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Agency Profile: Sid Lee

Posted on December 16, 2006 and read 4,393 times

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ignaciocreditpic 150x150 Agency Profile: Sid LeeIgnacio Oreamuno

Public Notice: Diesel lived for 14 agency years (in human years this is the equivalent of 234 years) and solemnly passed away this October. Friends, clients and employees attended the lavish funeral and a public viewing was in place when I was there. Diesel was survived by its infant, Sid Lee.

The guys from Diesel never had any problems getting in night clubs since bouncers thought they were the famous jean manufacturers, however, when they were off in New York hiring talent, they were overwhelmed by fashion students who wanted a job cutting denim at the shop. I guess it’s what life would be like if your mother named you Elvis Presley—at what point would the “Any relation?” question annoy you so much that you are left with no option but to change your name? Hey, at least they were lucky that they didn’t name the agency “Wrangler” when they started.

According to co-founder Jean-Francois, one of the biggest advantages of naming the agency after a fictitious person is that you can blame it all on him. The name, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is simply an anagram of Diesel. It symbolizes a new beginning and a new direction for the agency, which sees the future as more flexible, fluid and organic than most people do.

Sid Lee is located in old Montreal, the historic part of one of North America’s most beautiful cities. Surrounding the agency are art galleries and great little restaurants. The agency is housed on the first floor of a corporate building that it has slowly taken over. When I was there, an entire new wing was being constructed for Sid Lee.

The agency was started by Jean-François Bouchard and Philippe Meunier, two big names now, but two very little names then. Their combined agency experience, when they started the agency, was a whopping 0.00000 and to make matters even more confusing Jean-Francois was a lawyer. In any case, the fact that they had no reference point is probably what led to them to create Diesel, which quickly became known as an agency that did very different types of work. In Canada, they created one of the first commercial websites back in ‘95 (yes the web existed then), and they also were one of the first agencies to marry design and advertising. They admit to making lots of mistakes on the way, but isn’t that how you learn to drive a bicycle? After all, the only other two guys I know who didn’t have a full time gig at an agency before they started were Chuck Porter and Alex Bogusky. If you don’t know the rules, no one can blame you for breaking them right? Clients like Red Bull, Cirque du Soleil and MGM seem to think so too.

Breaking the rules has earned Sid Lee Strategy’s Agency of the Year Nominee for 3 years in a row, best of show at the Digital Marketing Awards in ‘01, ‘04 and ‘06 and over 150 awards around the world. It’s cool, but I personally think that these guys don’t care as much about awards as other agencies do, and even more, I don’t think there are award shows for a lot of the things Sid excels at now.

This is the third time that the guys follow their gut instincts. The first time they did so, they started Diesel, the second time, they invested big in the interactive side of the business, which made them pioneers of this new medium in Canada (unfortunately, the bubble broke and it all went bonkers). This time around the partners realized that the changes happening in our industry are too large to be ignored. The business is no longer about print and T.V. ads, it’s about anything that surrounds a brand that communicates to consumers. Sid Lee calls this “Commercial Creativity” and it is the tag under which they label the company and their new beliefs.

In the past, clients pumped out a product and ad agencies built a story around the product in the form of a 30 second spot. In the present, design’s role in advertising has grown up.

The narrative that was previously only found in print and television spots now has to exist everywhere; in the packaging, on the website, in the esthetics of the product and as companies like Apple and Adidas have proven, even in their stores. Design is no longer a pretty layout to adorn the ad campaign, it’s part of the story, and since commercial creativity doesn’t fall out of the sky, someone has to build it right? Well that person is Sid.

The fact is that this “non traditional” side of the agency (let’s call it like that for now, even though it will become “traditional” very soon) is doubling in size every couple of months.

Final products like the BOSE and SAQ stores (Quebec’s government-owned alcohol stores) show just how much “Sid is in the details”. Clients used to have to juggle an architectural firm, a design firm, an interactive company, an events company and the ol’ ad agency. Why not give it all to one company that can make each element of the product’s communication cohesive?

Can it be done? Does it make sense? Is it too much for Sid?

