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Bringing Change Through Cirque du Soleil | Guy Laliberté | Google Zeitgeist

November 5, 2019


>>Chrystia Freeland: We’re going to start
with a 15-minute discussion between me and one of my personal heros, Guy LalibertŽ.
He is the founder and inventor of Cirque du Soleil, which if — please sit down, Guy.
If you are like me or a Zeitgeist veteran you would have seen some of the wonderful
Cirque du Soleil performers. So I am going to have a moment of patriotism. I am Canadian.
And having been here for a few years they gave me a little bit of a say in what panel
I want to moderate and I said I wanted to do Guy’s panel because I am so proud of everything
he has done. So that’s my affection declared. What I wanted to start by asking you about,
Guy, is you have come up with a whole new artistic genre, something that had never been
done before and it’s also a successful business.>>Guy LalibertŽ: Correct.
>>Chrystia Freeland: How did you get that idea?
>>Guy LalibertŽ: Well, actually, I don’t think we reinvent anything. The business of
circus was existing before us. I think we just reshape it, treat it in a
contemporary way by bringing directors, lighting designer. Circus, at the time we start, were
a little dusty, especially in North America. So fortunately we had a crack, a little window
open for us. We took it and we work creatively very specifically with people of theater was
doing. So we brought a little bit all the broad way
treatment, theatrical treatment, dance treatment in an old business.
>>Chrystia Freeland: Did you always want it to make a lot of money or were you an artist
wanting to just sort of express yourself?>>Guy LalibertŽ: Actually, it’s funny. My
first dream in life was I always want to travel. And that is what I was looking for.
The fastest way I find to achieve my dream was to pick up the accordion of my father
and hit the road at the age of 15 and being a busker, because I have no business —
>>Chrystia Freeland: Have accordion, will travel?
>>Guy LalibertŽ: Actually, it’s a small box. It’s very easy. Very light, hit the road.
>>Chrystia Freeland: I will tell that to my kids when they want to go.
>>Guy LalibertŽ: Actually, I decide to go to school of life instead of going to regular
school. So my first job was — My first dream was
to travel. And then by traveling, I learned the pleasure of entertaining people. And this
is really where I said, wait a minute, there might be something that could fit together.
And then I start to organize — start up a theater troupe on stilts, organize a street
performing festival. And then we had the opportunity in 1984, there was the celebration of the
450th anniversary of discovering Canada. There was a lot of money for cultural activities.
We were successful –>>Chrystia Freeland: Government grants. Crucial
for the arts.>>Guy LalibertŽ: Actually, not grants. It
was a contract. Everybody says it was a grant. It was a deal. There was money. There was
money. They ask us to present a project. We win the project. We fought for it because
all the institution — you have to understand, clowns and circus skill or street performer
were not recognized in the art industry, art sector. There were no subsidies available
for us. Basically the philosophy was about pay them
a sandwich, supply them a corner on a street and they will entertain you for 30 minutes.
So it was also part of our quest and will to try to make recognized that art form through
doing Cirque du Soleil. So we had our first contract. We lived the
first year of Cirque du Soleil in a very strange way, because we were outside the big city,
so the first month was a mess. We lost our big-top over a storm. We didn’t know how to
put it up. There was a lot of learning, hard learning process. But the advantage we had,
we were away of the big city. So focus was more on the other activities.
So when we came — And it was a mess for the other thing, too.
So when we arrive in town, we were geared up. We were all ready, and we became, like,
the success of the season. And then this is what we — we worked on and
built on after.>>Chrystia Freeland: So —
>>Guy LalibertŽ: But the dream was traveling. For me —
>>Chrystia Freeland: The dream was traveling.>>Guy LalibertŽ: For me to do the Cirque
du Soleil was a job, something that will permit me to probably go around the world with if
it was successful.>>Chrystia Freeland: And now it’s take taken
you into outer space.>>Guy LalibertŽ: Correct. Well, it did.
>>Chrystia Freeland: It did. This is actually true. He has been to outer space. But we will
get to that. So these are very scrappy beginnings. School
of life. You are on the street with your accordion. Now you are running this huge business. You
are close to hitting a billion dollars; right?>>Guy LalibertŽ: Actually, if everything
goes well this year, we should. But we had the earthquake in Japan and some floating
in Cincinnati last week, two weeks ago, so I think we will be missing it this year. Doesn’t
matter.>>Chrystia Freeland: Almost, almost.
>>Guy LalibertŽ: It’s not a goal.>>Chrystia Freeland: How do you remain innovative
in the company? You are big, making a lot of money. Surely bureaucracy creeps in.
How do you keep Cirque alive?>>Guy LalibertŽ: First, we are a creative
company. So our core business is to create things. We had to organize ourselves businesswise
because now we have 5,000 people working around the world, from different country, in different
countries around the world. And so it needs a very good organization, which I have. I
have amazing people. And creatively, it’s to really try to — every time that we start
