Sid Lee: artists, not ad guys

HQ: Montreal

HQ: Montreal

Founded: 1993 (as Diesel)

Employees: 150

Ownership: 14 partners

Major clients: Adidas, Cirque du Soleil, SAQ, MGM Mirage

Sid Lee is no ordinary ad agency. Rather, it’s a ‘commercial creativity firm’ that helps its clients with everything from store design to stunts to traditional ad work. It even has a manifesto outlining the benefits of creating ‘conversational capital.’ Its tactics have helped it rack up awards from Cannes to strategy’s B!G Awards. The shop continues to add international business too, like extra projects from Portland, Ore.’s Adidas U.S.A.

One of the agency’s unique differentiation points is the addition of architects and industrial designers through a partnership with Montreal-based architecture firm Aedifica. This signals a concentration on retail design projects, like last year’s redesign of the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) Sélection stores. Since one of the agency’s core beliefs is that retail is an integral part of the overall brand experience, they opted to look at the store from a shopper’s POV and reinvent the SAQ retail experience.

To help keep the creative juices flowing, and reinforce its distinction that it’s an agency of artists, not ad drones, Sid Lee funds the Sid Lee Collective, which supports employees’ side projects. Thus far, the collective has distributed an urban music compilation, landed a photo exhibit in New York City, and debuted a new furniture and kitchen collection at last month’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in NYC. When it’s not on the road, work from the collective is on display in a gallery at Sid Lee’s office.

Staying ahead of consumer trends is a big focus. ‘Over the past 10 years, consumers have evolved more rapidly than agencies have,’ explains Jean- François Bouchard, president/founding partner.

‘We wanted to be proactive instead of reactive, and make sure that we can anticipate changes.’

Bouchard estimates that over 50% of his agency’s ad efforts are now non-traditional, with a heavy focus on interactivity. More than a third of its staff specializes in online advertising, and the website it designed for Las Vegas’ MGM Grand,, has won numerous awards. Sid Lee also spearheaded this year’s Red Bull Crashed Ice event in Quebec City, which transformed much of the city into a frozen skating race track that attracted over 100,000 participants.

Like Critical Mass, Sid Lee is organized into multidisciplinary teams that mix up architects, account people, producers and copywriters. The agency works closely with art schools around the world to recruit new talent, and has a formal partnership with the Pasadena, Calif.-based Art Center College of Design.

‘The advertising industry is experiencing a shortage of talent…so we’re starting to look abroad and dig into different fields,’ says Bouchard, whose team of 150 artisans includes theatre directors and photographers. ‘We think agencies must be a part of cultural life to be active participants in the creative community. It keeps the creative well full of water. It’s very refreshing.’