Sid Lee turned heads earlier this summer when it announced that it had scooped up the Adidas Originals account. The win meant the agency would handle everything for the brand—from retail design and experiential marketing to advertising—including interactive. The agency also announced plans for global expansion, with an Amsterdam office set to launch in September.
Canadian ad watchers knew of Montreal-based Sid Lee as the eclectic, design-driven creative shop formerly called Diesel (fatigued by repeating the phrase, "No, not the jeans company," agency principals opted for the current anagrammatic handle in 2006). The agency had distinguished itself in certain circles for its holistic, beyond ads approach and work for Red Bull, Cirque du Soleil, MGM Grand and Adidas. The company can also boast of being an early, early adopter of digital—web-focused projects go back to the mid '90s and the agency has consistently won top honors at Canada's Digital Marketing Awards from 2001 on.
But Sid Lee was not an agency that had much in the way of profile; it was not an awards circuit stalwart. That was fine with agency co-founder Jean-Francois Bouchard—the company, he says, has been focused on doing the doing. Besides, a good part of the work the agency was doing—like designing retail spaces –wasn't what ad awards tended to celebrate until very recently. "We've been working on our formula for years and we're ready to communicate it to the world," says Bouchard. "We thought, let's walk first and we can talk later."
Bouchard and Philippe Meunier founded what was then Diesel in 1993. Neither had an advertising background. In spite of that, or more likely because of it, the partners created a company that didn't look much like an ad agency, a company with a holistic philosophy that was inclusive of design, experiential marketing and interactivity. Sid Lee's body of work has reflected its founding philosophy—the agency has designed stores for Adidas and SAQ (Quebec's government controlled liquor stores), launched the Adidas Originals' Denim by Diesel collection and has created environments and a ton of interactive work for Cirque du Soleil, events for Red Bull and brand identity and packaging for a range of other clients.
"We were all outsiders from the industry," says Bouchard. "We wanted to be part of it as craftspeople trying to find new ways to interact with consumers. Truly mixing disciplines was always important to us—we started more as a branding firm then evolved into an advertising and interactive firm. We never understood why an ad agency would have to team up with a branding agency to do brand ID work. We thought that having all those separate approaches was industry centric, not consumer centric." But even with integration as a founding principle, Bouchard says it's taken time to cultivate a meaningfully integrated offering. "I think people believe it's something that can be improvised. But our experience is that it takes time to fully integrate—without any silo-d thinking—people with such diverse expertise."
The agency now employs 250 people, half of whom are "one massive creative team," says Bouchard, and half of those creatives are from the digital arena. Creative teams are made up of six people who, depending on the assignment, could include industrial designers, architects, art directors, writers, interactive or other creatives. The company also has longstanding alliances with outside companies, including architectural firm Aedifica. The design ethic has been an important part of the agency's growth—among its key projects has been creating Adidas Originals flagship stores in New York and Berlin.
It all falls under the agency's mandate and guiding principle of "commercial creativity." "The foundation of the agency is really the belief that all experiences should carry the brand's message," says Bouchard. "We start with the consumer and the importance of creating a meaningful experience to express the brand. It cannot be driven by advertising, it has to be driven by this notion of creating vibrant brand experiences." Every interaction with a brand is "a storytelling opportunity," says Bouchard. "Whether it's a store, the hanger a shirt is on, everything the consumer sees or touches or smells. Everything that's a creative function that has a potential impact on business we want to be able to integrate into our thinking. We aim at creating experiences that people want to talk about."
The agency uses another alliterative philosophical touchstone, conversational capital, to discuss how to create those talk-worthy experiences. Agency chairman and third principal partner Bertrand Cesvet turned the phrase into a blog, and now a book, Conversational Capital: How To Create Stuff People Love To Talk About set to be published by FT Press in August (Cesvet co-authored the book with Tony Babinski and Eric Alper). Cesvet calls conversational capital an "intellectual bridge" for many of the agency's different interests. "Everyone says (word of mouth) is important, and there is a lot of focus on what media people use," says Cesvet. "But few have paid attention to what people talk about when they engage in word of mouth. As we went along at the agency, the idea of things like product design and retail were things that intuitively were appealing to us. But I wanted to find an intellectual justification for them." This thought process was also the genesis of the agency's relationship with Adidas—CC was born as a white paper Cesvet had written in advance of his first meeting with the marketer. It apparently went over well—the agency won project work for the brand (Sid Lee's first Adidas gig was designing an immersive retail experience inside Finish Line stores). Over the years, the shop won more work and then, this June, the Originals account (Adidas CMO Hermann Deininger wrote the preface for the Conversational Capital book).
Cesvet was one of Sid Lee's first clients and worked as a strategic consultant before Bouchard convinced him to join the agency in 1996. Cesvet also holds the title of founding partner, Cirque Du Soleil Lifestyle Group. That role speaks to a larger business relationship with Cirque, an atypical client that has perhaps had as much to do with shaping the Sid Lee ethic as any of the agency's partners. Outside of Celine Dion and excessive politeness, CdS is perhaps Canada's most internationally recognized export. Founded in 1984 by Guy Laliberte (who started as a performer—a stilt walker and, yes, fire breather), CdS became a $1.2 billion global colossus built on creative expression. In other words, inasmuch as Sid Lee isn't a normal agency, CdS isn't a normal client. Having this kind of creatively driven, globe-hopping marketer—one still driven and 95 percent owned by its founder—as a longtime partner has fueled Sid Lee's creative and entrepreneurial mandate. "(Cirque) has played a mentorship role for us," says Cesvet.' "And because they are nomadic, it's meant we've worked all over the world. It gave us license to think about a global vision." Now, as CdS looks to grow from entertainment company to lifestyle brand, Sid Lee will act as equity partner as well as service partner. The two companies are teaming on (and investing in) a new venture to take CdS beyond its core business (shows) and into areas like clubs, spas and clothing.
Bouchard says Sid Lee's creative function includes identifying and developing businesses for clients, and that the agency has more than one equity deal cooking — but, as always, the approach is do first. "Agencies are sometimes overconfident about their ideas," says Bouchard. "An idea is nothing if you can't implement it." The agency also devotes two percent of its revenue to the Sid Lee Collective, a creative incubator allowing staff experimentation outside of client contracts. This R&D outlet has obvious recruitment advantages, but also kicks back more entrepreneurial ideas. "It's a mix of commercial and cultural projects," says Bouchard. "The criteria we use to select a project is, is this pushing the boundaries of what we know? If so, we'll give it a shot." The collective has produced everything from pillows to parties to music compilations and art shows. Some of the projects have been or will be brought to a revenue generating conclusion—a nomadic art gallery idea was bought, shipment container and all, by one client; an industrial design exercise has ended with the agency designing a scooter for an as yet unnamed manufacturer.
And, naturellement, the collective is only a part of the big quality of life picture at the agency—there's the cool space, the in-house restaurant (download recipes on the Sid Lee site), parties and other perks. And then, well, there's Montreal, which is something of a creative hotbed these days. "Montreal is a great creative platform," says Bouchard. The world has to take notice of how much creative talent there is here, across numerous disciplines. There's an asset in this city that we want to show the world and to leverage to make Sid Lee better."
In the meantime, the partners are building the agency's new Amsterdam offshoot which they say will be a mix of Canadian, European and global talent. Cesvet says the agency has brought on two local partners, marketers from Nike and Diesel. None of Sid Lee's main partners will relocate but Cesvet says, "we all expect to move around a lot."