Episode 31: How IP saved the Canadian icon Cirque du Soleil

Lisa Desjardins (Lisa): You're listening to Canadian I.P. Voices, a podcast where we talk intellectual property with a range of professionals and stakeholders across Canada and abroad. Whether you are an entrepreneur, artist, inventor or just curious, you will learn about some of the real problems and get real solutions for how trademarks, patents, copyrights and industrial designs and trade secrets work in real life.

I'm Lisa Desjardins and I'm your host.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the individual podcasters and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

When you hear Cirque du Soleil, you may be thinking of enchantment, artistry and awe-inspiring performances, magic… And behind the scenes is a remarkable story of perseverance, ingenuity and a lesser-known story of the pivotal role that intellectual property played in saving this beloved institution. Today, we have the honour to be joined by an extraordinary visionary mastermind who has orchestrated the mesmerizing wonders of Cirque du Soleil as CEO and now the Vice Chairman, Daniel Lamarre. He's the one who stood at the helm of Cirque du Soleil and led the company through its most challenging times through the pandemic and harnessed the power of intellectual property during a transformative journey and reignited the brilliance of Cirque du Soleil. Daniel Lamarre, it is a real privilege to have you in our podcast. Welcome.

Daniel Lamarre (Daniel): Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be there and an honour to have the opportunity to talk to you and your listeners.

Lisa: Wonderful. We're going to talk about managing innovation and creativity today and also about leveraging the formal protection, the intellectual property, of Cirque du Soleil. You're from Grand-Mère in Quebec, a graduate from Ottawa University who switched from journalism to public relations and then took a risk to join Cirque du Soleil as the president of new ventures and quickly advancing to become the CEO. So, I want to talk about leadership. In your book, "Balancing Acts", you describe yourself as starting at Cirque du Soleil as a conservative, dull businessman. How did you learn the business and manage the creative talent at Cirque du Soleil?

Daniel: First of all, I had the amazing opportunity to work with amazing creators such as Guy Laliberté, our founder, Robert Lepage, James Cameron, The Beatles, people that have a clear artistic vision about what they want to do in life and how they want to influence the world. So, observing those creators has changed my approach to creativity, has changed my approach to how to manage creators and artists, and it has changed overall the way I see the business and how important creativity and innovation are crucial for the development of organizations.

Lisa: So, Cirque du Soleil is a lot more than artistic performance. Tell us about some of the more unknown sides of Cirque du Soleil, the research and engineering that goes into solving some of the problems.

Daniel: First of all, the logistics of touring in 450 cities around the world is huge. Because first and foremost, you have to tour with 50 trucks, you know, big vans that are carrying our equipment around the world. You have to come into a market and have a huge marketing campaign to sell 150, 200,000 tickets in each city you visit. And then, more importantly, when it comes to creating the show itself, it's very, very important that we innovate all the time. And the only way to do it is by conducting research and development, which is probably one of the most unknown characteristics of our organization.

Lisa: That's amazing. So, you have a team doing research and development?

Daniel: Yes, within our creative team, we have that. Obviously, you know, our footprint is huge, but we're not Microsoft and we're not Samsung. So, we have the opportunity to partner with great corporations like the ones I just mentioned, but also working with universities around the world. So, we don't do research unless we know that the result of the research will conduct us to new acts, to new technology, and that will be a springboard for us to innovate in our artistic content.

Lisa: Interesting. Let's talk about some other parts of intellectual property now. For someone who doesn't know about all the different brands, can you tell us about the portfolio of brands and trademarks and how these are managed at Cirque du Soleil?

Daniel: Yes, at the corporate level, obviously the most important brand we have to protect is related to the intellectual property of Cirque du Soleil itself, a name that we are protecting around the world. In recent years, we have acquired other brands such as Blue Man Group, V-Star, that develop content for kids, The Works, that develops magic content. And each show has its own intellectual property. So, therefore, it's a huge achievement for our legal team and our artistic team to make sure that every content we develop, that the intellectual property is protected. But also, any show we do, even with a partner, the intellectual property remains to us.

