When referring to Sid Lee, the company’s president and cofounder Jean-François Bouchard talks about the “shop.” that may make the multinational sound like a small business, but Sid Lee’s tone and image tell an entirely different story. If Sid Lee is just a shop, it’s a really big one.
We got the office going some twenty years ago, in difficult economic times,” Jean-François Bouchard tells Éric Bujold, President of National Bank Private Wealth 1859. “We knocked on all the big agencies’ doors in Montreal, and no one wanted anything to do with us. I was a lawyer—why would anyone hire a lawyer? Luckily my colleague was more qualified than I was. Faced with justifiable despair, we created our own jobs. One thing led to another and new collaborators came into the fold, like our partner Bertrand Cesvet. Today, we count approximately 600 employees worldwide. It’s really a collective. Around 25 people manage the place.” Martin Lavigne, President of National Bank Financial - Wealth Management, asks where this stellar growth stems from. “We had key moments, like when Cirque du Soleil, who used to be our client, became a partner and co-proprietor of Sid Lee. But I think the fundamental reason for our success was that we never accepted the industry for what it was. We were obsessed with the idea of reinventing it! We started from nothing—we had no clients, no money and no experience—so we got in the habit of constantly changing the company. Our philosophy at Sid Lee is ‘if it works, it’s time to change it.’ The company found a way to stay current, in-synch with what’s happening in the marketing world. It was the dawn of the digital era—we embraced that wholeheartedly and built our company upon that foundation.”
Today, 30 to 40% of Sid Lee’s operations are advertising-based. Jimmy Lee, Sid Lee Architecture, Sid Labs and Sid Lee Entertainment were born of Sid Lee, complementing and diversifying their mother company’s offer. Nearly 50% of the team works on digital marketing (app development, web presence, social media and analytics, etc.) “Our advantage is that we are a transformative force when it comes to re-imagining the brand experience, at all points of contact,” adds Bouchard. “In Quebec, for example, we’ve collaborated with the SAQ for a number of years. We worked hand-in-hand with them to reinvent their in- store experience—we redesigned their outlets, talked with them about each category of products they offered and helped them renovate their e-commerce platform. We’re really interested in all the points of contact between brands and their clients, and our strength, what grew our international reputation, was bringing it all together. Everything has to be just right— advertising is one factor among many others.”
When you walk into their Montreal headquarters, the first things that you notice are the bay windows, a large table, cushions, a counter and buzzing coming from the cafeteria. There, a chef works his magic and employees have a bit of breakfast (which is free), snacks and lunches that are both delicious and inexpensive. It’s a unique space and so is its ambiance. Martin Lavigne finds the concept rather unique. Bouchard is all smiles, “We believe that a workspace shouldn’t be solely functional, it should be cultural. All businesses should be recognizable by their physical spaces, since each and every company has its own culture. Despite that, many companies could switch their office space amongst themselves and no one would be the wiser! That’s not okay. It’s really important that physical spaces be designed with the culture of the business in mind, as well as how work gets done there. Here, we try to develop a space where common areas are celebrated as crossroads for meetings and exchange.”
Sid Lee is a culture in and of itself, and this culture was founded on its employees’ common values. “Several times over, we would hire people that didn’t fit the bill 100%, but had the attitude we were looking for. That’s why today, the company culture we have is noticeable when meeting someone at Sid Lee. The words they use might differ to explain their point of view, they might not approach a question in the same way as their colleagues, but their collective thinking is in line,” says Bouchard. According to him, the almost fanatical attention that’s paid to managing office culture is the reason the company’s spirit, the very essence of Sid Lee, has been so easily exported around the globe (Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, New York City, Amsterdam and Paris). Managing this growth involves challenges that are more on an operational, than cultural, level. More than ever, Sid Lee has brought the world to its “shop.”
“I think I’ve found that balance and I did it in my early thirties. Before that, I felt like I needed to organize everything in order of priorities. Being ambitious, I put work first, so my family suffered, and I never ended up getting to the bottom of the proverbial list. I learned that everything had to be done horizontally, not vertically, and every day, I had to dedicate time to each separate part. So, even if I’m doing something of little importance or urgency, like a photo project, I make sure that I spend a little time doing it, every day.”
“I’m a passionaholic! Work takes up a lot of my life, but I’m also a contemporary artist—a photographer. Every 2 or 3 years, I exhibit my work. For me, it’s a breath of fresh air. Cultivating your passion is a precious thing—you mustn’t lose sight of it. That’s how you’re able to reinvent yourself over the course of your carrier.”
It is as part of a series of interviews exploring the success of local business executives that Martin Lavigne, President of National Bank Financial Wealth Management and Éric Bujold, President of National Bank Private Wealth Management, 1859, had the chance to meet Jean-François Bouchard, president and cofounder of Sid Lee.
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