Philllippe Meunier, Sid Lee’s co-founding partner and creative director, makes a great point, “Ad agencies have silos and disciplines, but consumers do not see these disciplines when they get in touch with the product regardless if that is in the store, in a piece of direct mail, via a viral, commercial art or a traditional ad.”

You would think that expanding services in a medium sized agency would dilute the quality of the final product, but Philippe argues that when you focus on a discipline it has a synergetic effect on other sides of the agency. For example, Diesel’s interactive team is not 4 guys doing web banners, it is a 50 strong army that does work ranging from traditional interactive to relationship and experiential marketing. The quality of their work is so high that it effectively pushes other areas of the agency to do better work. An incredible example, for which Diesel took Best of Show at the DMA’s this year, is their work for MGM Grand (Click on Enter Maximum Vegas)

Are you the right person for Sid Lee? Well, that’s a hard question. Most traditional agency people have a hard time adapting to the model. This is understandable, since an art director that has lived in the 8.5×11 world will probably feel out of place working with artists, designers, architects and ‘web dudes’. I guess if you want to work here you must be willing to relearn your craft by looking at the future and understanding that it’s going to be a group effort.

Your craft is not the only thing that will change. At Sid Lee, the model is a bit different from other agencies. When you walk into Philippe’s office you are immediately faced with dozens of hand-drawn stars on his wall. For a moment I thought, “Hey I didn’t know Philippe was satanic.” Thankfully, he explained to me that the stars were only team charts. A star has 6 end points and each end point has a person’s name. One star, for example, might be a project for MGM with an art director, a designer, an interactive designer and the creative leader. Each star is customized individually for the specific project or client and the makeup might be completely different in each case. “The classic team doesn’t work anymore,” says Philippe. This is pretty revolutionary in an industry that has refused to change an old-age model. At Sid Lee the team is everyone, and un-like other places, the art director and copywriter are not going to be the ones taking full glory and credit for the work.

The makeup of people at Sid Lee is like a Benetton ad. All colors, races and countries are represented. Sid does a lot of its hiring outside its borders because it is simply look-ing for the best people, regardless of where they live. In fact a week after visiting Sid, I went to New York and I met someone who was on their way to Sid, lucky her.

The efforts at Sid Lee will be well paid though. Sid Lee waters the creative seeds of its people with a fire hose. For the rebranding, the agency made an internal competition in which everyone tried to design “Sid Lee”. Entries came in the form of music videos, experimental art, wacky designs and more. The winner was shipped off to London, England for a visit to the Tate Museum.

If you didn’t win, don’t worry, Sid Lee encourages and nurtures everyone’s creative side. Is your dream to write a book, paint art, learn to make kites? Sid Lee will help you out, because they know that when you grow, the agency grows. After all, creative people are all starving artists, right? Even the partners are involved in off-agency projects ranging from photographic to film projects, and a lot of this work gets the light of the day in Sid Lee’s collective blog, the Sid Lee Collective.

Probably my favorite aspect of Sid Lee is the bistro. Every morning, everyone from the agency gathers together in the diner (it’s one long table) to enjoy complimentary breakfast together. Two full time chefs prepare amazing meals during breakfast and lunch every day, a menu is emailed out every day and you have to reserve your lunch online. According to Philippe, it usually gets booked in a few minutes. The chefs make sure to feed everyone healthy (but very tasty) food to keep everyone’s brains in full action.

Philippe explained the reasoning behind this, “An agency is not tables and computers, it’s people, and it’s our responsibility to take care of them.”

Being in the incredibly incredible city of Montreal has its advantages, since the energy, which is almost sexual, transpires into the agency. However, Canada is not a friend of change, and my guess is that having one of the most progressive agencies in the world is likely to not be well received by the industry. The press, in particular, have not really put as much attention to Sid Lee’s story as it deserves and I particularly find it distressful that a lot of the growth the agency is enjoying is coming from clients and interests outside of Canada.

Needless to say, Sid Lee is not asking for permission, they are having a lot of fun following their guts and paving the way for others to follow soon. Bertrand Cesvet, Sid Lee’s chairman explained, “The industry is very traditional, in a way, we’re outsiders.”

I’ve been to a lot of agencies around the world, but Sid Lee is one of the few where I’ve felt like pulling up a chair and starting to work right then and there.




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