The entrance of Arsenal, the venue that hosted C2-MTL.

Attendees mingle outside the venue entrance.

For three years running, C2-MTL has wooed attendees with three days of over-the-top immersive exhibits, celebrity speakers, gourmet meals and non-stop networking opportunities, all in an effort to “reinvent the business conference.

From the beginning the event has been billed as more than just a speaker lineup. It’s about being “innovative in its approach,” says Jean-Francois Bouchard, president of Sid Lee, the local advertising agency behind the event. That means plenty of art exhibits, live bands, hackathons and storytelling.

Attendees relax at one of the venues' many on-site bars.

Attendees relax at one of the venues’ many on-site bars. Image by Kristina Velan.

 

If it does anything, the event aims to impress. At times, it overwhelms. As the days unfolded, a few key themes began to materialize from the social feeds, exhibits, and even the keynotes themselves. So without further ado, here is what we took away from C2-MTL 2014.

Redefining the culture of collaboration

John Donne’s famous line, “No man is an island” greeted event-goers as they entered the main venue, but the curators didn’t need to reach into the annals of 17th century prose to convince attendees about the value of community.

John Donne's line, "No man is an island" greets attendees on the first day.

John Donne’s line, “No man is an island” greets attendees on the first day. Image by Kristina Velan.

Apart from a suite of workshops designed to promote chance encounters between attendees, and even a hackathon challenging competitors to create high-tech collaboration tools, speakers like Nathalie Bondil, Director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, spread the word that teamwork, not competition is the currency of business.

 

 Getting creative with data

We all know about the abundance of information at everyone’s disposal waiting to be scrutinized in service of business, but speakers often struggle to communicate the “how” of data analysis on stage.

This year, multiple speakers took up the challenge, including Estelle Métayer, founder of Competia, who convinced the crowd you don’t need fancy data analysis tools to gather business intelligence, you just need to think outside the box. Think using Rap Genius to discover trending luxury brands in hip-hop, for example.

Estelle Métayer lists example after example of how data can be collected from unconventional sources.

Estelle Métayer lists example after example of how data can be collected from unconventional sources. Image by Kristina Velan.

 

Jonathan Becher, the CMO at enterprise software behemoth SAP showed how a clever partnership with the NBA helped entrepreneurs “get” the power of data, which in turn, led to a huge increase in lead generation from the small business sector.

And this year the social analytics firm Nexalogy came on as an event partner and throughout the event, journalist Craig Silverman provided impromptu data-analysis briefings for the press.

The purpose-driven economy picks up steam

C2-MTL’s curators used a particularly diverse speaker roster this year to emphasize that creativity and commerce isn’t just about the collision of art and business – it can also mean being inventive with business models to solve social problems.

Those who stayed late on the first day were treated to an inspiring conversation between host George Stroumboulopoulos and Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who wrote the book on social business.

Professor Muhammad Yunus on stage with George Stroumboulopoulos.

Professor Muhammad Yunus on stage with George Stroumboulopoulos. Image by Kristina Velan.

Cindy Gallup rouses the crowd with her talk about her startup Make Love, Not Porn.

Cindy Gallop rouses the crowd with her talk about her startup Make Love, Not Porn. Image by Kristina Velan.

Simon Berry brought his own brand of social business to the stage with his presentation about his not-for-profit, ColaLife, which uses market distribution solutions to provide medicine to malnourished children in developing countries.

And Catherine Hoke, founder of Defy Ventures earned a standing ovation after her talk on how she helps ex-convicts get back on their feet by teaching them how to start their own businesses.

But the real showstopper – at least according to Twitter – was Cindy Gallop and her rousing appeal for the crowd to make love, not porn. While each speaker’s take on social business was different, what they shared was their desire to, as Tony Hsieh bluntly put it, “chase the vision, not the money.”

Failure is one option

C2MTL is experimental by nature. Whether it’s the immersive exhibits, the addition of new content (this year’s interstitial C2 Minutes comedy routine being among the most noteworthy), or the speakers themselves, the conference exemplified just how much risk-taking has become the conventional wisdom of the times.

After detailing the Absolut Company’s attempt to prevail against an encroaching culture of complacency by investing in new products, Jonas Tåhlin, VP Global Marketing, openly confessed on stage, “more than one of these new ventures will fail.”

Jonas Tahlin, Absolut Vodka's VP global marketing addresses the audience in the Microsoft Forum.

Jonas Tahlin, Absolut Vodka’s VP global marketing addresses the audience in the Microsoft Forum. Image by Kristina Velan.

John Hardy, the founder of Bali’s Green School, spoke about how he learned to “fail forward,” and how his business and personal life has been a journey to understand his “relationship with failure.” But it was James Cameron who had the last, and most refreshing word. When asked by an audience member how we should think about failure he responded that it’s okay to fail, “but frankly, it’s better if you don’t.”

 

 There’s no place like home

Several speakers brought home the value of location-based business as distinct from today’s global-minded startups.

Tony Hsieh may be best known for founding Zappos, but what made his talk memorable (beyond his gift for public speaking) was his description of the work he’s doing to revitalize Las Vegas through his company, Downtown Project.

Shorefast president Zita Cobb‘s cautionary tale about the fall and rise of Newfoundland’s Fogo Island, a tiny outpost in the North Atlantic, brought home the consequences of sacrificing local economies in the pursuit of multinational profits.

Tony Hsieh explains his urban renewal project in Las Vegas.

Tony Hsieh explains his urban renewal project in Las Vegas. Image by Kristina Velan.

And then there is the event itself, which is an exercise in opposites. Through its speaker lineup, guest list and promotional materials it emphasizes the international scope of the event, while simultaneously maintaining a distinct Montreal flavour.

When speaking with a few of the many Montrealers in attendance, the general consensus was that few cities could pull off a conference like C2-MTL. Biases aside, there may be some truth to it. Montreal, after all, has a legendary arts scene as well as a fledgling startup culture and the laissez-faire attitude that makes the collision of those two worlds okay. The event may have global ambitions, but more likely than not, C2-MTL will always stay close to its roots.

Justin Kingsley, writer and former chief socialist at Sid Lee, teaches the international audience how to cheer on local hockey team during the playoffs.

Justin Kingsley, writer and former chief socialist at Sid Lee, teaches the international audience how to cheer on the Montreal Canadiens hockey team during the playoffs. Image by Kristina Velan.