Sid Lee Shows It Takes Time to Build a Truly Integrated Shop

Montreal Shop's 'Commercial Creativity' Mandate Will Be on Display With Adidas Originals Win

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It's rare today that an agency winning a major chunk of business for a significant brand elicits the reaction, "Who?" That was the question on the lips of many (non-Canadian, at any rate) ad watchers last week when what sounded like just some dude scooped up the Adidas Originals assignment.

Those north of the 49th parallel may be familiar with Montreal-based Sid Lee as the eclectic, design-forward creative shop formerly known as Diesel. (Fatigued by repeating the phrase, "No, not the jeans company," agency principals opted for the current anagrammatic handle in 2006.)

While the agency has done interesting work -- projects for Adidas and work for clients Cirque du Soleil, MGM and Red Bull, among others -- and gained industry kudos for its integrated approach (and for being an early adopter of interactive creativity, with digital credits dating from the mid '90s), it hasn't had much of a conventional profile. That will likely change with the Originals win and the September launch of a new office in Amsterdam. The shop will handle everything from retail design and experiential marketing to ads for Originals, with work set to launch in November.

The agency was founded in 1993 by Jean-Fran├žois Bouchard and Philippe Meunier, neither of whom brought any significant ad chops to the enterprise. In spite of that, or more likely because of it, the partners launched the company with a holistic, beyond-communications philosophy that included design and experiential marketing and interactivity. "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 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 -- he reckons 10 years -- to develop and fully exploit a truly integrated offering. "People believe that it's something that can be improvised. But our experience is that it takes time to fully integrate people with such diverse expertise." The agency now employs 250 people, half of whom are "one massive creative team" (with half of those creatives being what one would call digital). Teams are made up of six people, who, depending on the assignment, could be combinations of industrial designers, architects, art directors, writers, interactive types and others.

The agency, predictably, encourages and funds staffers' projects outside of client projects with its Sid Lee Collective. The company also has long-standing 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 have been the creation of Adidas Originals flagship stores in New York and Berlin.

It all falls under the agency's mandate and guiding principle of "commercial creativity."

"Every interaction with the 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." That creative function includes identifying and developing businesses for clients, and Bouchard says the agency has two equity deals 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."

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and
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