Sid Lee vs. The World

With big wins at home and abroad, it’s a hat trick for Sid Lee, Marketing’s 2011 Agency of the Year for the third year in a row Agency presidents are a competitive bunch. This comes through in off-the-record conversations where even then they are reluctant to praise the work of rival agencies and quick to […]

With big wins at home and abroad, it’s a hat trick for Sid Lee, Marketing’s 2011 Agency of the Year for the third year in a row

Agency presidents are a competitive bunch. This comes through in off-the-record conversations where even then they are reluctant to praise the work of rival agencies and quick to point out flaws in campaigns or how they did the same thing first—only better. Except when they discuss Sid Lee.

If there was an industry stat that tracked the compliments of agency presidents, Sid Lee would lead the league. It’s not overly effusive or glowing—let’s not get carried away—but simple concessions that they’d like to see their agency be more like Sid Lee. And who can blame them?

But when it came time to choose Marketing’s Agency of the Year for 2011, the editorial team was slightly vexed. Sid Lee was Agency of the Year in 2009 and 2010. Could they win again? The honour is awarded to an agency based on work from the past year compared to the year before that. There are very good agencies that don’t make the list because they produce consistently good work but their accomplishments from the year were similar to the year prior.

Being named Agency of the Year is about having an extraordinary 12 months, about making changes and scoring wins and accomplishing lofty goals that exceeded those of the year before, making the agency the envy of the industry.

After having the criteria explained to him, a disappointed creative director once observed: “So it’s a most-improved award.” Not at all. The honour is about good agencies having great years. And to be sure, a handful of very good agencies had great years. (Tip of the cap to BBDO and Leo Burnett.)

But in the past year, Sid Lee’s “commercial creativity” ethos again manifested in a multitude of new and surprising ways, from a groundbreaking advertising campaign and iPhone application for Adidas—take a picture of Adidas shoes and find the closest store to get a pair—to the creation of a Videotron mobile web channel with original content, featuring eight episodes a week from production arm Jimmy Lee. The agency launched a Michael Jackson-themed show for Cirque du Soleil, created a conference that will bring Francis Ford Coppola to Montreal and worked with David Lynch on a project for Dom Perignon.

There were design projects for Canada’s national broadcaster and one of Holland’s favourite soccer teams. For the world’s most famous energy drink, Red Bull, Sid Lee created a new headquarters that is as much sculpture as office, and invented a “Freeride Mountain Bike” event.

Business is booming so much that headcount shot up to 524 from 356—that’s better than three new employees every week for a year. At press time the agency’s HR team was working to fill 53 open positions. Revenue was up 60% and for the first time more than 50% of its revenues came from outside Canada.

Brands added to the client list include AFC Ajax, Dom Perignon, George St. Pierre, IMAX, Canadian Tire, Revenue Quebec, Sun Media, Vitamin Water in France, and Dell, which Sid Lee won in April after an intense months-long pitch against 40 agencies including some of the biggest in the world. The Dell win necessitated the opening of the agency’s first U.S. office in Austin, Tex.

Sid Lee has more than 35,000 fans on Facebook, compared to Wieden + Kennedy’s 7,300 and Droga5’s 1,600 or so. Not a perfect metric, we know, but illustrative of an important point: Sid Lee is an agency people want to follow. Not just in Canada, but increasingly around the world.

The story of Sid Lee in 2011 was not about a good Canadian agency becoming great, but a great agency becoming world-class. And for that, it is Marketing’s Agency of the Year for an unprecedented third year in a row.

Fabrique-moi un Conte (“make up a story for me”) is what Jimmy Lee producer Richard Jean-Baptiste calls a “UFO project”—one that is kind of out there and not necessarily a big contributor to the bottom line of production division Jimmy Lee, launched by Sid Lee four years ago.

The spring series invited visitors to Radio-Canada’s website to vote on new versions of traditional stories, choosing directors, actors, settings and other details. The favourite choices were applied to the stories which were rewritten, shot, edited and posted to the Radio-Canada site in a week. Jimmy Lee came up with the concept and Radio-Canada took it, but the real value will be shared with Sid Lee’s clients present and future.

“It seems [outside] our expertise, but at the same time it really makes sense because we are developing more abilities,” explains Jean-Baptiste of the series which was shortlisted at the 2011 Digi Awards last month in Toronto.

“Our clients are developing the taste to develop content,” he says. “So how can we best serve our clients if we do not know what we are talking about? It is totally a learning experience. It is like a lab for us. We are testing things and we like projects that no one has done before.”

Sid Lee was born this way. The founding partners have always prided themselves on doing things differently; Sid Lee (nee Diesel) has always been a lab for creative experimentation but always in the service of building brands and based on deep strategic vision. There was plenty of proof of that in 2011.

When Canadian Tire’s new CMO for the recently acquired Forzani Group Duncan Fulton went looking for a new agency back in May, it was Sid Lee’s creative work for Adidas, the SAQ and Videotron that caught his eye. But it was their strategic insights that won them the business.

