Sid Lee has offices in three cities across the globe, but if you arrive at any of them and ask to speak with Mr Lee, you will be greeted with a wry smile. The company was first formed in Montreal in the early 90s but has been known as Sid Lee for just three years. The name was chosen, not in reference to a specific person, but as an anagram of Diesel, by which the Canadian creative agency was first known.
The ambiguity of Sid Lee’s current moniker is well suited to its activities, however, which are expansive and eclectic. Take a look at its online portfolio and you’ll find everything from tv ads – Sid Lee created the hip House Party film for adidas last year, which featured cameos from everyone from Missy Elliott to Björn Borg – to retail space design. In the last year it has also formed its own architecture arm, and the agency has been creating brand communications for the phenomenally successful Cirque du Soleil for the last ten years. Advertising industry observers may be weary of hearing the expression ‘360 degree communications’, but Sid Lee has genuine cause to use it.
This agnostic approach has been there since the early days of the company. Formed in 1993 by creatives Jean-François Bouchard and Philippe Meunier, after they failed to be hired by any of the traditional agencies they applied to, the intention from the beginning was to be different. “Very early on they positioned themselves with this desire to take down the industry out of revenge for not getting a job,” explains Bertrand Cesvet, who joined Diesel, as it was then known, three years after it was first formed and is now chairman and chief strategist. “Innovate or die was our philosophy, that was basically the idea.”
“The funny thing is Sid Lee was never in love with advertising,” he continues. “If you look at the very early work – one of the first things we did was, to this day, one of the most brilliant things we’ve ever done. There was a pizza place that came to us and they had $20,000, which was a huge budget for us, to do the radio advertising, media and creative. We said, ‘let’s not do that, let’s rent a warehouse and invite people with old, beat-up cars and invite an artist and paint the cars the colours of the pizza place’. So we threw a big party, 100 cars came and we painted all the cars…. It was on the evening news, everybody talked about it. This was in the early 90s.”
While such ‘brand events’ are increasingly commonplace now, this was a radical approach in the days before digital had begun to exert its force over the ad industry. Unsurprisingly then, the founders of Sid Lee were quick to pick up on how the web may create new opportunities for brands, and rapidly built digital skills into their repertoire, allowing them access to bigger clients. While the company’s development has been somewhat unplanned – “at the beginning we were a pretty bad design agency, then we evolved into a bad ad agency,” says Cesvet – this knack of recognising new trends has remained consistent throughout Sid Lee’s history.
“What was interesting for us is we were talking to clients about something they didn’t know,” explains Cesvet of their early forays into digital. “If we had decided to stay an ad agency … the process of doing advertising is really well understood, and it’s very hard to go to a client and say ‘I have a better way of doing advertising than anybody else’. Whereas if you do something in which the client is less comfortable, there is always a chance to create a unique point of view about that…. To this day we still have this process of conversations with clients on subjects that people don’t think about.”
Two clients have particularly influenced the direction that Sid Lee has taken. Firstly, in 2000, the agency won the aforementioned Cirque du Soleil account, beating off competition from 22 other agencies from all over the world. The relationship with the Cirque team has become a blueprint for Sid Lee’s way of working, with a particular emphasis on creativity. “Very quickly we found ourselves immersed in this world with incredibly creative people,” says Cesvet. “The Cirque du Soleil relationship allowed us to learn how to manage creativity. For us, a major difference in our business today is that we define ourselves as a creativity business, not a marketing communication business. But it’s really this notion that if you get enough bright people together to work on something, and if it’s led by an inspiring person, it doesn’t matter what it is, typically good things will come out.”
Despite being from the same city as Sid Lee, Cirque’s outlook was global, a viewpoint that the agency also took on. Cesvet emphasises the influence that Montreal has had on the agency’s work – “there’s a very high level of education, amazing schools and a creative industry,” he says – yet Sid Lee has not followed the usual Canadian advertising trajectory, which would be to open a main office in Toronto, where the bigger clients are based. Instead, their next move was overseas, to Amsterdam. This happened as a result of acquiring the adidas Originals account, the other significant client, which again came about by unusual means.
