Who knew a business conference could be so much fun? Evidently the organizers of C2MTL, a three-day international event that took place in Montreal in late May, got the memo -- or, rather, they wrote the memo themselves. Though it was C2MTL's inaugural edition, they managed to lure such high-profile speakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Arianna Huffington, Michael Eisner, and Ian Schrager, along with hotshots from Google, Cirque du Soleil, Fast Company, IBM and Wired, to discuss the convergence of creativity and commerce while 1,300 enthusiastic attendees took it all in.
What made C2MTL stand out from ordinary business conferences? The discussions and panels with creative human success stories were fascinating, but there was also a strong emphasis on aesthetics and culture. There's a reason that Montreal is the only North American city UNESCO has designated a City of Design: it's a stylish, creative place in which cuisine, architecture, fashion design, and art take center stage. For starters, the sold-out event took place in a unique venue in the gentrifying neighborhood of Griffintown: an "innovation village" surrounding New City Gas, a newly renovated 150-year-old brick building that long ago housed the gas that lit the streets of Montreal, while the conference entryway, designed by local media studio Moment Factory, housed a "reset tunnel," a darkened tent whose audio and light features helped participants transition from the outside world.
Beyond the choice of venue, style was demonstrated in numerous ways, such as the food served at the nightly parties, including appetizers artfully nestled, flower-like, on long branches carried by servers. Hotelier Ian Schrager related how he and the late Steve Rubell created the boutique hotel, a hospitality genre that didn't exist till the mid-1980s. Also included were two performances by the Montreal-based, internationally acclaimed Cirque du Soleil -- one created especially for the opening-night soiree, and the other, a breathtaking section of Amaluna, a brand-new Cirque show.
Art was a major component of C2MTL. The e-merge exhibit featured interactive art from seven Quebec artists, including motorized garments created by avant-garde Montreal fashion designer Ying Gao. Sensors set off gentle undulations, proving that even clothing can be interactive. Artist Bill Vorn's Hysterical Machines, another notable installation, featured three robot-like creatures suspended from the ceiling that physically reacted to the presence of visitors, while the Quebec Designers' Showcase included innovative chairs by Domison and Samare (the latter company's work is so venerated, it is currently on display at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts).
A few takeaways:
The days of the yes man are over. Smart managers aren't looking for yes men (or women) -- they're seeking transformative insights and employees who challenge the status quo. Jennifer Yuh Nelson, a Dreamworks animation director, pointed out the importance of taking a leadership role: "If you have to wait for someone to tell you to do something, you probably shouldn't be doing it." And, as noted by the controversial Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO, "Most companies are founded by really creative people, and the smart companies keep the creativity at the forefront of the organization. ... The problem with American business is that companies are founded by creatives and then handed over to suits. ... There are brain-dead people. They can play very good golf. And they lead our companies. But they are not creative."
Technology will be used to help us disconnect from technology. As Arianna Huffington pointed out, though most of us need to stay technologically connected, it also leads to more stress. She revealed that her upcoming app, GPS for the Soul, will measure our stress and cortisol levels and help us to self-correct with guides we choose and save to help us unwind, such as music, meditation, yoga, poetry, and photographs.
Another recurring theme was the importance of downtime in creative productivity. As Robert Safian, editor of Fast Company asked, "How many of your most creative thoughts happened behind a desk?" Johan Lehrer, contributing editor at Wired and author of the best-selling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, imparted this wisdom, too easy to forget when panicking about deadlines or mental blocks: "Relax yourself to relax your mind. The answer has always been there!" and paraphrased Albert Einstein: "Creativity is a residue of wasted time. You need to take the time to waste time." Yuh Nelson advised, "Don't force creativity. When you hit a block, disconnect from the problem and take a break."
Sakchin Bessette, founder and creative director of the aforementioned Moment Factory, a local media studio making a worldwide impact via their work on the visuals for Cirque du Soleil and Madonna's Super Bowl halftime show, discussed using technology to improve connectivity in public spaces through "you-had-to-be-there moments," because "everybody wants to be part of something bigger." This was ably demonstrated hours later when Moment Factory presented a remarkable collaborative closing-night moment in the courtyard, when the front wall of New City Gas was transformed with vivid illuminations. Dozens of glowing balls were tossed into the audience, who threw them at the wall, and an enormous video game ensued, participated in by hundreds, in which portions of the wall "crumbled" when targets were hit.
All media in attendance were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement not to write about Francis Ford Coppola's conversation. As an easy workaround was found in Twitter, I can relay some of the Tweets from Coppola's well-received and insightful talk: "Ideas can be too new. Improve what's in market to succeed. The fax and ebook were around for decades before adoption" and, in reference to getting fired for his work on the 1970 film Patton, "The stuff you get fired for when you're young is the stuff they give you lifetime achievement awards [for] when you're old."
The never-boring, always-stimulating C2MTL was such a success, the 2013 edition has already been scheduled. Richard Branson and Philippe Starck have been invited, and the latter has confirmed his attendance.