Fulton knew Sid Lee was different early in his first meeting with founding partner and president Jean-François Bouchard and vice-president Vito Piazza at their Toronto office. It was supposed to be a basic introductory information session, the kind that usually ends up with suggestions for a “scoping exercise” for the brand. Not Sid Lee. “These guys got right down to ‘What do you want to achieve?’ How close do you think you are?’” says Fulton. “Ninety minutes later I was asking them to draw up a proposal for me.”

Since then, Sid Lee has continued to impress. Discussions about creative vision include implications for employees, company culture—even how it would be perceived by the financial community.

“In strategy conversations, it is honestly unlike any other conversation I have with any other agency,” says Fulton.

Sid Lee’s architects are designing the new-look Canadian Tire/Forzani sports stores, while creative teams have been working on branding and ad concepts. When Fulton’s team balked at a flyer concept just before testing, Sid Lee went back to the drawing board. “Most firms would say, ‘Look guys, we are up against the deadline. You should have said something sooner.’ They didn’t even blink,” says Fulton. “It is that obsession with perfection that is refreshing.”
“Smart,” “strategic,” a “fanaticism” for building brands and generating engagement in new and non-traditional ways are themes that come up time and again when talking to clients.

“They were really one of the first [agencies] who talked about a 360-degree experience,” says Mario D’Amico, senior vice-president of marketing at Cirque du Soleil, which marked its 10th anniversary with Sid Lee in 2011. This year, the agency launched three more shows around the world, handling everything from naming the shows to the positioning, as well all aspects of the communications.

UFC star George St. Pierre’s business manager Rodolphe Beaulieu says he too knew early in his first meeting with Sid Lee in the spring (with partner Martin Gauthier) that the agency was different. “We met with many agencies… and the thing is Sid Lee is really a brand company, not just doing [advertising],” he says. Their goal is to build the GSP brand around the world in a way that transcends mixed martial arts. To do that, Sid Lee commissioned an international survey of more than 4,300 people. Insights mined from that research anchor a comprehensive social media and PR program.

Videotron’s vice-president of brand management Claude Foisy points to the new Videotron retail concept created by Sid Lee late last year as proof the agency not only knows how to build brands but bring them to life for consumers. Videotron wants to be known as a technology company so Sid Lee developed stores that immerse visitors in cutting-edge interactivity—including a multimedia staircase equipped with 150 LED screens. “They took the brand and put it at another level,” he says. The flagship concept was reproduced at a smaller scale and rolled out across the province last year.

One client loved Sid Lee so much that he left his marketing position to work full time with them. Jim Bailey joined Sid Lee after working with the agency for seven years as president of Red Bull.

“I had a high level of respect for the way they ran their business, but [also] a high level of respect for their intellect,” he says. As creatively radical as Red Bull encouraged Sid Lee to be, Bailey believes it was the strategic thinking that won them the considerably more straight-edged Dell.

“What makes Sid Lee unique is they start everything based on strategy and that drives creative, where I think a lot of agencies use strategy to sell in creative,” says Bailey, who will oversee the agency’s U.S. operations.

Sid Lee is not going to make Dell something they are not, but there is a space Dell can own and a voice that can make them stand out. And that is what Sid Lee pitched. “That’s what they liked… not some wonky advertising campaign,” says Bailey.

“We won, I believe, based on our strategic insights.”

Bouchard naturally points to the Dell win as one of the highlights of the year and believes it was a watershed moment for Sid Lee in the U.S. The win “confirmed that we do have a fairly distinct point of view and if we can get a big U.S. client to embrace what we stand for, it means that the possibilities are pretty exciting.”

He also cites slightly more prosaic but vitally important steps taken to ensure the Sid Lee culture thrives—and the winning ways continue—as new people join the agency every day. A new professional and organizational development program, Sid Lee University, was launched to encourage learning for new employees. Similarly, Quick Lee, a social intranet, was introduced to “allow all of the artisans to connect, interact and work together in a more efficient way and across physical borders.”

Top-level creative firepower was added like Paul Little, who left TBWA\Vancouver (RIP) to join the Montreal office and Charles Hall, most recently at VCU’s Brand Center, who moved north to join the agency.

But Bouchard also cites Sid Lee’s growth in branded content in 2011 as evidence his agency is at the cutting edge of where the industry is going. “It used to be campaigns would be things we plan for six months, then roll out and then take a breath and start again,” says Bouchard. But in the social media era, marketing has to be nearly constant, with clients looking for weekly or even daily engagement opportunities.

In the past year, Sid Lee ramped up its branded content output for a number of clients including Adidas, Tourisme Montreal, Danone and Videotron. The agency now operates six editing suites, 16 hours a day (two shifts each day).

What separates Sid Lee from the pack, according to Bouchard, is a willingness to embrace the future instead of hanging on to the past. The early move into branded content illustrates that.

“That is what we are good at. If we spot something that we feel is going to be a part of the future, but in an unknown way, we start making moves, literally in the following days or weeks,” he says. The changes can be modest at first, so long as you start changing right away.

“I think the future is fairly easy to see,” says Bouchard. The tough part is “having the balls” to embrace that future, try the new things and conduct the experiments that will bring success. “The status quo is completely unacceptable.” 

Is Sid Lee worthy of the threepeat? Does it deserve to be considered one of the hottest shops in the world? Post your thoughts in our comment section.

This story appears in the Jan. 16 issue of Marketing. Subscribe today.

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