a new project is to start from the white page. And then if you give the opportunity to creative
people to express their creativity, their craziness and you establish also, I would
say, a critical path to do things, then it usually work well.
In 25 years, we had one, I would say, consider one creative failure. All the other one were
hit and run — were home run, and it’s amazing to work with great creative people around
the world. But you know architects the end, I always
had established four condition before doing a project. First is the creative challenge
that the project represent. And trust me, we had put away a lot of other opportunity.
Like we did put away the opportunity of doubling our showing, multiplying the same show, like
Phantom of the Opera. They will do ten production around the world at the same time. We always
refuse that. We want to work on one-of-a-kind show.
>>Chrystia Freeland: Why is that?>>Guy LalibertŽ: Because this is what we
want to do. This is a decision actually which was probably not a good business decision
in terms of money, but this is what we want to do. This is what I was looking for, is
doing one show and create another one. So for me, first in the top of the line before
I decide a project is the creative challenge to things.
The second thing is the people you work with, because we do partnership, or we choose people
to work in each of our project. So I’m a people — I’m a person — or people
person. I like to work in the physical environment with people. And I like to have partners that
I feel good with. So the qualification of a project one, second
one, is in regard to the people you work with. Third come the money part where it has to
be in it. So if the budget and everything goes well, then — on paper, because you never
know in reality what will happen, but at least on paper it has to fit.
And the fourth thing is the integration of social engagement. I think in every company,
it’s not after that you have to integrate or put in place philanthropy. It has to be
integrated in your business model, in your engagement in a project.
So those are the four conditions before we give a go to a project.
>>Chrystia Freeland: So let’s talk about that social engagement. Why is it so important
and how do you do it?>>Guy LalibertŽ: Well, why is it important?
Because I think my mother, my father, my parents taught me some things in that regard when
I was a kid. They show me very early in my life that we were privileged of having three
meals a day, of having a glass of water around every day.
They were showing me that reality of this world were not only my nice little neighbor
— you know, in my neighborhood, in the house where I was living in, but there was country
where people were dying of things. So they always put a very big importance of taking
care and be respectful of what you have in life. And once in the street, even in the
street, I was a busker and even when I was there, there were people in the worse condition
that be I was as a busker. There were people dying of not having access to food. So even
getting my own money as a street performer, I was giving some to those people.
So for me, it was integrated through all my education. And then by traveling, obviously,
all around the world, I got in touch with some reality of this life. And I am just convinced
that, you know, it’s not about philanthropy. It’s integration for me in our daily life.
Teams the responsibility that we have as people who lead or people who run business, government
people, company leaders. But also individual. I think the solution will be global.
It’s not only the responsibility of government, neither company leader, but also individual
to integrate this philosophy or this important aspect of a global community to help each
other in their daily life.>>Chrystia Freeland: And why choose the particular
philanthropy that you have?>>Guy LalibertŽ: Well, this is not the first
one. We have other — like I said, it’s something that have been integrated in Cirque du Soleil.
Our first philanthropy was the street kids. We have a foundation in Cirque du Soleil that’s
been there almost since the beginning. It’s called Cirque du Monde, and it’s all about
the kids in the street, the homeless little kids, and we do program around the world.
We dedicate 1% of our revenue for this foundation, and with that 1% we usually multiply that
1% by another four times. So we are able to generate about four, five times the money
toward the foundation.>>Chrystia Freeland: And did you start with
that one because of your experience working on the street yourself and —
>>Guy LalibertŽ: Yeah.>>Chrystia Freeland: — other performers?
>>Guy LalibertŽ: For us at that time it was natural one because we were coming from the
street, and it was normal for us to choose to give back where we were coming from and
not forgetting where we were coming from. The second one was One Drop, which is the
water, which I start in 2007. For me, again, it was a reflection I made.
We were at the edge of celebrating the 25th anniversary of Cirque du Soleil. I had clearly
two options. One was to celebrate with feast and bragging that we are what we are. It’s
not my type. So we did celebration internally. But we dedicate our celebration by the commitment
of 25 year toward the One Drop Foundation. So I personally pledge money.
We made a deal with Cirque du Soleil for the next 25 years, and water is now a very, very
important activity within neither — with my life and Cirque du Soleil company.
>>Chrystia Freeland: And what significance, what impact does that have inside the company?
