As vice president of sales and marketing for Cirque du Soleil’s Resident Show Division in Las Vegas, Alma Derricks is responsible for filling about 20,000 seats on any given evening. A digital media pioneer who brought comic-strip sensation Dilbert online, Derricks has held a rich mix of marketing, strategic planning, and digital media positions at such leading organizations as HBO, Paramount, and Deloitte. She uses that varied experience—and a keen focus on customer intimacy—to help the entertainment company ensure that its ongoing performances in Las Vegas and Orlando perform to a packed house nightly. Here, she talks about the art of creating intimate connections among brands, performers, and customers.
What’s your marketing passion?
Brands are part utilitarian and part emotional. I’m passionate about tapping into those emotional intangibles because that’s where you build relationships with customers. That’s where you build intimacy and where you can access something completely otherworldly, beyond the purpose of the product.
Is that easy to do at Cirque du Soleil given the otherworldly nature of your performances?
I know it sounds like a no-brainer since we have such a passionate product, but we still have challenges around telling our story in ways that resonate with new customers. Yes, we have some advantages over other companies, but the fact that we’re so flashy sometimes makes it difficult to find that quiet place, that element that truly connects with a customer.
We have very strong brand recognition. At the same time, some people have typecast us and decided that we’re not for them. We want to help those folks get closer to what we offer so they can experience us first and then decide. We hear stories all the time about people who didn’t think they wanted to see our product, but who were dragged to a show by family members, friends, or colleagues and came away mesmerized. So, we still need to find those intangibles within our brand — not just the productions themselves — that connect with people’s passions and lives.
When in your career did the passion for the emotional side of brands hit you?
I jumped into digital in 1994, the Jurassic days. I was hired by United Media [a comic strip newspaper syndicate and licensing company] to build its online presence. I was responsible for building the Dilbert Zone, the website for the comic strip. When the idea of venturing online first came up, I predicted that Dilbert would be our star because Dilbert readers were exactly the people who were on the web in the early days. United Media also owned the Peanuts comic strip, which was clearly the dominant brand in the portfolio. I believed that Peanuts wasn’t going to matter in online media at that moment. And I was right: Peanuts generated limited online traffic for a long time, whereas Dilbert was immediately a breakout star online. It showed me that a low-tech, analog product — Dilbert was a black-and-white line drawing — could be incredibly meaningful to people on an emotional level. The energy, loyalty, and enthusiasm the Dilbert Zone generated was immense.
Did you learn other marketing lessons from your Dilbert Zone experience?
When we launched the site on April 1, 1995 — a Saturday — there were questions about whether it would matter if we responded to the emails we received. Well, we received thousands that first weekend, and I made a point to answer every email. I barely slept that weekend. That first round of emails was very judgmental. People had strong opinions about seeing their favorite newspaper comic strip online. I thanked every sender and addressed their comments.
The next round of emails we received had a completely different tone; they were extremely friendly, helpful, and encouraging. [Dilbert creator] Scott [Adams] received mails thanking him for having someone running the site who answered questions right away. We also received notes like, “Hey, I noticed a broken link on page 30 of the site, and I took the liberty of rewriting the HTML for you so that the link works. Here you go. Thanks so much for what you do.” It was an influential marketing lesson about the value of two-way communications. It required a huge time commitment, but it paid off in ways that we never could have imagined. Scott has used email to build an incredible relationship with Dilbert fans, who still send him ideas for the strip. He’s an object lesson on the benefits of creating one-on-one conversations with fans on a daily basis.
How do you convey your passion to your team and the rest of the Cirque organization?
The number one thing for me is creating a safe space for people to collaborate and quickly throw ideas out there. To get that, you can’t have an environment that’s punitive when ideas are deemed “too wacky.” I also make a point to create interdisciplinary teams. We want as many perspectives — ticketing, technology, PR, sales, etc. — around the table as possible because it helps everyone learn. Although we don’t currently do a lot of formal marketing training, we’ve launched a series of peer-to-peer lunch-and-learns. It delighted me that the first time I suggested a lunch-and-learn, almost everyone on my team asked for financials to be the topic. How do we really make money? How do we build our revenue base every year? We also hosted a recent session on digital and social media that was hugely popular.
