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Agency Profile: Sid Lee Amsterdam

Posted on July 7, 2009 and read 11,064 times

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ignaciocreditpic Agency Profile: Sid Lee AmsterdamIgnacio Oreamuno

Is it a shop, is it an art gallery, is it a cafe, is it an agency, no! It’s SSSSSSSSSSSSSID Lee Amsterdam!

Amsterdam has, over the years, become a home base to several international agencies like dueling 180 Amsterdam and W+K, and Canadian-based Sid Lee. By the time we started writing this article, even Taxi had started an office in Holland. Why so much commotion about The Netherlands? Well, I lived there for four years and I can tell you The Netherlands is an ideal place to set up shop.

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Here are some actual real reasons why companies set up shop there:

1.    The Netherlands is the product-testing mecca of Europe. For some reason the Dutch love to try out new stuff and for many companies doing Pan-European launches, a lot of products are pre-launched in NL. Many Euro-pean companies have their headquarters or big marketing offices in Holland.

2.    It’s tiny. You can, if you want, target Germany, the Benelux and France without even getting on a plane.

3.    Schiphol Airport, is my favorite airport in the world. Easy to get in. Easy to get out. If you or your clients have to haul your ass around the world or just Europe, you’ll suffer very little going through here. At one point there even was a legal fight between a brothel and the airport authorities as they wanted to rent space in the airport for errrrr… massages.

4.    No language barriers. Even the dude selling fruits on the corner is fluent in 5 languages.

5.    It’s fun, amazing and easy to live in. You don’t need a lot of money to have fun in Holland or Amsterdam and you ride your bike everywhere you go, including client meetings.

6.    Amsterdam, the geographical capital of Holland (the actual capital is The Hague) is the equivalent of NYC. It’s highly multicultural, crowded, alive and full of cultural activities. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

7.    And yes if you REALLY like pot you can go smoke it at the coffeeshops, but that’s usually reserved for dirty tourists. Real Dutchmen just drink beer.

Sid Lee is located in a little street in the core of Amsterdam. The neighborhood is very quaint and friendly with the usual little shops, pubs and cafes. On the street where the Sid Lee cafe is facing, there was a public market the day I was there. It gives you the feeling that you’re in your local neighborhood agency. On one side of the street you have the cafe and on the opposite side of the block you have the very trendy Sid Lee Collective store.

The collective is essentially a creative incubator where anyone, including Sid Lee employees can actually get their projects funded and supported. As a Sid Lee employee you might actually be given time either part or full time to develop projects outside the agency. The Collective store is essentially a collection of Canadian and in-ternational products that include everything from toys to jewelry to art and of course, Adidas sneakers. I think that having a store as part of the agency is a pretty smart thing as it reminds you when you walk in Sid Lee that all the work you do, whether it is a website or a store installation, boils down at the end of the day to selling product off the shelves. The guys confessed to me that people walking in have actually led to new business leads.

The cafeteria is a very simple and nice with all the Sid-essentials, meaning a great coffee machine and booze, lots of booze. For lunch you could order yourself a nice sandwich (or “broodje” as the Dutch like to call them). In the morning, when I was there, some people were having meetings with clients; it’s fun because it keeps things casual.

“It’s like working for a start-up”, is the way most Sid Lee’ers describe what it’s like currently working at the shop. The Sid Lee Amsterdam office is very hungry for new business and independence from Montreal.  Every one pitches in when there’s anything to do, whether that’s to build a desk or to try to get a new client. A lot of collabo-ration ensues in between the mothership and the hive, and unlike most “global shops” where global is more of a fictitious adjective in a brochure, almost everyone in the Amsterdam office had actually been to Montreal, whether working or for a visit, so there were faces to the emails that crossed the ocean everyday. For daily comm needs, Skype seemed to be the de facto way of doing biz and when that isn’t powerful enough they have a massive teleconferencing screen in the meeting room for Star Trek-like live connectivity.

According to the partners, the difference between Sid Lee and the other international shops is that, “There is only ONE Sid Lee which is located in Paris, Amsterdam and Montreal. Neither location is independent, it’s one or-ganic mass. There’s one approach and vision. It’s one big drive.”