“Our theme was to embrace change and go for interesting clients with that, to begin relationships with these clients on these overlooked issues,” says Cesvat. “The example of how we won the global adidas Originals account was exactly that. We were asked to do a presentation to them, and rather than come in and say that the work that 180 does [who held the account at the time] sucks – which it doesn’t, they’re one of the best agencies in the world – we said ‘love your brand, love the work you do, the problem is at retail. Your stores don’t tell the adidas story.’ Then all of a sudden you create a completely different conversation with a client. The conversation becomes about the consumer experience, it becomes about storytelling at the point of sale.”
Sid Lee won the pitch for the adidas Originals retail work in 2006, and then a year later, when the rest of the business was put out to pitch, it won that. It was around this time that the change of name became necessary, as it became increasingly tiresome explaining that Diesel was not in fact connected to the well-known Italian clothing brand. The shift to Sid Lee was smooth however, coming as the company expanded out of Canada and began recruiting in earnest. Sid Lee opened in Amsterdam as a soft launch in 2007, and its office space there has now been open properly for just over a year. Expansion hasn’t stopped there. Despite a recession that has halted many ad agencies in their tracks, Sid Lee also moved into the Paris market in the last year, teaming up with ex-DDB creative Sylvain Thirache to open an office in the French capital. As with many of Sid Lee’s activities, this development was organic, with the agency pitching for, and winning, accounts including Eurostar and Coca-Cola France for the youth market before opening the office, rather than rushing in.
Expansion into France may seem an unusual move for a North American agency, yet the agency’s French-Canadian background puts Sid Lee in the unique position of understanding both markets. Further openings are also planned. “Right now international growth is very much at the top of our minds,” says Cesvet. “I think we need to reach out to bigger clients, bigger markets, bigger talent pools. For us, what’s guiding our expansion is very much our ability to meet interesting groups of people. We’re not going to buy an agency or anything, but I think the Paris model is the perfect model – where we find great people, like-minded people, and start doing something that works.”
Sid Lee is constantly evolving its offerings, having recently launched Sid Lee Architecture and also Jimmy Lee, a production company. Architecture and advertising may seem unlikely bedfellows, with one perennial, while the other is ephemeral. Cesvet recognises this, and acknowledges that “intellectually, this foray into architecture is just starting”, though mentions that they have a number of architecture-related projects coming to fruition over the next year.
In addition to Sid Lee’s commercial work, the company also runs the Sid Lee Collective, which funds personal creative projects by staff at the agency. “We created this firstly as an outlet for our employees to do their personal stuff, and also to use it as a r&d department basically, to experiment,” says Cesvat.
Projects already produced by the collective include a collection of unusual office chairs (see lead image) and exhibitions in its Montreal and Amsterdam offices. This collaborative spirit is also extended outside the company with ‘Collectivo’, an enterprise set up by Sid Lee to try and create a network of collaborators worldwide that will work freelance on various projects when relevant.
The Sid Lee story is a modern advertising tale. Rather than following the well-established conventions of the industry, the agency’s ability to adapt quickly to the seismic changes taking place in advertising has allowed it to pick up major accounts from under the noses of more traditional set-ups. And while growth is very much part of Sid Lee’s immediate ambition, the company ethos remains firmly on creativity and experimentation. According to Cesvet the main company values, alongside creativity, are “humility, humanity and doubt”, adjectives that are rarely associated with adland. Yet clients are increasingly turning away from traditional approaches towards smaller, more agile agencies such as Sid Lee, who can offer innovative thinking in an increasingly tricky market. “Our model is that everything’s changing and what has to lead is an integrated, generalist thinking,” says Cesvet.
“If you’re talking about 365-day marketing,” he continues, “you can no longer have an account group with 29 people and seven creative teams, and shoot a film for £3million. The big challenge now is agility, I really want my creative people to [shoot a film] and bang – put it online. It’s going to work for two days, three days, [before it] disappears … then give me another idea. On the one hand you have to be able to do that, on the other hand, you have to be able to build a building.”