Bertrand Cesvet on his darkest and brightest days at Sid Lee

In the mid-90s, Bertrand Cesvet was working in management consulting in Montreal and was, by his own admission, “miserable.” His tennis buddy Jean-François (JF) Bouchard had an idea. “He just looked at me and said, A) You’re not a corporate guy, and B) You should be an entrepreneur.” Bouchard wanted Cesvet to join him and his partner Philippe Meunier at their young agency, Diesel.

Cesvet liked the sounds of that. He had the education of a “corporate guy,” but wanted to do something different. And he loved the possibility of building something new in a creative industry. “I mortgaged everything I had, and I bought my share,” he said.

Together the three built one of the most successful Canadian agencies ever. Infused with a creative sensibility that just felt more Montreal than Toronto, Diesel almost went out of business, became Sid Lee (an anagram of its original name), expanded around the world, built things as well as brands, got into architecture and events, won (and lost) global brands like Dell, Absolut and Adidas, and eventually sold to Japanese holding Hakuhodo DY Holdings in 2015.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” said Cesvet, who announced he was stepping away from his role as executive chairman this week, a move signalled late last year when he relinquished the CEO title to Vito Piazza. “It’s time to do other things and enjoy life.”

But at 56, this isn’t a retirement either. Cesvet still helps with the recruitment process for the McCall MacBain Scholarships at McGill; mentors young Black entrepreneurs through the Black Wealth Club; and wants to become a more active investor in startup brands. “Getting involved as an investor-slash-board-member, with a big say on where the brand is going,” he said.

Next week, he’s off to see his daughter graduate from Oxford, and then onto Spain for the Davis Cup. But before he left, he took time to speak with The Message about his time at Sid Lee.

Can you point to a single proudest moment at Sid Lee? 

The most incredible moment, I remember it vividly: It’s 2010 and I’m in Herzogenaurach in Germany. It’s 10 o’clock, we’re pitching the global Adidas business. And I’m waiting, and then I see Lee Clow come out of the room, because he had just presented before us.

It’s that sort of moment where you’re looking at Lee Clow, and it’s Adidas, and you’re going in there, and then you win the business. Of course that was a pivotal moment.

That’s what’s been amazing about the ride is that it’s just a series of things like that you go, ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’ And you’re with cool people, with your best friends and… very few people have had a chance to be in the heart of Germany and stare Lee Clow in the face.

And pitching one of the most iconic brands in the world…

Exactly. Or the first time I met Guy Laliberté, when we first started working with Cirque du Soleil in ’99. We had won the business, and he wanted to talk to me. I get introduced to him—and the clients told me, ‘Well, he’s gonna have five minutes for you, so make it fast’—and I sat down with him and start talking. Fifteen minutes, half an hour, an hour, an hour-and-a-half. And then he stops and says, “Man, I’m going to change your life.” So that was a pretty cool thing.

What about your scariest or darkest day?

By far, Sept. 11, 2001. It was the dotcom collapse, and at 8:30 in the morning, I was meeting with Cirque du Soleil to to tell them we were not going to make it. We were supposed to build their website, and I told them that we would basically go bankrupt. And then I stepped out of my office and at 9:10, the planes hit the towers. So it was pretty fucked up.

And then after that, basically we had to let go of 70 people, and JF, Phil and myself, we didn’t pay each other for 10 months. And then we survived. So there have been a lot of near-death experiences because it was so entrepreneurial.

You got hit hard by the dotcom bust?

Yeah, super hard. People don’t realize that Sid Lee was a digital agency first. You know, we got to advertising and storytelling after. We started existing because we were leveraging the digital transformation, and then we moved into storytelling. So the dotcom bust was super tough.

Do you think you’ll miss anything about working in Sid Lee and in advertising?

What I’m going to miss is just the quality of people. I think an agency is still a great receptacle for a lot of smart people that rally around something. Any any good agency, when you get a team together to work on something, you know, the result is fabulous. So I’m going to miss that.

But apart from that, I’m not gonna miss all the HR problems and chasing clients and near-death experiences of losing a client and all that.

Let’s zoom out a little bit and talk about what’s going on in the industry. Is there something about it that worries you right now?

I think the industry is less attractive for very talented people to start with. And then if you combine that with the fact that clients are building agencies [in-house], and that more and more very creative people work in a freelance environment. And then you have inflation. It is a really, really bad moment for agencies… not being able to adjust your rate fast enough to account for labour cost increases. I think it’s going to be a very interesting period for agencies.

Labour costs are going up because other kinds of companies are competing for your talent?

Yeah, exactly. And fewer people want to get into the industry. I don’t think that Gen Z is as excited about this industry as Gen X was. If you wanted to have a creative life 20 years ago, you had to do this. Now, I think that people can go work at Google and have a creative life. So it makes the whole thing a lot less attractive.

Is there something that excites you about the industry right now?

I do think that the vision Sid Lee had a long time ago, of being creative everywhere—managing the entire customer experience at every touchpoint, whether it’s through architecture, design, communications, commerce—you can do it now. Twenty years ago, it was more a vision. But now I think that clients are going to be demanding that, so there’s a big opportunity for agencies there.

The other opportunity, I think, is brands need to become a lot more sincere about everything they do. I think that agencies now will enter a new era of sincere communication: Say what you do, mean what you say, and all of that is going to be a big requirement. And that’s really interesting, because that’s going to change the storytelling a lot.

You’re talking about “brand purpose” there?

Yeah brand purpose, respecting the environment, respecting resources, respecting people. I think there’s a big opportunity for agencies now with internal branding. If you go to any larger account, your first target audience is the organization itself,  It’s not the consumer yet. You know starting from the inside out, I think that this is a big opportunity.

And it’s funny, because in the conversation that I’m having in this [post Sid Lee] life, a lot of it actually has to do with, ‘Okay, at Sid Lee, how did you foster a culture like you did? How did you make Sid Lee cool? And why did you do that?’ That question is a big one. And I think there’s a big opportunity for agencies to be relevant there… they’re all looking for people and talent.

And they don’t know how to do it. If they don’t start behaving like an exciting, creative, soulful, living organisms, I think they’re gonna struggle.

David Brown