Alex Pasini, SVP Global Alliances, Sid Lee Paris

From Montreal to Paris, Sid Lee is expanding its borders. Alex Pasini explains how the European hub of the agency now bridges North America and Asia.

I’d always thought of Sid Lee in Paris as a cool agency – almost dauntingly so. It felt like a playground for young creatives who loved working on video games (Ubisoft), vodka (Absolut), energy drinks (Red Bull) or sneakers (Adidas).

Turns out that was only half of the story. The man who put me right was Alex Pasini, SVP global alliances. His title is almost a story in itself.

Alex hails from Montreal, Sid Lee’s home town. By the way, it began life as a design agency called Diesel, but changed its name when the fame of the jeans brand began to eclipse its own. Anagram fans will have already spotted how its founders (law student Jean-François Bouchard and graphic design student Philippe Meunier) chose their new moniker.

Alex recalls: “I was a graduate trainee when I joined the Montreal agency, which at that point was about the same size the Paris office is now – about 50 or 60 people.”

Because of Quebec’s failed push for independence in the 1970s, Montreal was frozen out as Canada’s business capital by Toronto. Fortunately, it managed to reinvent itself as a creative hub. As a result, Sid Lee was able to work with iconic creative brands like Cirque du Soleil.

Alex says: “The agency was very human-centric, so they’d look at consumers first and see how they could best interact with the brand, before deciding on the right platform.” Digital expertise was a given: “The first ever website in Canada came from Diesel, in 1997, for the Montreal Jazz Festival.”

From the very start, the agency broke down borders between disciplines. “By the time I joined they’d already begun employing architects, which was quite uncommon to advertising.” So the agency could not only revamp your image – but redesign your offices or stores too.

This skill actually led to the Adidas account. “When we met them in Portland, their advertising was very decent. But the retail experience was broken. We did a small shop-in-shop project in Portland, then a year later we got the call to pitch on a store concept for Adidas Originals. After a while we picked up the entire Adidas business – but our way in was through architecture.”

Below: the Sid Lee offices in Paris.

THE BUSINESS OF “NOW”

Flash forward, and today Sid Lee has offices in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles and Paris. Two years ago the agency was acquired by Japan’s Hakuhodo DY to became part of its Kyu Collective (pronounced “Q”), which includes highly respected design firm Ideo. The idea is to be able to offer top talent in every field.

“From day-to-day we’re still very independent in our way of working. But it’s given us more opportunities.”

Alex is very clear about where Sid Lee stands in terms of the competition: “We define ourselves as ‘creative builders for the modern age’. We build brands, we build authenticity and trust for our clients – but we’re also literally builders, thanks to our architecture practice.”

It’s creativity in a broad sense, he says, and very much attuned to the 21st century way of doing things. “We’re in the business of ‘the now’ – there’s always that notion of being progressive.”

At the same time, despite its digital roots, Sid Lee is unmoved by the prospect of programmatic or “automated” advertising. “We’re about creating culture,” stresses Alex.

He denies that the agency is self-consciously “cool”. “We were aware of that image and deliberately set out to attract more institutional brands. What’s interesting is that it depends on the maturity of the agency in each market – back in Canada, both in Toronto and Montreal, we’re working with big telcos like Vodafone.” In Paris the agency’s roster now includes Yellow Pages and (the bank) BNP Paribas.

MANAGING THE ALLIANCE

Anyone who’s been to Cannes lately knows that the “multi-discipline” approach is now a standard agency pitch. But Alex believes the connection with Kyu gives Sid Lee an edge. One example is Michelin’s recent Moving On mobility conference in Montreal. It brought together three Kyu companies: alternative seminar organiser C2 (“the business conference reinvented”); hospitality and experience management firm Infrared; and of course Sid Lee on the branding and communication fronts.

“That’s a very tangible example of the kind of collaboration we’re able to do, an offer that’s quite unique in the marketplace.”

A planner by trade, Alex is now responsible for pulling these disparate strands together: forming a bridge between the North American and European operations; liaising with the other members of the Kyu Collective; and finding ways of offering the agency’s expertise to existing Hakuhodo clients (for example Honda, luxury brand Longchamp and sweet snack Mikado).

“It’s all about ensuring that the synergies between these three pillars are working properly. We call it ‘the alliance’.” Plus, he says, he still dedicates 20 per cent of his time to developing Sid Lee Paris. Sounds like he’s got his work cut out. “A lot of travelling,” he admits. “And when you’re based in Paris, LA and Tokyo are not easy flights!”

Then again, Sid Lee urges its clients to “believe in change” and “stay one step ahead”. So maybe it’s a good idea to keep moving.

By Mark Tungate, editorial director