Tell me about a recent initiative that reflects you passion for your brand’s emotional connections?
Last October we launched our new corporate training program called Spark Sessions. Basically, we’re using Cirque theaters, performers, cast, and crew to impart business lessons on topics such as leadership, trust, and creativity. Our facilitator works with companies to develop customized programs to support specific training or leadership development needs.
This taps into my passion because it represents a brand extension and because it takes something that’s allows people to access Cirque in a new and more immersive way. It’s also an opportunity for our performers and production teams to expand their skills. We have performers who are learning to facilitate sessions. They’re talking about teamwork to business executives through the lens of their own experience as Cirque performers.
The program was developed in-house at our Montréal headquarters. We adopted it and ran with it as a Las Vegas program because we have the theaters and the teams here on a daily basis. In addition to all of the marketing we do on a day-to-day basis, it’s probably what I’m most excited about right now.
What’s an example of a Cirque experience that resonates with a business audience?
Change and trust are good examples. In the traditional circus, trapeze acts are comprised of close knit family members. They typically managed and built their own rigging. A mother would literally hook her child into the safety harness. It was a very intimate and closed-loop system. Cirque’s technology inserts computers, riggers, and engineers into the trapeze act, which represents a dramatically different way of operating for trapeze acts that were previously so closely held. How our performers have made this delicate transition can offer valuable insights on change management, trust, and high-stakes decision-making in an organizational setting. We started Spark Sessions as an add-on offering to companies visiting Vegas for conferences. Today, businesses are calling us to schedule those sessions as the centerpiece of their Las Vegas visit.
How do you see the role of marketing executive and CMO evolving in the next five years?
First, I think the pendulum has swung a bit heavily toward the notion of big data as a magic bullet. Marketing technology is incredible and extremely useful, but I think we’ve lost sight of the importance of intuition. You still have to be able to scan a page full of data and draw conclusions based on your intuition. I certainly hope that we’ll restore the balance between marketing art and science.
Second, I think the customer’s desire to get closer and more intimate with products and brands is only going to increase. We’ve already seen some chief marketing officer roles become chief experience officer roles. That name change reflects a need to move beyond thinking about marketing techniques to thinking about the experience at every customer touchpoint.
Cirque’s internal tracking shows that up to 50% of tickets are sold on the day of a performance, reflecting the spur-of-the-moment decision-making that Vegas visitors increasingly embrace. In response, Derricks and her team have significantly amplified their efforts to reach prospective customers in the 24 to 48 hours leading up to performances. These efforts include increasing the number of brand ambassadors who greet guests as they check into hotels; sending out more same-day texts and emails to target customers in the afternoon (prime decision-making time); and intensifying property-specific targeting.
Hiring High-Flying Performers
Derricks looks for the following when hiring:
· A holistic view of business and life: “It’s almost impossible to operate in a vacuum anymore,” Derricks says. “We have to think simultaneously about our shows, the properties that house our theaters, the hotels where our customers stay, where our performers live, the entire city of Las Vegas and where it’s going, higher-level hospitality trends, foreign exchange rates, and more.” She wants people who are attuned to the context they, and Cirque, operate in.
· Curiosity: Derricks prefers to work with sales and marketing professionals who are students of what they do and sell. To cultivate this quality, she assigned her team to pair up, attend a show, and record their observations about their own customer experiences. Some snapped pictures noting that the venue’s signage was difficult to see, others noted that certain shows attracted lots of children or couples, others reported on gift shop items, and so forth. Derricks then published a big book of all the observations and shared it with the entire team, which gave everyone a chance to rethink some of their assumptions and approaches.
· Speed and flexibility: “You have to have the ability to think and act quickly,” Derricks says. “We’re in a constantly changing, fast-moving market. You can’t be too much of a planner. You have to spot a problem and move quickly to address it.”