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Bertrand Cesvet: Interview with CEO of Sid Lee

Since 1997, Bertrand Cesvet has been CEO and senior partner of Sid Lee, builder of brands. At the head of the global strategy group, he counsels clients on how to transform their businesses and brands. Under his leadership, Sid Lee has become one of the most renowned agencies in the world for its creativity and its one-of-a kind business model. A sought-after speaker, he is the author of Conversational Capital: How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About.

In twenty years, Sid Lee has become one of the most successful agencies in the world and has acquired an unrivalled international reputation. How do you explain this success?

I attribute it to three elements: the talent we have in Montreal, the adept management of creative forces operating in a unique business model, and the desire to go international.

Since its inception, Sid Lee has always relied on multidisciplinarity. Is this original approach the key to your success?

Yes, absolutely. For us, combining usually separate expertise is paramount. We break down the barriers that separate various fields to unleash creativity and create value. To this day, Sid Lee is the only entity in the world to offer architectural, communication and interactive marketing services, all under one roof. Multidisciplinarity is the core of our approach. Boldness has been part of the company’s DNA since its beginnings.

Is it easy to keep on being bold when a firm takes on international stature?

If Sid Lee is a leader on the Montreal market, it’s still a small player in developing markets, such as those of Los Angeles and Paris, even if it has some success. Boldness and creativity must always remain the cornerstone of our method. Six years ago, Sid Lee envisioned C2 Montreal, one of the largest annual business events combining creativity and commerce.

How was this idea brought to life?

Jean-François Bouchard [Chairman of the Board at Sid Lee], Daniel Lamarre [President and CEO of Cirque du Soleil] and I were asking ourselves what would happen if the TED Talks and Burning Man had a child. We understood that all festivals were based on a unidirectional vision of communication: experts speaking to people. We then created an event offering exceptional content in an exceptional framework to foster public dialogue. Today, C2 Montreal perfectly reflects our city and its capacity to nurture collaboration between various industries.

Even if you are now present around the world, you like to reiterate that the heart of Sid Lee is in Montreal. Why? Is Montreal still a hub of creativity?

It has always been for us, because there is a vast pool of creative people here, and where there’s creativity there’s culture. What’s more, Montreal is European, North American and bilingual, all at once. From our very beginnings, regardless of where the rest of the world was headed, we were able to adapt. Twenty years ago, acting this way was rather avant-garde, because Quebec expressed itself mostly through culture, but not yet through innovation. Today, the city is immensely attractive. I can’t imagine the company’s centre of gravity being elsewhere than in Montreal. Today, “Made in Canada” or “Made in Montreal” adds to our credibility, and that’s very interesting! Among your many clients, you notably have the Cirque du Soleil and Adidas.

How did these brands affect your business’s evolution?

The Cirque du Soleil is a Quebec company that always had international aspirations, as did Sid Lee. We helped it achieve worldwide success. With Adidas, it was a German company come to look for talent here to heighten its development. This partnership demonstrated the exceptional quality of our services, not to mention the many awards we won.

When we talk about the success of Sid Lee, we often evoke the trio that you form with Jean-François Bouchard and Philippe Meunier. Is Sid Lee also a story of friendship?

Yes, it’s even first and foremost a story of friendship. For my part, it’s easier to work with friends, and creativity, the way we see it, is a team sport. Our activities spur collaboration. And so, from collaboration to friendship, there’s only one step. Recently, Sid Lee Architecture transformed the Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

Can you tell us about it?

Sid Lee Architecture is making a mark on Montreal thanks to large-scale projects. Just think of the reconstruction of the Fairmont The Queen Elisabeth Hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel or the Bota Bota Spa. The Queen Elizabeth is an important building in Montreal. We gave it a new mission befitting its time, that is to say, more focused on collaboration and lifestyle. We are very proud of the result, as well as that of the Four Seasons Hotel. In both cases, these projects are changing the face of Montreal. And we can say as much for Bota Bota in Old Montreal.


Text: Diane Stehle

Photo: Xavier Girad Lachaine

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