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August 28, 2012

Creative Combustion:Mixing business with pleasure

What happens when a conference partners with a creative powerhouse like Cirque du Soleil? Innovation ensues. Convene Editor in Chief Michelle Russell reports from Montreal’s C2-MTL


Attendees: 1,300 professionals from 37 countries across a wide variety of industries

Genesis: “There are several conferences on innovation, but none is truly creative in its approach. We wanted to go beyond just talking about creativity, to create a completely immersive experience. My colleagues and I also had a desire to create a platform to showcase Montreal’s hotbed of talent to the world.” — Jean-Francois Bouchard, C2-MTL’s curator.




Speakers: A stellar lineup, including filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner, best-selling author Jonah Lehrer, entrepreneur and hotelier Ian Schrager, Fast Company Editor Robert Safian, AOL Huffington Post Media Group Editor in Chief Arianna Huffington, Cirque du Soleil President and CEO Daniel Lamarre, Google Creative Lab Chief Creative Officer Robert Wong, and DreamWorks Animation Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson.

C2-MTL was the centerpiece of a “Be Creative a la Montreal” media fam trip, hosted by Tourisme Montreal, that I attended in late May. The trip was organized to showcase the city — a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network for the past six years — as a hub of creativity and design. That vibe was evident from the moment that we checked into our boutique host hotel, Lhotel, a former 1870s bank in the heart of Old Montreal, where we were surrounded at every turn by modern art from the multimillion-dollar personal collection of owner Georges Marciano (of Guess fame).

The juxtaposition of the past, present, and future was a constant theme during my visit and particularly at C2-MTL, whose stated mission was to explore creativity as it relates to commercial enterprise. While much can be written about that three-day discussion on the nature of creativity, from a meeting-planning perspective the conference design itself served as a laboratory of innovation. As Jean-Francois Bouchard, curator of C2-MTL and president of the Sid Lee creative agency, said in an interview with the press immediately following the conference’s closing session: “My observation about events that have to do with innovation [is that they] have not been innovative.”

 Here are some elements showcased at C2-MTL that sought to change that:



“We had great partners to organize this [event],” Bouchard said. “The fact that we were producing this with Cirque du Soleil — people could see that we had done [events] before, so it was not a fluke.” The Cirque du Soleil affiliation enabled C2-MTL to draw an impressive roster of speakers, he said, while Montreal’s “vibrant movie industry” was key to attracting Francis Ford Coppola.

Several levels of government supported C2-MTL, including the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, Tourism Montreal, and the city of Montreal, “[who] bought into [the idea of the conference] right away,” Bouchard said. “Actually the city ... was the very first supporter. They financed the business plan, because we did not even have a business plan.”

In addition to C2-MTL’s curating organization Sid Lee and creative partner Cirque du Soleil, content partners Fast Company, IBM, PwC, and Mosaic were instrumental to the event’s development. And the conference was presented by Laurentian Bank and Tourisme Montreal, and “powered” by HSM Global. “We believe in collaboration,” Bouchard said. “This is not something that gets [put together] by a lone producer. We’ve been the producer of producers.”


Location and Layout

C2-MTL took place in Montreal’s Griffintown neighborhood, which is undergoing gentrification, and was housed mainly in the 19th-century New City Gas building, a warehouse space that was refurbished exclusively for the conference’s use. Attendees spilled out into a pop-up “village of innovation,” which included outdoor lounge areas and a huge tent with piped-in scenting, outfitted with interactive art exhibits and spacious, comfortable lounges with sofas, tables, and bars. Attendees scribbled messages and scheduled impromptu appointments on the tent’s blackboard walls. Multiple screens broadcasted speakers on the warehouse stage.

Sprinkled throughout the tent, outdoors, and in the warehouse were small art displays that housed such common objects as a pillow, a microscope, and a lantern, to symbolize and reinforce underlying conference themes (comfort, analysis, and enlightenment, respectively). And instead of a Twitter stream, C2-MTL featured a Knitterstream, where a digitally programmed loom knitted the conference’s best tweets into a yarn scarf that grew longer by the hour.

As for C2-MTL’s chosen locale, Bouchard said: “It’s a bit of a mess around here, as you can see. Most event organizers would steer clear of such an area, but we said, ‘No, that’s what we want — it’s a little gritty and rough, and shows you where the city is going.’”

“Innovation can get messy,” the conference program read. “As you may have noticed from all the cranes and orange cones, C2-MTL’s village of innovation is at the epicentre of a neighbourhood in the making. … Thank you in advance for your indulgence (and besides, who ever said creativity couldn’t use a touch of chaos?).”



C2-MTL offered a mix of presentation formats: panels, on-stage interviews, and solo presenters. Each session featured coverage from an editorial team that was based in a buzzing news center on the gas building’s main floor, and broadcasted on a large on-stage screen. The editorial team — inspired by live broadcast coverage of sporting events, Bouchard said — “analyzed and contextualized” the presentations and fielded questions from participants who interacted with them via a web app.

A small army of volunteers (around 150, mainly from local universities) served as “personal concierges” who offered a variety of services — from restaurant recommendations to helping participants submit “burning questions” that multidisciplinary panelists would select to address during specific sessions.


Giving Back

Before and during the three-day conference, a multidisciplinary team — a copywriter, an art director, a creative technologist, an architect, and industrial and graphic designers — brainstormed about ways to raise awareness and funding for RED, a global nonprofit dedicated to eradicating the transmission of HIV from mothers to their babies. The team presented a social-media campaign proposal to RED’s CEO on stage as one of C2-MTL’s final sessions.

Bouchard called the inaugural C2-MTL “a test drive,” noting that Sid Lee Entertainment, a joint venture with Cirque du Soleil, is contemplating hosting C2 in one additional city in the world, in addition to its return engagement in Montreal next May. “We want this to happen every year,” Bouchard said. “Maybe twice.”


First published in PCMA's Convene Magazine

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