by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | July 01, 2012

On May 22-25 of this year, the first C2-MTL conference took place in Montreal. M&C contributing editor Cheryl-Anne Sturken attended this most unusual event; here's her report from the front lines.

From my first step into the entryway -- a strobe-lighted, black-fabric-draped hallway thrumming to the pulse of techno music and dubbed the Immersion Tunnel -- it's clear C2-MTL will be no ordinary business conference. At a glance, it looks like South By Southwest meets Burning Man. A rock band is onstage in one corner, amid incredible art installations, interactive art pods, food trucks, and dozens of pink- and black-clad, iPad-toting volunteers scurrying around. The eclectic attendee base -- about 1,200 strong -- is just as odd: a mix of black-suited corporate heavy hitters happily rubbing elbows with tattooed hipsters half their age, some with dogs in tow.

I have entered an alternate universe, three years in the making. C2-MTL: Commerce + Creativity is the brainchild of the Montreal-based advertising agency Sid Lee, whose clients include Adidas, Red Bull and MGM Grand. The idea for the conference sprung from a simple question voiced by Sid Lee client Daniel Lamarre, CEO of Cirque du Soleil, during a casual meeting with Jean-Francois Bouchard, co-founder, president and senior partner of the agency. "He asked, 'Isn't there an opportunity to create an event that can be both corporate and creative?' Our answer was an emphatic yes. So we decided to embark on this collective adventure," says Bouchard, who became the event's curator.

Abandoning tradition At your typical conference, creativity and innovation are little more than buzzwords. Not here. Those two concepts are the foundation imbedded into the very fabric of this event, meant to spark cutting-edge thinking about ways to conduct business. C2-MTL has no trade show, no sponsorship signage, not a single PowerPoint presentation.

The location is just as unexpected. Instead of the obvious choice, Montreal's high-tech convention center, the Palais des Congrès, Bouchard and fellow organizers planted the three-day event in the center of the city's gritty Griffintown. The district is a bevy of construction activity, with once-abandoned factories enjoying a rebirth as they are transformed into restaurants, retail space, art galleries, offices and condominiums.

Marc ChapmanAnchoring this pocket of the city is the historic New City Gas building, a stone-clad, peak-roofed structure completed in 1861. Conference organizers were so eager to have it be the centerpiece for their "Innovation Village" that they got involved with Heritage Montreal in its restoration. Benoit Berthiaume, executive producer of C2-MTL, says the choice of venue makes perfect sense: "We wanted a venue that reflected the host city's creativity and was as unique and innovative as the event itself."

Robert SafianThe conference has been funded with $750,000 of seed money from Tourism Montreal, which leapt at the idea of presenting the city as one of the world's hubs of creativity. The price of conference tickets ranges from $2,400 (for early registrants) to $3,000. Attendees have come from a number of young, cutting-edge companies from around the globe, along with a dizzying variety of major corporations such as State Farm Insurance, Johnson & Johnson, Pricewater­houseCoopers, Fidelity Investments, Nestlé Purina PetCare Co., the Mayo Clinic and Molson Coors.

Equally impressive is the roster of speakers, top visionaries of the artistic and academic worlds as well as the upper echelons of corporate America. Companies such as DreamWorks Animation, Fast Company, Google and IBM are represented. The lineup includes Michael Eisner, former chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co.; Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of AOL Huffington Post Media Group; and legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola.

"Getting VIP-tier speakers for an event that has not happened yet was a big challenge," acknowledges Bouchard. "Once you get one on board, it becomes easier. It puts people at ease. They see you as having credibility. It was never about money for any of them; it was about creating broader relationships."

Robert Safian, editor of Fast Company, who took to the stage on opening night to explain how his magazine selects nominees to its annual "100 Most Creative People in Business" list, was the first speaker to commit. He didn't know that until Bouchard mentioned it in passing at the conference.

"I asked him, 'Hey, did you know you were the first to say yes to us?' " Bouchard recalls. "He said he hadn't but it wouldn't have mattered. He said the concept sounded so interesting, he would have said yes anyway."

Patrick PichetteIt's a sentiment echoed by many of the speakers. "I was thrilled to be invited," says Patrick Pichette, senior vice president and chief financial officer for Google. "Innovation is at the core of what we do, and it is an important message at the heart of this conference. When innovation is married to business, it's wonderful. Also, since I'm in Montreal quite often, it was easy to slip it on my calendar."

Arianna Huffington, one of the most influential figures in media with 500 reporters and editors under her company's global umbrella, notes that she did not hesitate when she heard about the conference from good friend Safian. "It was just such a fantastic opportunity. You can't emphasize creativity in business enough," she says.

Boston-based Marc Chapman, global strategy and transformation leader for IBM Global Business Services, chose C2-MTL as the place to unveil the findings of IBM's Global CEO study, which surveyed the leadership styles of 1,700 chief executives from 64 countries. "The IBM you know today is not your father's. We are constantly transforming," says Chapman. Both the timing and the conference's theme of Commerce + Creativity were per­fect, he adds, because key amongst the yearlong study's findings was the revelation that top performing CEOs -- those whose companies saw increased profitability and growth -- were more open to innovation, collaboration and embracing new business models.