If you are lucky enough to work at Sid you won’t be bound by strict schedules. In other words, if you got too drunk the night before and fell off a canal it will be acceptable if you step in at 10 A.M. All you’ll be judged on is your work. Moreover, because of the time difference between N. America and Amsterdam a lot of people end up working towards the later part of the evening anyways. When I was there everyone seemed pretty focused and working hard despite the relaxed artsy fartsy atmosphere.

Working at Sid Lee, from a creative point of view is a bit different. Unlike a traditional agency, at Sid Lee it will be common for you as a creative to be partnered up with say an industrial designer, an architect or a digital signage specialist. Your ‘partner’ might or might not be on the same project as you and more often than not everyone is working with everyone on simultaneous projects.

Dave Roberts the CD told me “We really believe that the right answer comes from anywhere and anyone. We’ll value your opinion as a specialist, but if someone else has a better idea we’ll want to hear it. We don’t adhere to the mentality that the core idea has to come from the art director or the copywriter. For an interactive project, we’ll even have the programmers and designers in the room when brainstorming. A lot of briefs come up as chal-lenges with media that perhaps nobody here has even touched on before and there’s just no option but to push ahead. We are very humble about the things we want to learn. There are no egos, which is something that the senior partners have really passed down. At Sid Lee it’s a team sport. It’s a flat organization and everyone is always involved in everything which results in the creative spirit being kept alive.”

I wondered if people from traditional agencies would have a hard time adjusting to the Sid Lee mentality and work habits, and Dave responded, “It depends on their personality, but they would definitely need a little time to adjust to the more organic process in which things get done here.”

When asked about what kind of portfolios they tend to hire, Dave added, “We tend to go for portfolios that show raw creativity regardless of what media it is. Whether it’s a sticker or a TV ad. We go for people that don’t neces-sarily have the experience but which have the energy and the ideas. We have key people that help others catch up with technical skills.”

Who works at Sid Lee? Well, the vibe is very young and highly international. If they had no budget, Sid Lee could cast their own staff for an Adidas shoot. Everyone is good looking and trendy. Out of the 20+ people in the Am-sterdam office, only 2 are Dutch. It’s the same feeling you get when you walk in Sid Lee Montreal and you hear Spanish, Portuguese and other languages. One of the reasons why Sid Lee is in multiple cities is to be able to offer employees the chance to travel without having to leave the agency. It happens a lot. There’s a lot of people that start in Montreal, get indoctrinated in the Sid Lee mentality, and then they come to Amsterdam, sometimes it happens backwards. If someone from Amsterdam moves to Montreal, Sid Lee is not really losing any talent; their talents are still 100% accessible regardless of where they live.

The partners agreed that Sid Lee is a strange beast. To some of their clients Sid is an interactive agency, to oth-ers they are a traditional agency and to others they are an architectural agency.

Currently the type of work coming out of Sid Lee is very heavy on interactive, but that includes things such as online games and instore digital signage. However, the partners and creatives agreed that they want to change this and move into other media. Niels, the managing partner commented, “We believe that 20% of the media we work in should always fall under ‘undiscovered’”.

They also believe in awards, but what’s different about Sid is that when they do win, it’s Sid Lee that wins, not John or Susan the creatives. On top of that, they do not put awards as the end goal of any project. They do not try to do a piece of work with the purpose of winning a statue of any kind. Dave says, “All we want is to create something that is bang on right for the client and the brief, and which actually works.”

I was curious about the effects of the recession on the shop and so I asked the partners, “I think we opened on the same week as the recession!” says Niels. They went from 5 in November, to 20 people now. Because of the tough times, brands apparently were forced to think outside the box and as a result of what Sid Lee does and how they work, they are actually reaping the benefits of being ahead of their times. Perhaps the recession is part of Sid Lee’s evil plan to take over the world.

“I see myself sticking around for a long time here,” says one creative, “It’s a very friendly and very caring agency. It encourages personal growth.” and someone adds, “It’s nice to be part of the molding of Sid Lee.”




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