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James Cameron, George Stroumboulopoulos descend on C2MTL Conference

James Cameron today announced that he will partner with Cirque du Soleil on a stage version of Avatar.

The third annual edition of C2MTL, a conference “imagined by” the Sid Lee agency along with partners Cirque du Soleil, Fast Company and Microsoft, wraps up on Thursday, after three days of impeccably designed business networking in Montreal’s Griffintown district.

Described by Forbes as “a cross between Burning Man and TED”, the conference programme boasts of 5,750 participants from 1,000 different companies, 58% of whom will be executives and senior management, 31.3% of whom will be CEOs and 10.7% of whom will be just plain old “professionals” from 24 industries and 44 countries.

The conference’s organizing intelligence, Jean-François Bouchard of the Sid Lee agency, describes C2MTL as “a business conference somewhere between genius and insanity”. Somehow, with its beautifully designed interior and great catering, you don’t expect to find troubled geniuses like William Blake or the business equivalent of Colonel Kurtz walking the polished concrete floor.

The tone for the conference is set at 9:30 in the morning on Day 1 by Montreal indie rocker du jour Patrick Watson, playing a piano and singing in the Microsoft Forum. By the time the audience has shaken the melancholic fairy dust of that performance from their shoulders, they’re listening to Zappos.com shoe impresario Tony Hsieh explaining how much better downtown Las Vegas is than The Strip, and that he’s never experienced a deeper sense of community than he has along East Fremont Street.

Delegates on Day 2 heard Esther Lee, senior VP of brand marketing at AT&T, describe the new world of mobile targeted advertising, before listening to Google’s head of strategic planning and agency development Abigail Posner, who studied anthropology before going into advertising, discuss the spread of Doge as an example of what memes in online culture can teach us about the mind of the consumer.

A Brainstorming Session at C2MTL's DIY Space
A Brainstorming Session at C2MTL’s DIY Space

James Murphy, of Williamsburg electro-pop outfit LCD Soundsystem, will deliver a talk before dropping a DJ set in the cavernous setting of the Arsenal, the ex-shipbuilding space that houses the conference.

Today, James Cameron announced that he will partner with Cirque du Soleil on an arena-touring show “inspired by” the film Avatar.

C2MTL is unlike most business conferences in both an aesthetic and cultural sense. The programme’s cover headline states that “The Hero’s Journey Begins With You” before unveiling its all-star lineup of speakers from the business and entertainment worlds. Film director and undersea explorer James Cameron, Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus, and International Business and Brand Innovator Cindy Gallop will all engage in on-stage conversation with your boyfriend, George Stroumboulopoulos.

A perceptive editorial was published in La Presse this morning by Nathalie Petrowski, describing her meeting with Strombo after his first day of work interviewing thought leaders at C2MTL. “Similar to C2MTL,” she writes, “George est de commerce agréable.” It’s a kind of double entendre way of saying “he’s got impeccable manners” while unmistakably coupling the word “agreeable” with “commerce”.

It’s a great analogy, as C2MTL is to business conferences as Strombo is to Peter Mansbridge, or most TV interviewers: edgy, cool, practically autistic in his commitment to engaged and insightful interrogation, and mortified by the idea of seeming conventional, even as he embodies and dictates what our new normal will be. But for all Strombo’s “edge”, he’s also fuzzy and “agreeable”, as well as an easygoing and unchallenging partner to both his interview subjects and audience, with a knack for framing softball PR exercises as serious, in-depth interviews.

Inside the Arsenal at C2MTL.
Inside the Arsenal at C2MTL.

Now in its third year, C2MTL will increasingly be talked about as a benchmark for other conferences, a conversation starter that will remind anyone trying to stage a conference these days that setting up a bunch of trade show booths and a handful of PowerPoint presentations is no longer sufficiently provocative. The challenge for conference organizers hoping to emulate C2MTL, though, will be to avoid the trap of mimicking only its aesthetic and staging what amounts to a sequence of Tony Robbins-style “You can do anything!” motivational speeches as reimagined by Cirque du Soleil.

If it’s now seen as reasonable to expect that the average business conference must play the role of “hero’s journey” for its participants, as opposed to just a good venue for networking, then the C2MTL model will have made its impact felt.

Where TED’s emphasis is on “ideas worth spreading”, C2MTL’s focus appears to be on creating an immersive experience for its delegates, which precisely mirrors the approach the business world is now taking in its approach to marketing, with an emphasis on “engagement” and real-time, targeted marketing.

From the standpoint of the new rules of business and marketing, C2MTL is a standard bearer.

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