In 1977, Montréal-born Prime Minister and l'enfant terrible of Canadian politics, Pierre Trudeau, famously did a pirouette behind Queen Elizabeth’s back. It was the slapstick version of his oft-cited call to arm: “Let us overthrow the totems, break the taboos.”
Sixteen years later, in 1993, Jean-François Bouchard and Philippe Meunier founded Sid Lee (then called Diesel) in Montréal. They had between them: two degrees (law, design), zero advertising agency experience and no idea that, for the next sixteen years, they'd overthrow every totem and taboo the advertising industry had to offer.
The recent graduates moved into a building that thugs loved to rob. Mainly, they stole the partners’ laptops, unloading them at the neighbor-hood pawnshop for cash. Pas de problème. Bouchard, now president, and Meunier, chief creative officer and senior partner, would just take a walk to the same pawnshop, where their machines waited to be bought back.
The client roster was inauspicious: A nearby Greek restaurant and a pizza joint. But Sid Lee (the letters of Diesel, scrambled) got a break in 1996, when John Sleeman, the English-speaking founder of Canada's Sleeman Breweries, hired the upstarts. The challenge—to make an Anglophone company wildly successful in Québec—was daunting. One could more easily make pâté à la viande in an Easy-Bake Oven.
An established agency would have tiptoed around the linguistic rift. Sid Lee exploited it, writing Sleeman a radio script in bad Québécois, including mixed metaphors, accidental profanity and, the client’s contribution, a terrible accent. Just as the campaign took Québec by storm, strategist Bertrand Cesvet—now chairman, chief strategist and senior partner—joined the firm, contributing his strategic know-how.
With ateliers in Montréal, Paris and Amsterdam, Sid Lee is today regarded as one of the most multidisciplinary agencies in North America and beyond. The firm’s 250 employees, about half of whom are creatives, include industrial and graphic designers, architects, a clown named Jesko, art directors, writers and experts in numerous other disciplines. (To be fair, Jesko, a consultant, isn’t full time.)
Sid Lee-ites represent 25 countries. They speak 21 languages and work in 12 cities for clients like Red Bull, Cirque du Soleil, ING, adidas, L'Oréal (Garnier), MGM Mirage, Eurostar and Ubisoft. With hundreds of industry awards under its belt—including Cannes, Communication Arts and The One Show—Sid Lee hit a milestone in 2009, when Canada’s Marketing Magazine named it Agency of the Year.
In Montréal, the day starts with the sounds of breakfast, served free at Sid Lee’s in-house bistro. Plates clink. Spoons drop. An industrial espresso machine that you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, roars. Beneath the racket, you’ll hear a blend of Québécois elisions, hard American rs and the phonological quirks of myriad other native tongues.
“In terms of agency culture, the bistro was one of the most important management decisions we’ve made,” says Meunier, the founder with the design degree. “It's not about feeding food to the people. It’s about taking time to sit and talk with your friends and colleagues—to break bread. That’s a very friendly way to work.”
When the kitchen closes (until lunch), all of that carbohydrate-fueled energy explodes through the corridors and into offices and cubes, where an atypically broad range of projects is always underway: an iPhone app, maybe, plus a retail environment, print campaign, furniture collection, Web site, twenty-story building and, in the case of Müvbox, a franchise-able, mobile restaurant undertaken in partnership with restaurateur Daniel Noiseux.
Fashioned from a recycling dumpster, Müvbox is the chic 21st-century answer to the great American chuck wagon. In minutes, the box opens to reveal a vibrant, stylish eatery with a kitchen powered by solar energy. No one would blame an ad agency for thinking twice before taking on a mobile restaurant. But Sid Lee assembles the kind of interdisciplinary teams required for projects like Müvbox as a matter of course.
It’s not insignificant that the firm grew up beside long-time client Cirque du Soleil, or that Sid Lee has branded more than a decade of Cirque productions, helping turn a fire-eating, stilt-walking, street-corner act into the global entertainment empire it is now. “When Cirque creates a new show,” says Bouchard, “they start by asking the question: Who are the best people in the world for this?”
That blindness to borders—geographic and disciplinary—served as influence and confirmed what Sid Lee already believed. When consumers experience brands, they don’t think in terms of disciplinary silos: This is a B2B effort, while that one over there is B2C. No, consumers experience brands as whole entities. Why, then, should the people who shape those brands be splintered into silos?
This is nothing new. You can’t throw a Sharpie on Mad Avenue without nailing someone who won’t stop talking about breaking down silos, which makes it remarkable that so few have actually achieved this branding utopia. What gives, Sid Lee?
