Event Design

Grand Designs

C2-MTL was planned with the support of three levels of government and celebrity backers, while The 3% conference resulted from a spur-of-the-moment announcement by someone with no event -planning experience.  But both meetings -- launched this year --cater to audiences with creative careers, and as such are committed to imaginatively designed programs.

Convene - C2-MTL








C2-MTL (Commerce+Creativity) Montreal May 22-25.

1,300 professionals from 37 countries across a wide variety of industries

“There are several conferences on innovation, but none is truly creative in its approach.  We wanted to go beyond just talking about creativity, to create a completely immersive experience.  My colleagues and I also had a desire to create a platform to showcase Montreal’s hotbed of talent to the world.” — Jean-Francois Bouchard, C2-MTL’s curator

A stellar lineup, including filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner, best-selling author Jonah Lehrer, entrepreneur and hotelier Ian Schrager, Fast Company Editor Robert Safian, AOL Huffington Post Media Group Editor in Chief Arianna Huffington, Cirque du Soleil President and CEO Daniel Lamarre, Google Creative Lab Chief Creative Officer Robert Wong, and DreamWorks Animation Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson.

C2-MTL was the centerpiece of a “Be Creative a la Montreal” media fam trip, hosted by Tourisme Montreal, that I attended in late May.  The trip was organized to showcase the city—a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network for the past six years—as a hub of creativity and design.  That vibe was evident from the moment that we checked into our boutique host hotel, Lhotel, a former 1870s bank in the heart of Old Montreal, where we were surrounded at every turn by modern art from the multimillion-dollar personal collection of owner Georges Marciano (of Guess fame).

The juxtaposition of the past, present, and future was a constant theme during my visit and particularly at C2-MTL, whose stated mission was to explore creativity as it relates to commercial enterprise.  While much can be written about that three-day discussion on the nature of creativity, from a meeting-planning perspective the conference design itself served as a laboratory of innovation.  As Jean-Francois Bouchard, curator of C2-MTL and president of the Sid Lee creative agency, said in an interview with the press immediately following the conference’s closing session: “My observation about events that have to do with innovation [is that they] have not been innovative.”

Here are some elements showcased at C2-MTL that sought to change that:


“We had great partners to organize this [event],” Bouchard said.  “The fact that we were producing this with Cirque du Soleil — people could see that we had done [events] before, so it was not a fluke.” The Cirque du Soleil affiliation enabled C2-MTL to draw an impressive roster of speakers, he said, while Montreal’s “vibrant movie industry” was key to attracting Francis Ford Coppola.

“Several levels of government supported C2-MTL, including the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, Tour- ism Montreal, and the city of Montreal, “[who] bought into [the idea of the conference] right away,” Bouchard said.  “Actually the city …  was the very first supporter.  They financed the business plan, because we did not even have a business plan.”

In addition to C2-MTL’s curating organization Sid Lee and creative partner Cirque du Soleil, content partners Fast Company, IBM, PwC, and Mosaic were instrumental to the event’s development.  And the conference was presented by Laurentian Bank and Tourisme Montreal, and “powered” by HSM Global.  “We believe in collaboration,” Bouchard said.  “This is not something that gets [put together] by a lone producer.  We’ve been the producer of producers.”

Location and Layout

C2-MTL took place in Montreal’s Griffintown neighborhood, which is undergoing gentrification, and was housed mainly in the 19th-century New City Gas building, a warehouse space that was refurbished exclusively for the conference’s use.  Attendees spilled out into a pop-up “village of innovation,” which included outdoor lounge areas and a huge tent with piped-in scenting, outfitted with interactive art exhibits and spacious, comfortable lounges with sofas, tables, and bars.  Attendees scribbled messages and scheduled impromptu appointments on the tent’s blackboard walls.  Multiple screens broadcasted speakers on the warehouse stage.

Sprinkled throughout the tent, outdoors, and in the warehouse were small art displays that housed such common objects as a pillow, a microscope, and a lantern, to symbolize and reinforce underly- ing conference themes (comfort, analysis, and enlightenment, respectively).  And instead of a Twitter stream, C2-MTL featured a Knitterstream, where a digitally programmed loom knitted the conference’s best tweets into a yarn scarf that grew longer by the hour.

As for C2-MTL’s chosen locale, Bouchard said: “It’s a bit of a mess around here, as you can see.  Most event organizers would steer clear of such an area, but we said, ‘No, that’s what we want — it’s a little gritty and rough, and shows you where the city is going.’”

“Innovation can get messy,” the conference program read.  “As you may have noticed from all the cranes and orange cones, C2-MTL’s village of innovation is at the epicentre of a neighbourhood in the making.  …  Thank you in advance for your indulgence (and besides, who ever said creativity couldn’t use a touch of chaos?).”