Lisa: When you've been working with other companies that have their brands, there's a lot at stake when you're combining 2 brands. What are the key lessons you've learned in collaborating with others and their brands?

Daniel: Yeah, it's very, very important, and we have very strict criteria before we associate our brand with another brand. First and foremost, it's very, very important that the brand is at least at the same level as ours. That the people that we are dealing with accept and share our values. And to us, that's very, very important. What I mean by that is that they're open enough to understand that whatever we will do together, we will push the boundaries of ours, but also their creativity. And that's how we're going to end up having 2 brands that are not only going to support each other but to help each other to grow. And that's the ultimate objective. It has to be a win-win for the 2 brands, and that's how we are successful by being in partnership with amazing brands.

Lisa: In your book and presentations, you discussed the value of the Cirque du Soleil brand. And before COVID struck, the private equity investors in Cirque du Soleil had planned to exit through an initial public offering. But suddenly, you stood with the company that had zero revenue and couldn't even pay interest on the loans. And then you realized how you could survive this crisis. Tell us what happened.

Daniel: Yeah, that's where, you know, if someone is looking for a spectacular illustration of the importance of intellectual property, this is the one. Because one day, within 48 hours, you have no revenue, you have no shows. Basically, you have no company. And the one thing that remained solid was our intellectual property. And the intellectual property is at the base of creating the brand of Cirque du Soleil. And even if we had no revenue, no shows, we have been able, with the support of our bankers and with the support of new investors, to keep the company alive. And we have been able to rebound after the pandemic. And all of that, there is only 1 reason: the strength of the brand. And I repeat, the strength of the brand has been built, crafted, by our intellectual property.

Lisa: Can you explain technically how you actually leverage the brand?

Daniel: Yeah, you know, that was the only argument we had to convince the investors that after the pandemic, this company can rebound. And as a matter of fact, within 16 months, we have been able to restart every single show. So, as I'm talking to you, tonight, there will be 38 shows and presentations somewhere around the world. So, that's certainly another illustration of the strength of the global brand called Cirque du Soleil.

Lisa: It's an amazing rebound. You have been, and continue to be, an evangelist for creativity in business. What would be your message to business leaders in terms of creativity and managing creativity?

Daniel: So, I took a very drastic stance, which is to say that without creativity, there is no business. And I truly believe in it because if you look at a company like Kodak, for instance, that stopped innovating, they disappeared. And unfortunately, if you're not continuing to innovate with your creativity, one day you will disappear, or at best, you will be very, very stagnant as an organization. And that's always a dangerous position to be in. So, I truly believe that any organization, and it doesn't matter in what sector of activity you're in, it's crucial that you motivate your troops, that you push your creators. And creators are not only artists. Creators could be researchers for medical breakthroughs, for new technology breakthroughs. Everywhere they are important factors within an organization that needs creativity, which will lead to innovation.

Lisa: It's been amazing to hear your leadership and how you realized and how you turned around Cirque du Soleil. Really, thank you so much for being part of this podcast and helping Canadians understand how to use intellectual property more effectively.

Daniel: Thank you so much. And again, I'm always available to promote creativity because that's how our Canadian organizations are going to continue to innovate and continue to grow, which is so important for our country.

Lisa: You've listened to Canadian IP voices where we talk intellectual property. In this episode Daniel Lamarre, Vice Chairman and former CEO of Cirque du Soleil shared what it's like to lead extraordinary creativity, innovation and partnerships at Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian icon and the largest contemporary circus provider in the world. Daniel also gave a spectacular illustration of the importance of intellectual property and how this came to keep the enterprise alive during the COVID pandemic. Do you know any of the brands of Cirque du Soleil? Open the description to this episode for a list of the many brands of this enterprise as well as the book "Balancing Act" written by Daniel Lamarre.