The founders speculate: When they launched the firm, neither knew anything about advertising. (Bouchard is rumored to have thought “account managers” did the bookkeeping.) Therefore, they broke the rules with impunity. Plus, they add, Sid Lee’s had years to make mistakes.
Maybe. But a lot of industry outsiders open shops; many enjoy decades of spectacular mistake making. Really, the thing Sid Lee has that (almost) all other firms do not is its beloved City of Sins—or of Saints, depending. In Montréal, Francophones, Anglophones and Allophones (whose native tongues are neither English nor French) live together, exchanging ideas whether they want to or not.
“We're at the crossroads of North America and Europe,” says partner and creative director Hélène Godin, “which means that Sid Lee can understand cultures in both parts of the world.”
That came in handy when adidas Originals named Sid Lee its global agency in 2008. To celebrate the brand’s 60th anniversary, Sid Lee threw a year-long, multiplatform “House Party” under the auspices of an ad campaign. The concept: Loyalty to adidas is a common thread among the members of a huge range of subcultures (fashion, skate, music, sports). The party brought them together.
Spanning TV, Web, events, print and social media, House Party launched in the U.S. in 2008 and rolled out globally through 2009, reaching 35 markets. In the TV spot, the “regular” people—outfitted in adidas—are as hot as or hotter than the celebrities (Missy Elliot, Katy Perry, The Ting Tings, David Beckham, more). There are no mean drunks here. People skate, dance, break, spray-paint and, basically, let each other be into whatever they’re into.
Within a month on YouTube, the spot attracted 1.2 million hits, word having spread through viral and social media. Sid Lee worked directly with Facebook, for instance, to create localized pages for each market. Fans shot from a start of 300,000 to 2.1 million by December 2009.
House Party does with “affinity groups” what Montréal does with cultures, merging disparate elements to alchemize something inimitably...itself. But in cities, if not in campaigns, that kind of cultural amalgamation generates tension. “I believe that's an advantage,” says Godin. “Because creativity comes from tension. Cities that are more comfortable—they tend to do comfortable things.”
Enter the Slightly Uncomfortable Collection. It’s a product of Sid Lee Collective, the incubator through which employees propose and conduct personal projects. (Any medium. No clients.) Sid Lee’s Louis-Thomas Pelletier and Gabrielle Saint-Pierre’s collection of chairs are engineered for discomfort: One chair’s back tilts forward, so that you do, too. The rooftop-like seat of another invades crevices you didn’t know you had.
A more comfortable firm wouldn’t have embraced the Web as early as the mid-1990s when many hadn’t. Sid Lee merged with Web company Stratégo in 1999. Its former leaders, Martin Gauthier, now executive VP and senior partner, and George Giampuranis, partner and creative director, interactive, built an interactive juggernaut with 100 employees and capabilities in everything from design to data mining. But the dot-com bust soon crashed Sid Lee’s party. Interactive billings dropped from $700,000 to $70,000 and the staff by half—painfully for the partners.
“Eventually, it helped us realize we were trying to do too much,” says Gauthier. “We needed to return to what we’re good at, which is the creative.” Giampuranis and Gauthier followed that lesson as they rebuilt. Today, nearly half of Sid Lee’s business is interactive.
Sid Lee people sometimes talk about “creative chaos.” The term misleads. Structurally, the agency is tight as a drum. Its creative teams of six act as small enterprises, offsetting the company’s size. And because there are 21 partners (yes, 21), Sid Lee can ensure an agency leader is on every account. Moreover, if there were just one or two partners, the company would reflect only one or two worldviews. And that’s not very Sid Lee.
Clients tend to be self-selecting, approaching the firm because they know what “very Sid Lee” looks like and it seems the elixir they need. Some have been known to say: “We’re here because we want some Sid Lee.”
It’s not just the adidas of the world. The Société de Transport (STM), Montréal's publicly-funded transit system, itself wanted some Sid Lee last year, when it learned that Montréalers saw public transit as a mere commodity, not as a means to a greener environment.
Sid Lee’s campaign, including Web, out-of-home and new iconography, starts with a revamped logo whose economy of form makes Hemmingway’s prose seem purple. Its blue chevron preserves STM’s historic color. But a semi-opaque yellow chevron partially covers that shape, creating a swath of overlapping green.
“It’s about giving public transit a conscience,” says Godin, who then points to her head and adds: “We started here, and then we traveled downward—to touch the heart.”
Godin frequently insists that her English is poor. And yet, in one breath, she’s managed to crystallize everything that makes Sid Lee a global powerhouse with a boutique vibe and, on that note, everything that matters in branding overall. ca