>>Guy LalibertŽ: It does have a lot of impact, because when you choose philanthropy, you
know, it’s not to make feel-good things. And especially when you pick up a subject like
water. Before going out there on the public scene and raising awareness and in the field,
you have to first look at your company and when we did the checklist of thing, we were
far away of being the consequent of what we were promoting in terms of —
>>Chrystia Freeland: What were you doing that was really bad?
>>Guy LalibertŽ: Just the use of plastic bottle of water in the company. This is something
that was just not impossible to go out there —
>>Chrystia Freeland: Glad to see glass on the table here.
>>Guy LalibertŽ: I like to see glass on the table. Actually, I probably would have passed
a comment that I didn’t want to sit down with a plastic bottle.
You know, there’s more water used through plastic, and the waste that it creates or
the environmental impacts. So we change all those habit. We looked all
on our energy, water consumption things. And there was a checklist of about 200 something.
And we still have not completed the correction or behavior in that regards.
>>Chrystia Freeland: Do you have another idea in mind or are you going to stick with this
one?>>Guy LalibertŽ: Well, this one is a big
one. You know, I truly believe that water is probably the most important environmental
or humanitarian issue to address. It is at the center of every — if you look biodiversity,
the situation of women in the world, children, education, health, you — you see water at
the center of every of those aspects. So I think water is a very, very important issue.
If we address water first, we’ll probably be able to set a very strong base for the
evolution of other aspects of philanthropy or humanitarian things. And plus I probably
think the next crisis of humanitarian crisis we’ll face if we don’t take care of is water.
There’s global warming coming in. The first impact is towards water. Look what’s going
on in the planet. So for me, it’s clear.>>Chrystia Freeland: Is that 25-year commitment
important? Do you think it’s important to stick to something?
>>Guy LalibertŽ: I think it’s important to have long-term commitment to things. It’s
not a question of being fashionable.>>Chrystia Freeland: Water’s pretty fashionable
right now.>>Guy LalibertŽ: It is, it is. Actually,
I’m very happy to see that water is kind of raising, because when you look all those summits
of global warming, it’s been very, very difficult to put water on the agenda, actually. There’s
many, many other subjects that have been treated, integrated in the agenda, but water has not
been pointed first as a priority. And I believe it’s a priority.
And why the long-term commitment in terms of for people to integrate things? Because
it’s really with deep work that you arrive to things. If you just do a gesture of signing
a check for feel-good things, I just think it’s not enough. You need to — much more
solid commitment, and long-term commitment is very, very important.
Like I believe that new startup companies in these days have to integrate in their business
model –>>Chrystia Freeland: Even before they’ve started
to make money?>>Guy LalibertŽ: I think it has to be part
of –>>Chrystia Freeland: Just because journalists
will say nice things about you or –>>Guy LalibertŽ: No, no, no. I think this
is something. And I’m a work in progress myself. Cirque du Soleil is a work in progress by
itself. You know, we’re learning things. I wish that
I could have done it before we started with Cirque du Soleil. Actually, we almost did
it. But, you know, when you look again what’s going on around, there is change in terms
of what — how we do business that have to take place. I don’t have all the answer. I
don’t pretend I have all the answers. But I certainly know one thing is the integration
in new startup company in terms of — in the mission and the values of a company of philanthropy
is very, very important. How the details to apply it, I don’t have
all the recipe. I’m not Mr. Magic. I’m just a little — I believe I’m just trying to take
care of my garden, my small garden. I don’t pretend I’m capable of changing the world.
But I certainly know after 50 years now that my garden looks nice. And if it could inspire
other people to do a nice garden, perfect. This is where I am standing now. I’m not raising
any flag, taking any hammer and hitting on anybody’s head. I prefer to try to touch the
heart of people. And I believe that emotion, and if you touch them to the heart, it stays
longer than if you take a hammer and bang on the head of somebody. This is how I am.
>>Chrystia Freeland: Okay. Those are some pretty good metaphors there. And I thought
you would be pushing more on the side of magic than the nice garden, that we should all admire,
but –>>Guy LalibertŽ: I’m pretty grounded, too.
I guess this is the topic of where we are. If you want to talk about fantasy, artistic,
yes. But I don’t think this is the –>>Chrystia Freeland: Fantasy is for the stage,
gardens are for your philanthropy?>>Guy LalibertŽ: Yeah.

3 Comments

  • Reply Jonathan Beaupré May 8, 2012 at 7:31 am

    He was and he still a normal down to earth guy before being a billionaire 😉

  • Reply DVNDVN11 October 27, 2012 at 3:10 am

    Legend

  • Reply Mors Magne October 13, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    He talks a lot but I find him surprisingly opaque. For example, I'm sure there is a very good reason why he keeps making new shows. I'm not convinced by his "because that's what I like to do" answer.

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