearly. How important do you think continuous innovation is in sustaining a company's success, especially in creative industries?

Daniel Lamarre (15:10): It is essential, it is very essential for us, people will be surprised to see how much investment we do in research and development, how much we're on the lookout all the time for new technologies. In order to innovate, we also like to work with great partners, working with the Beatles was an amazing experience, because those people are amazing creators.

And they have a process which is different than ours, because they're in the music business. We're in a live business. But working together was amazing. 

So just to summarize my thoughts here, it's very, very important that you look two different two ways to remain relevant. So it means new technologies, R&D, being on the lookout all the time for what's going on in your industry. And it also means being in touch with amazing creators having the opportunity, for instance, to work with James Cameron. Cameron, learned me an amazing, simple lesson.

If you come here in the creative studio of Cirque du Soleil, and I invite you to visit our studios, it will probably take you an hour and a half. 

When James Cameron came to visit the studio, it took him five and a half hours. He couldn't stop asking questions to technician, to the creators to the artists. He wanted to know everything about everything. So we all like to say that curiosity is very important. It's part of nurturing your creativity.

But the way this guy operates, it's not a coincidence, why he has been so successful with Avatar, because he has invented literally, a new camera to shoot this movie. He is to me the epitome of what curiosity is all about. But to me, it is at the basis being creative.

I think curiosity plays an incredible role in creativity. How much does diversity or equity or inclusion contribute, do you think, to the creative thought process?

Daniel Lamarre (17:40): Yeah, it's interesting, because today, diversity is the new flavor of the month or of the year or of the decade. But at Cirque we never talk about diversity, because we are diversity. We have 90 different nationalities represented within Cirque de Soleil. And if you would ask me, what is one of the main strength of this organization? That's what it is. 

Because when you bring people let's see the new show, and you bring creators from 20 different countries, working together the richness of their personal background, their culture, so at the end of it, because we bring so many nationalities working together, the ultimate results which is the show become globally relevant because of that. And I think that's one of the strengths of our organization. And that's why we have been embracing diversity forever, Cirque?

How do you encourage risk taking and experimentation, in this is a billion dollar industry while ensuring a level of stability and reliability in business operations?

Daniel Lamarre  (19:01): Obviously, everybody wants to succeed, then we keep pushing and encouraging people to succeed. I remember one day, we were developing this amazing mechanical horse, and we paid the zillions of dollars to have it in our show. And unfortunately, it didn't work out. Horse was too big. It was too complicated. And it was not enhancing the show. It was destroying it. So I said to the guys, I said, first, it's out of our show. 

Second, you're going to take this gigantic horse, and you're going to bring it in our creative place. And you're going to expose it. If you walk in our creative center right now, you will see this huge mechanical horse and it's a reminder to two people that we can fail, and taking a risk on a new idea- that's okay. To me this horse has become the symbol of that risk taking is allowed in this organization.

I love that. I love that. The reminder of failure that it is a way to risk taking and creativity and innovation and having that reminder as a positive piece of the business and so glaring, of course, being that size I could only imagine. Lastly, what lessons or insights from your experience at Cirque de Soleil, do you believe are universally applicable to businesses striving for innovation?

Daniel Lamarre  (20:55): First and foremost, I think it's very, very important that people are on the lookout all the time for new ideas. And you have to spend so much time on the intelligence of your industry, you should know everything about your industry, you should know everything that your competitors are doing every time like, for instance at Cirque if there is a new show happening somewhere, I'll send someone within 24 hours, because I want to know everything that is happening in our industry. 

And it's one thing to be creative, but you cannot be creative, if you are not knowledgeable about your own industry. So if you want to be the best, you should have the best intelligence system in your organization. To me, this is very important. The other thing is people will be surprised to see how much money we invest in R&D. Because if you want to, again, be on the edge for the future, you have to be able to understand what the future is going to be like. 

And that's one thing we do. Also nurture the creative environment. If you work at Cirque, you know, that you are in a creative entertainment organization, because we breed we feel we smell, entertainment, and the purpose of this organization and you when you walk in a building, you understand what it is. Independently of the industry you are in, when I walk in your office in your premise, I should understand in a heartbeat, what you're doing in life, what's your purpose in life. 

And to me, this is very important, because otherwise you'll forget why you are in the building today. And to me, this is very, very important. Lets your employees know that you are open to new idea. But be specific about what you're looking for. Because you cannot be in the in a meeting room and say let's be creative today. It doesn't work that way. Be creative about what so be very specific, what's the problem that you want to tackle. 

And then it will bring creativity, I go as far as bringing creative challenges for each department within the organization. Here's our think that we should be creative about to me, it's very important and have a very clear mandate. So in summary, that's what I'm preaching. And I'm saying on purpose preaching, because preaching is not the way to do it.

Because at the end of it the best way to show the example is by action.

And my example of the Switzerland teacher is a good example of that- I don't make a speech. I just act on it. And it has much more impact on our employees than making a speech.

Felicia Shakiba: Daniel, thank you so much for being here. This has been an amazing interview. And I appreciate your time and all of the lessons you've shared with us today. Thank you.

Daniel Lamarre: You're welcome. I enjoy it.

Felicia Shakiba: That's Danielle Lamarre, Executive Vice President of the Board at Cirque du Soleil. 

Daniel Lamarre

Daniel Lamarre

Executive Vice-Chairman of the Board at Cirque du Soleil

Daniel Lamarre is in charge of strengthening key partnerships and driving new growth projects for Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group. For the last two decades, as President and Chief Executive Officer of Cirque du Soleil, Daniel Lamarre was in charge of strategy at both the business development and operations levels.

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