C2-MTL offered a mix of presentation formats: panels, on-stage interviews, and solo presenters.  Each session featured coverage from an editorial team that was based in a buzzing news center on the gas building’s main floor, and broadcasted on a large on-stage screen.  The editorial team – inspired by live broadcast coverage of sporting events, Bouchard said – “analyzed and contextualized” the presentations and fielded questions from participants who interacted with them via a web app.

A small army of volunteers (around 150, mainly New Life The from local universities) served as “personal concierges” who offered a variety of services—from restaurant recommendations to helping participants submit “burning questions” that multidisciplinary panelists would select to address during specific sessions.

Giving Back

Before and during the three-day conference, a multidisciplinary team – a copywriter, an art director, a creative technologist, an architect, and industrial and graphic designers – brainstormed about ways to raise awareness and funding for RED, a global nonprofit dedicated to eradicating the transmission of HIV from mothers to their babies.  The team presented a social-media campaign proposal to RED’s CEO on stage as one of C2-MTL’s final sessions.

Bouchard called the inaugural C2-MTL “a test drive,” noting that Sid Lee Entertainment, a joint venture with Cirque du Soleil, is contemplating hosting C2 in one additional city in the world, in addition to its return engagement in Montreal next May.  “We want this to happen every year,” Bouchard said.  “Maybe twice.”

More Resources

For more information about C2-MTL, visit c2mtl.com.  For video highlights from the conference, visit convn.org/c2-MTL12.

The 3% Conference
San Francisco
Sept. 27

Several hundred agency owners, creative directors, and creative recruiters

Working as a creative at large ad agencies, The 3% Conference’s founder, Kat Gordon, was disheartened by the absence of women in senior leadership positions.  Indeed, of all the creative directors at North American ad agencies, only 3 percent are women (hence the conference name).  Gordon cites a study in which 90 percent of female consumer respondents — who represent the majority of purchasers — said they felt that advertisers do not understand them.  The 3% Conference is intended to remedy “this age-old problem.”


Advertising agency leaders and academics

In retrospect, Kat Gordon, who owns Maternal Instinct, a Palo Alto–based agency focused on marketing to mothers, thinks it’s “crazy” that she’s spent the last year organizing a brand-new conference. After all, she said, “I can barely host a dinner party.” But she hasn’t let her lack of event- organizing skills stop her.

“Maybe there are other people like me out there that don’t think of themselves as a conference planner, but as a thought leader, or a visionary, or somebody that has something to contribute,” she said. “I think an event is a great way to mobilize people around an issue. The things that gave me pause about doing [this conference] were the things that I’m not good at, but you can outsource those. You don’t have to be good at everything. You just have to have the vision and be able to bring together the right group of people to make it a compelling event.”

Here’s how Gordon conceived of and planned out her vision:

It Started at a Conference

Holding a conference to address the paucity of female creative directors was something Gordon thought about for several years before she articulated it. That happened in a very public way two summers ago, when she spoke at the 140 Characters Conference in San Francisco on “the snowballing power of the female consumer, and what companies were doing wrong to connect with her,” she said. “One of [which] was not having enough women on their account at their ad agency. So the night before I gave my talk at that conference, I thought, ‘You know what, I’m just going to announce this conference, and see what happens.’”

Which she did, saying at the end of her 140 Characters presentation: “And a new conference is being generated to address this, called The 3% Conference.” She’d created a Twitter handle @3percentconf) that morning. “It was kind of like, let’s just see if there is interest,” Gordon said. “A lot of people responded to that initial tweet from that conference about this other conference. And that started the ball rolling.”

Business Plan

Gordon didn’t want to bring people together “and just have it be a great fest,” she said. “I wanted it to be a problem-solving event. I spent a lot of time reading online and discovered some really good papers written by some academics …on the different issues facing women in advertising.”

Gordon’s copywriting skills came in handy as she developed a questionnaire, which in June 2011 she sent to 50 female creatives at ad agencies, requesting their feedback on which items were of greatest interest to them — and who they thought should sponsor the event. It turned out that they ranked ad-agency sponsors really low — an “important data point” for Gordon, who realized that “if you’re going to get together and discuss an issue that’s so long overdue, and a lot of women have hurt feelings or bad stories around it, you almost don’t want to be hosted by an ad agency that day — where you feel like you’re kind of dissing the host. You want to be able to have complete honesty. And so that really led me to not even try to sell sponsorships to ad agencies.” Overall, Gordon said the feedback “was a resounding yes — ‘Yes, this is needed.’ ‘Yes, I want to help.’ ‘Yes, I would come.’” She received helpful speaker recommendations as well. “That’s when I felt I had the green light to proceed,” she said.

