Sid sells

Montreal is not the most powerful urban economic engine chugging away in Canada. Where it does excel, however, is with its often bold creativity, its ability to think and act outside the proverbial box. From its unique public/private partnerships for design driven urban rejuvenation, to its architectural competitions for cultural infrastructure and the ambitious lighting programs for its many historic buildings and burgeoning arts district, Montreal believes innovative design matters. So it’s not surprising that Sid Lee, the cheeky Montreal ad firm formerly known as Diesel, is turning the industry on its head. Indeed, the company vehemently eschews that label of “advertising agency,” preferring to be known as a “commercial creativity firm.”

“Its all about story telling, about expressing the imbedded story that shapes the experience and ultimately the identity of the consumer with the product,” maintains Bernard Cesvet, one of the three founding partners. “People talk about things, about founding myths, rituals and icons,” he continues. “When you imbed these into the commercial experience, you have less need for advertising.” The best stories create what he calls “conversational capital” that relies heavily on word-of-mouth marketing, and it is this process Sid Lee seeks to engineer. The firm freely admits that the consumer retains ultimate control of the stories that get told, but seven additional variables play a role: icons, rituals, myths, tribalism, endorsement, reputation and what they call “relevant sensorial oddity (RSO).” While traditional advertising remains limited to but a few of these variables, building conversational capital attacks all save the personal experience that remains largely outside the marketer’s control.

Many of these concepts dovetail neatly with interior design. Cesvet claims a strong affinity for the impact of space, an epiphany from a meeting about an MGM hotel where designers “seemed to have no place for human beings.” A partnership with Aedifice Architects keeps 10 architects permanently in residence to work on such projects as three Adidas stores in Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and Chicago. In this example of creating an RSO, the firm designed a store-within-a-store, an almost hermetically sealed, canted cube dominated inside by rich, swirling illustrations that recall the late 1960s. Each month a new collection is presented, including videos about its origin and inspiration projected onto the walls. Graphic animations are “unleashed” by movement detectors activated when products are lifted, thus promoting interactivity.

Interior design also plays a direct role in the firm’s approach to its 220 member staff, an eclectic mix that includes the expected account executives, photographers and copywriters, but also the aforementioned architects, photographers, theatre specialists, filmmakers, artists and online techno-specialists (more than one third of staff specializes in online advertising).

Multi-disciplinary ateliers are the common working units. But, as co-founder Jean-Francois Bouchard recently told Annette Bourdeau of Strategy Magazine, the industry is experiencing a talent shortage necessitating recruitment from art schools around the world. For this reason, considerable thought has gone into developing Sid Lee’s physical working space in Montreal’s Cit MultiMdia district.

The firm designated the best space in its new digs, a south-facing and fully glazed double-height volume opening onto a small landscaped park, for the firm’s communal bistro. This loft-like space, complete with chefs who whip up free breakfasts each morning, is colourful and luminous. Playful in-house-produced videos run continuously on one wall, while a steady stream of blue jean-clad 20/30-somethings drift in and out for casual consultations around a long table that centres the space, or at the counter confronting the park. Its newest creative workshop, designed with the help of architect Jean-Francois Dubreuil of Workshop Architects, employs a moderately more sophisticated aesthetic but without sacrificing the firm’s commitment to non-hierarchical space. The studio is entered through a compacted vestibule painted completely in electric green and marked only by a single all-white stuffed leather armchair where new Sid Lee apostates, I was told, spend their first day reading about the firm’s key tenets. In plan, two rows of glass-enclosed ateliers for multi-disciplinary teams face off across a voluminous common creative area. The latter is dominated by what can best be described as a folded landscape that rises and falls to create work surfaces and ledges for informal sitting, as well as a raised platform for a conference table surrounded by plush Moooi chairs. Above this rolling landscape is suspended a Milky Way of pendant lighting that mediates the height of the space.

On one side, the work lofts are double height, while on the north side they aresingle and topped by an open mezzanine library, reached by the sculptured staircase that juts into the central area. Overlooking all this space towers an unobstructed full wall of glazing facing the street, ensuring an abundance of natural light. Also in the new studio, as in all other areas of Sid Lee, multiple blackboards act as ever-changing canvases. The firm regularly brings in artists from all over the world for a week to “dress” the boards. This complements the use of other walls as mini-galleries featuring employee art. This idea that art and architecture form an integral part of the creative process of branding flows through the organization like a powerful current of electricity. What if, asks Cesvet, Sid Lee was itself a brand? With this in mind and to keep the creative juice boiling, the Sid Lee Collective supports each year, through bursaries and at-work time, about 30 employee projects that may simply be cultural events but may also lead to decidedly irreverent consumer products. The latter has included Sit!bySid, a furniture collection, and kitchen dishes that tell stories through words and images.

Both debuted last May at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. Earlier in 2007, Sid Lee also inked an equity deal with Cirque du Soleil to develop multimedia, entertainment and hospitality-related products and services. “As a young firm,” states Cesvet, “the Cirque’s Guy Lalibert promised, ‘Stick with us and see just how far you will go.’ ”

Wherever Sid Lee may be going, it is not there yet. But the ride is proving to be a hell of a lot of fun. cI