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An exclusive interview with Jean David, one of the pioneers of Cirque du Soleil

Consultant in creativity and event marketing, Jean David is one of the pioneers of Cirque du Soleil, where he led the marketing department for 15 years, introducing the magic of the Grand Chapiteau to the whole world.

keynote speaker jean davidA man of vision but also a determined entrepreneur, Jean David acted as Vice President of Entertainment, Sales & Marketing at the WYNN Hotel in Las Vegas before moving to India for 18 months, where he led a pre-feasibility study for the creation of an innovative project: the Mumbai International Creative Center, an international resort centered around the theme of creativity.
In this exclusive interview, Jean David tells us about the beginnings of Cirque du Soleil, his projects in Las Vegas and Mumbai, the importance of creativity in business, but also the Blue Ocean strategy.

How did Cirque du Soleil come about? Do you think such a strategy is still valid today, more than 30 years later?

Cirque du Soleil started as a festival of public entertainers, who wanted to perform in several cities. It is therefore through the will of a small group of young people who wanted to assert themselves that Cirque du Soleil was created. We could compare the beginnings of Cirque du Soleil to what we now call a “start-up”: passion, team spirit, enthusiasm and determination must be present in order to succeed.

In your opinion, what were the key success factors of Cirque du Soleil which made it a world-famous phenomenon?

The success of Cirque du Soleil is reflected wonderfully through three main principles: creativity, identity and competitiveness.

CREATIVITY: Our product is innovative and universal. We are always investing in the creation of new shows and we are clearly affirming our ability to renew ourselves. Our greatest passion is the search for new artistic challenges.

IDENTITY: We bank on youth, and more than 25 nations are represented in our staff. With our organisation, we affirm our cultural specificity all over the world, and we obviously encourage boldness and entrepreneurship.

COMPETITIVENESS: We set new standards of quality in our industry. In all the markets in which we operate, our excellence prevails to the point of becoming the reference. We don’t want to succeed at all costs: we just want to finish what we are doing.

How did you apply this strategy to the projects you’ve been working on for 15 years?

Throughout my Cirque du Soleil adventure I had the conviction that I was contributing to something extraordinary and fantastic. I was inhabited and animated by a certainty both immense and noble, which gave me the strength to cross every obstacle that stood in my way. I realised how much the world has changed and that our environment has changed completely to become something very different. I realised that by travelling around the world with the Grand Chapiteau on my shoulders, I was both a witness and a player in the great globalisation, this tremendous transformation of our value systems that marked the end of the twentieth century and metamorphosed the global community and the condition of all its inhabitants.

The values ​​that formed the foundations of our societies have really disappeared, and have been replaced by virtual ideas that come and go according to situations, needs and hopes. Society is in a process of change beyond measure and our role is to facilitate the emergence of the future.

After 15 years in the marketing department of Cirque du Soleil, you became Vice President of Sales, Entertainment and Marketing at the WYNN Las Vegas Hotel. What was this transition like for you?

Las Vegas is a highly competitive market, where no one can really dictate rules. Casinos have to find inventive ways to attract an audience that is already in high demand. My role at the Wynn Hotel was primarily to set up a team dedicated to promoting the hotel’s shows and to instil the tools that would enable them to be competitive and gain market share – mission accomplished!

The Mumbai International Creative Center (MICC) is an extraordinary project. What drew you to this opportunity, and what did you learn during your time in India?

The aim was to design somewhere (Resort, Convention Center, Theme Park) out of the ordinary where the audience, the clients, were considered, above all, as creative people interested in meeting with other creative individuals, in an environment that highlighted their creativity and their ability to innovate. The pre-feasibility study showed that it is possible to transpose the processes of creative thinking into the real world and thus allow the public to live an extraordinary experience. The whole project was animated by the notion of “edutainment”: to create an experience that was both educational and entertaining. I discovered in India that for Indians, the notion of creativity is directly related to the notion of spirituality… I then realised that creativity is the new spirituality of the 21st century!

How essential is creativity in business? What would you recommend today to a company that wants to innovate and be creative?

When I left the Cirque du Soleil, I suggested to my former bosses to set up a training programme and promote creativity in the company. A proposal they didn’t follow up on. My reasoning is this: Cirque du Soleil is an innovative company, perceived as such by the public and the industry.

What is innovative at Cirque du Soleil is the shows and the staging. What is the hub of creativity at the company?

Creativity is at the heart of the everyday life of a very small group of people, that is to say, the core of designers, their assistants, some craftsmen and that’s about it. The thousands of other company employees have quite monotonous and routine jobs, like the workers of any factory in Detroit, Bordeaux, Amman, Manchester, Mexico City, Taipei, Melbourne, Calcutta, Tel Aviv, Kiev, Düsseldorf, Tehran or Osaka.

keynote speaker jean david cirque du soleilThe company, unfortunately, does not solicit the creativity of its employees. They are asked to be present, to do their job well, to respect their set of tasks and the rules, and that is enough. Please, use only a tiny part of your brain, the rest doesn’t interest us and, in any case, we wouldn’t know what to do with it. Yes, employees are very proud and well-treated, proven by many statistics and several testimonials. On the other hand, their creativity, imagination and identity are in no way valued at work, despite the fact that everyone speaks about it, including consultants, human resources and several specialised magazines. This seems to be the topic of the day, but senior management is not really interested in this type of thing, let alone brave enough to take serious and concrete action. Some attempts have been made, but they’ve all been short-lived. This is a real challenge for Cirque du Soleil and of all companies.

Creativity needs to be at the heart of all activity in the organisation, instead of being the property of a small group of individuals. If we build an adequate environment and have a concrete strategy to highlight the creative contribution of each employee, supporting everything with a training programme in creative problem solving. Equipping the staff and encourage them to be creative, to stop wishing and start doing is imperative. Do not set a new management model, but a true model of communication. Reconsider the hierarchical structure and the bonuses based on the creative contribution of staff. Dare to innovate in management by putting the company at the service of all employees. Try it out and see for yourselves!

The greatest wealth of a company is its employees and nothing else. Knowing how to recognise it and taking it into account in the daily life of an organisation requires a lot of courage, determination and fantastic leadership. The biggest challenges that companies face, including Cirque du Soleil, lie within their organisations. I remain convinced that they have a responsibility to their staff, the responsibility to ensure that they can reach their full potential. The companies that succeed in this challenge are meant for promising futures.

What was the highlight of your career, the moment you’re most proud of?

The conquest of Europe with Cirque du Soleil was an extraordinary deal, for which I was made “Marketing Personality of the Year” at the time.

On the other hand, what was the most difficult moment, and how did you overcome it?

My departure from Cirque du Soleil was a pivotal moment in my career: leaving the comfort of an organisation that one helped to create is somewhat destabilising. I managed to take this step by implementing a process of research and creation that led me to surpass myself and discover a world of possibilities. I started a mission that still resides in me today: showcasing creativity and intelligence in individuals, groups and communities.

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