2020 Design AOY Silver, Digital AOY Bronze: Sid Lee was born this way

A pioneer in digital that later moved into brand-building, the agency has built partnerships to take its offering to the next level.

Sid Lee - Group Photo

This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of strategy.

“Yes, we were two kids, but the first partner we had was a Mac, actually. It was a computer. And from that computer, we tried to do everything.” - Philippe Meunier, Sid Lee

As soon as Sid Lee’s founders figured out what the hell the internet was, they were designing and developing websites. They were really good at it. In fact, Quebec’s first commercial website was coded in the Avenue du Parc offices of the agency back in 1995. One of only a few companies to own a Mac in the building, you could say that Sid Lee was born digital.

But a lot has changed since the advent of the internet and it’s been a slog for any agency (let alone one whose original bread-and-butter was computer-generated graphic design and desktop publishing) to keep up.

Over the years co-founders Philippe Meunier and Jean-Francois Bouchard watched their agency grow beyond websites and bloom with a distinctive creative credo, one that’s immersed in culture, art, music, even architecture. By helping global marketers like Adidas become culture-driven giants, Sid Lee made a name for itself in the world of long-term brand-building. As a result, CEO Bertrand Cesvet admits it hadn’t really focused on mastering data and measurement – now the shiniest tools in the current digital era.

The build-or-buy question came up a few years after Sid Lee joined Kyu, a collective of like-minded companies based in New York. Sid Lee veered toward an acquisition growth strategy, assisting the network in finding innovation partners to expand the group: in 2018 digital and CRM marketing co. Bimm joined the collective; in 2019 immersive US-based agency Digital Kitchen was integrated; and in 2020 Sid Lee welcomed France-based data-driven design firm Haigo.

Taking the direct route by curating this digital infantry for Sid Lee to tap into was well-timed, Cesvet says. The pandemic has accelerated the need for lateral thinking across the consumer journey and these strategic moves were thankfully already in place, he says.

“Every year there’s talk of transformation. But this year, it really arrived. Nobody, no client, no creative, is going to argue that digital transformation is not here,” says Cesvet. “There’s a requirement now in terms of strategy and I think that shift was important.”

The world of brand-building that Sid Lee comes from is focused on the long-term, he says. “But the current crisis is forcing clients to have a more immediate perspective on their business.”

But that doesn’t mean brands aren’t looking to agencies to help them with the long game. “Our secret sauce as an industry is that we have a cool relationship with the future, after all. We can look beyond the next year, the next quarter,” says Cesvet. However, clients require results now, which Sid Lee has become better at doing with the help of Bimm. “These guys live in the world of measurement and outcomes.”

As for the perks of linking arms with Haigo and Digital Kitchen, Cesvet says that the former shop, a creative experiences company, understands how to make “digital live” and complements Sid Lee’s own immersive capabilities. The two shops also recently worked together on an opening title sequence for the show Godfather of Harlem, which screams of Sid Lee’s edgy signature aesthetic and led to the agency’s first Emmy award win this year. Haigo is new to the agency, but Cesvet says it’s so far helping to up Sid’s game on the UX and UI design front.

Even with six offices across North America and Europe, Sid Lee has prided itself in creating a “borderless community.” But there’s always room for improvement when it comes to communication and collaboration, which Cesvet says the pandemic has no doubt accelerated.

“For me, personally, I would spend most of my time on planes going to all of our offices around the world,” he says. “But now I find that I engage much more in the moment, in a much more sustained fashion with these companies. I find that COVID is making this collaboration so much easier.”

Proof of Sid Lee’s creative excellence also comes in the form of a Best of Show “M” award, which it picked up at the 2020 Marketing Awards in the summer for its “CN 100” project. That same work went on to grab a Design Best of Discipline prize at Quebec’s inaugural Idea Awards in September – Sid Lee actually won four of the six top prizes that night, all campaigns that it entered and got top marks in strategy’s AOY.

That cross-discipline haul speaks to another ingredient in Sid Lee’s secret sauce.

According to Cesvet, “It goes back to our diversity. From day one, we’ve always pushed boundaries. The way we define our business is that we are a creative community that uses storytelling, technology and design to create what matters. That’s basically our M.O.”

“Having those different points of view, and basically trying to cross-pollinate within the business [by bringing in new companies], I’d say that’s a part of our success.”

New key business: Neutrogena, Apple, Yves Rocher, The Canadian Cancer Society, Pyscho Bunny.

Staff: 572

To see the agency’s winning cases, visit the AOY website