Getting the Word Out

Gordon launched The 3% Conference website (3percentconf.com) this past February. “I put up a landing page immediately, and it was pretty crappy,” she said. “I was a little bit embarrassed. …When you’re trying to entice people in advertising to come to an event, they have a pretty good design sensibility. But it was well written and it explained the premise of the event, and just allowed people to sign up for email.  That was a way I could quickly capture and start building a database in advance of having a fully functioning website.”

Conference Hopping

Over the past year, Gordon made a point of attending about eight conferences, and speaking at a few. “I felt it was almost my research assignment to kind of watch the mechanics of a conference, see what I thought made for a compelling conference, and see things I didn’t want to replicate at our event,” she said. She attended large conferences, such as BlogHer, with 6,000 attendees, as well as smaller meetings, to get a feel for what would be the appropriate number of attendees to aim for at this first-time event. “It was pretty much a stab in the dark,” she said. “I had been told that for a first-year conference, anything over 100 attendees is successful. So I set a big, audacious goal, and said, ‘Let’s do 200 people. I think that’s doable.’”

As an active conference observer, Gordon had two main takeaways for her own event. “I’m kind of introverted, and so going to a conference where you don’t know anyone is overwhelming,” she said. “I wanted opportunities for socialization that would make it easy on someone that might be there without co-workers.” She is hoping to accomplish that with a welcome cocktail party the evening before and a relaxed, outdoor lunch during the conference.

The other thing she realized is that while “there are a lot of smart people in the world that have interesting things to share from the stage, there aren’t a lot of people that have a stage presence,” she said. “I definitely wanted to think about the people I’m putting on stage and make [sure they’re] firecrackers. Also, I just moderated my first panel, and that’s a different kind of art. I learned to have respect for what makes a good speaker, what makes a good moderator, and to really do my homework about who I was putting on my agenda.”

Venue Selection

Gordon worked with Karen Daitch, owner of San Francisco–based One K Events, to come up with a short list of venues that were available on Sept. 27 (the date Gordon had selected), that could accommodate 200 attendees, “and that had the right feeling,” she said. She toured them all in one day with Daitch, and ultimately chose One Leidesdorff, a venue that “had a lot of efficiencies built into it. They own both buildings in this small alleyway in downtown San Francisco, so you can get a city permit and put these hedges at both ends and have lunch outside, which is just incredible in September in San Francisco.”

Gordon had not yet hired Daitch when she selected an upscale hotel that she felt would appeal to design-minded women. “I feel like that’s something that I didn’t do a great job on – at negotiating, because I just reached out to them and they gave me a link to put on our website that would save our attendees 15 percent off the published room rates,” she said. “We’re not having our event at a hotel, so I didn’t have to block out a bunch of rooms in order to secure the venue; I don’t feel like I did a great job getting something out of it for me or for the conference.”


Gordon has a traditional format planned for next month’s conference, launching with a keynote speaker, featuring several panel discussions, and holding up to three breakout sessions concurrently, in order to address the needs of both senior-level attendees and the “young women in advertising that want to kind of learn from the veterans.” The final presentation of the day will be a panel of ad-agency leaders “talking about the diversity initiatives they’ve created within their ranks, what they look like in practice, and how you can do the same,” she said. “I wanted to end with the how-to next steps for the people that are attending.”

Gordon hopes to videotape the event for non-attendees. “I don’t want to put behind a gate everything that was shared,” she said. “I’d like to make it as open as possible. And right now, my goal is totally around securing another few sponsors [in order to fund that]. It’s challenging with a first- year event — you don’t have a sizzle reel, you don’t have press clippings, you don’t have testimonials. It’s still kind of an idea, and that’s part of its appeal — it’s a visionary event. But it also makes it a little more challenging for companies that either do their planning way in advance or who want to go with something that’s a little more proven.”


Gordon was at the break-even point when we spoke in June. “Everything will be covered from ticket sales and sponsor dollars,” she said. “But I have dedicated a year of my life to this, without compensation, and so it would be nice to raise more sponsor dollars, so that there’s some kind of compensation for all the sweat and time I’ve put into it.”

Thinking ahead, Gordon sees The 3% Conference as an event that will be held on both coasts, in San Francisco and New York. “I think it’s such a long-overdue conversation and that we’re just getting it started with this event,” she said.  “I want there to be a real, active community around it all year long, through the Facebook community and the LinkedIn group. And then, let’s revisit it every year. We live in a society where there’s so much online interaction, I actually think the kind of in-real-life events are more important than ever.”

More Resources
For more information about The 3% Conference, visit 3percentconf.com

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.