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Agency Profile: Sid Lee Toronto

Posted on April 13, 2011 and read 6,729 times

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brendanarticlepic Agency Profile: Sid Lee TorontoBrendan Watson
Director of Education
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In most cities, ad agencies tend to cluster. Toronto is no different. There’s both comfort and credibility in the familiar. Years ago, a lot of the big Toronto ad agencies seemed to cluster in midtown. They all dotted Yonge Street, coincidentally in and around the Summerhill liquor store. Countless Creative Directors have roamed the halls of the many agencies at Yonge & Bloor and The Pilot is all the richer as a result. The turn of the century ushered in migration to King West. Agencies and post production houses alike invaded the old warehouses once occupied by garment makers. That is, the ones not already occupied by a high-end bar or lounge.

When Sid Lee opened up a second Canadian office, not surprisingly, they resisted the familiar. Or did they? Sure, their loft space in Toronto’s Distillery Historic District was quite a few streetcar stops away from any of the city’s agency clusters, but were they really resisting the familiar? Sid Lee has always done things differently, so this in fact was right in line with their modus operandi. The presumption there was that they would feel right at home surrounded by the artists and artisanal businesses which occupy the adjacent spaces. Additionally, it probably doesn’t hurt setting up shop in and amongst buildings whose historical purpose was to create alcohol.

When discussing the Sid Lee Toronto launch party, Managing Director Vito Piazza said the goal was to create an event that was the polar opposite of the clichéd white glove advertising party. The space itself helped set the tone. The new office occupies the top floor of the old Stonehouse Distillery building with hundred-year-old wooden beams lining the ceiling and a polished concrete floor underfoot. Forget about waiters in penguin suits offering up pretentious appetizers. The culinary theme was Montreal classics, beer and poutine, with a Toronto twist. Homegrown Smokes Poutinerie was brought in to keep party-goers well fed while local brewers Steam Whistle made sure the crowd was well lubricated.

There was more to the party though than fries deliciously covered in cheese and meat (lots of meat). Party-goers were also privy to the first ever Canadian Secret Wars. The live marker art competition saw a team from Toronto face off against a group of artists flown in from Amsterdam. Each side was given a blank 10×20 foot canvas and two hours to fill it. Each team, while equally talented, brought vastly different styles to their pieces. In the end, the crowd voted and Toronto came out on top. Patriotically I celebrated the victory, but the artist in me was secretly rooting for Amsterdam. Both pieces were incredibly well crafted, but ultimately the team from Holland won me over with their unique look at the Canadian landscape.

The room was filled not only with great music, but a lot of unfamiliar faces. The usual suspects were all there, but Sid Lee’s following outside of traditional advertising circles made for an eclectic group. As it turns out, that’s just how they like it. Sid Lee Amsterdam hosts art shows in their gallery space on a regular basis. Those opening parties, in addition to kicking off a showing of art curated by one of their own, also serve as an opportunity to build relationships with those in the art community as well as fellow agency folks.

Once the dust settled, I returned to Sid Lee’s newest office. For the most part, the space, when not in party mode, didn’t look all that different. The poutine bar was replaced with a kitchen table and the mountain of beer cases with IKEA desks. Well selected music still filled the agency, albeit at a lower volume.

Overall though, the office was surprisingly quiet when I stopped by. It was probably because everyone was in recovery mode, since it was the day after “Sid Lee Day”. The annual event happens simultaneously across each office. There are only two rules on Sid Lee Day: you can’t stay home and you cannot work. There are plenty of events planned in each city to help employees follow those simple requirements. The Toronto office took to the track, where Piazza proved his mastery of the go-kart. Amsterdam, on the other hand, offered up massages, haircuts and even a photographer. Glamour shots anyone?

I sat down with Piazza and the disembodied head of Creative Director Dave Roberts via Skype. At the time, Roberts was transitioning out of his role as Amsterdam Creative Director, which meant he was splitting his time between the two offices.

They’re no strangers to teleconferencing at Sid Lee. Being an agency that truly epitomizes the notion of long hallways, working via Skype is a regular occurrence for members of the agency, which is spread over four offices in three countries, in two time zones.

Roberts spoke to the thoughtful growth that his team in Toronto was tasked with. With such a strong emphasis and focus on agency culture, growth would be judged on quality and cultural fit of new team members rather than a financial metric.

The agency looks to hire locally, but also internationally. Finding the right fit is more important than finding the right local fit. Both Piazza and Roberts commented on the impressive talent pool in Toronto, but also acknowledged the desire to contribute to the city’s ad community. There’s an opportunity, they said, to bring talent and clients to Toronto as opposed to just showing up and taking another piece from the constantly shrinking pie.

Team members are often recruited young, before spending much time at another agency. They look for the best possible talent, bring them in, indoctrinate them into the Sid Lee way and, in essence, “rewire their brain”.

Toronto’s core team to start will be comprised of multi-disciplinary Art Directors and Copywriters, Designers and a mini-interactive team. From there, the team would be supplemented by specialists on a project by project basis. Specialists could come from anywhere, but more often than not they come from within the Sid Lee network. When hiring, they look for individuals who can think in three or four different disciplines and work well in one or two of them. The ideal book resembles a Venn diagram, with overlapping skill sets. Much like the ease with which someone who already knows a few languages can learn another, a creative at Sid Lee with an expansive tool kit can always adapt to new disciplines.

This network of specialists and the willingness to share employees between offices allows for an almost obsessive focus on craft and precision. Anything that can be kept in the family, is. In the end, the work tends to be stronger, tighter and more consistent as a result. There’s no lag time to get freelancers up to speed on the Sid Lee way of doing things, because the new guy on the project usually isn’t new at all.

As of last November, the Toronto office was home to twenty people – all of whom had been sent to Montreal for two weeks to be acclimatized. Piazza estimated that by their first anniversary, they would be up to forty people and maxing out their space. After winning a large portion of the global Dell account in February, it looks as if they will be filling up their new office sooner than anticipated. Fortunately, their decision to set up shop in The Distillery District will allow for a somewhat easy expansion once they reach capacity. Much like Sid Lee’s Amsterdam operation with three spaces all located within a block of each other, when it comes time to expand Toronto, they will simply take up space in adjacent offices within The Distillery District. The pedestrian-friendly community allows for a campus feel, where employees could move freely between any number of offices without having to dodge streetcars. The abundance of condos in the area would also lend itself quite nicely to Sid Lee opening up a ‘home away from home’ for visiting employees, much like they have in Montreal.

In a short time, the agency has already made its mark within the network. The Dell pitch was a joint effort between Toronto and Montreal. The win will see the account serviced out of both locations, as well as a satellite operation near the client’s head office in Austin, Texas. Additionally, the Toronto office also contributed to the Canadian portion of Adidas’ recent global ‘All In’ campaign. So, considering they were still ‘screwing the legs on IKEA desks’ in November and Roberts didn’t permanently transfer until January, it should be interesting to see what Sid Lee’s newest office is capable of once they’re really up to full speed.






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