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Opinion and Insight

How Sid Lee Tapped into New York’s Eclectic Experiences

ECD Dan Chandler explains how an open-minded NY adventure attracted the likes of Facebook, Apple and North Face

How Sid Lee Tapped into New York’s Eclectic Experiences

“It’s been a rollercoaster! There have been moments when it’s been, ‘woohoo this is amazing’ and moments when it’s been, ‘can we stop please, I want to get off!’”

The past four years have been quite the adventure for Dan Chandler. Back in 2012 he and a handful of pioneers ventured south and east from their agency base in francophone Montreal to set up an outpost. 

Conditions in this new urban wilderness were tough. The world was still feeling the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis. And they’d chosen to establish a colony in one of the toughest environments on the globe: the New York advertising scene.

But Englishman Dan and the crew had something of a secret weapon up their sleeve: a curiously Canadian mixture of rebellion and openness. At a time when the progressive brands in New York were hungry for a different way of working with creative that reflected their inherently disruptive natures, this newly arrived team were able to listen and build their agency responsively.

Now in 2016, Sid Lee New York is an established presence in the city’s Tribeca area. And on its journey its attracted all the coolest, most coveted clients. Facebook, Apple, North Face, Stella Artois and more have been drawn to the agency’s collaborative and broad-minded way of working. 

The whole Sid Lee network has always prided itself on an eclectic, multi-disciplinary approach (they have an architecture offering, for example) but it’s in New York that their approach has been heightened and distilled. Fed by client demands and the city itself, Sid Lee NY has evolved into a very modern kind of animal.

“The fact that NY Is so cosmopolitan and at the cutting edge of so many frontiers of innovation, means that the multidisciplinary nature of Sid Lee’s offering becomes more concentrated in New York,” reflects Dan. “Around the network, there are some agencies that lean more heavily into one discipline or another but the progressive nature of our clients in the US, they demand that we are able to work across disciplines seamlessly.”

To get a feel for what Dan means, you just need to look at the diverse nature of the work they’ve created in the past year.

For Apple’s launch of Apple News, they created a huge scale campaign, very much in the vein of classic OOH. Meanwhile for beer brand Stella Artois they created an enormous ticketed event across New York, Montreal and Buenos Aires that explored the nature of multisensory experiences. For the events, they collaborated with celebrated culinary eccentrics Bompas and Parr – and the online spin-off saw them work with Oxford University psychologist Professor Charles Spence to create an experience that combines sound and visuals to influence consumers’ perception of beer flavour (billed as the ‘world’s first music video you can taste’). They’ve been working with Def Jam Records to launch up-and-coming artist Bibi Bourelly, an exercise that included an event in the city’s China Town. So yes, diverse.

One of the trends that particularly appeals to Dan is the way that, thanks to social media, experiences have become the new status symbol. Brands want to tap into that and find clever ways of turning localised events into mass, global content.

“Gone are the days when people wanted a status symbol; today it’s about the status story. ‘Did you go to that event that everyone’s Instagramming?’ And I think there’s nowhere quite like New York for that. There’s always something happening with queues stretching around the block. I think brands want to capitalise on that trend,” says Dan. “This for me is one of the Sid Lee USPs – creating a rich and immersive experience and then do that at scale, with national reach incorporating that big brand thinking.” 

Another area where the agency stands out is its reluctance to come to clients with pre-packaged ‘solutions’. Instead, says Dan, it’s about collaborating with brands to reach the answers together. And given the complex nature of their briefs, that open-mindedness is essential. With Facebook, they’re working on the Internet.org project, which is all about connecting previously unconnected places – a novel problem that demands a novel solution.

Similarly, with the NGO (RED), they’ve got another tricky problem to solve. For people in their mid-20s and beyond, the issue of AIDS and HIV is one that most are fairly familiar with – but amongst the youth of Gen Z awareness of and engagement with the issue is shockingly low. As far as they’re concerned it’s a relic of 20th century – practically ancient history. In order to tackle the situation, Sid Lee NY has been working with up-and-coming rapper Princess Nokia and there’s a big anniversary spot set to launch imminently.

And once the new (RED) spot has launched, Dan is looking forward to 2017. At around 70 people strong, Sid Lee New York positively buzzing. It’s found its New York voice while nurturing its leftfield roots – a combination that has proven irresistible. But now the challenge is to develop what he describes as a ‘two speed’ way of working – fulfilling both the need for big brand thinking and nimble maker mentality. Judging by the spectrum of work coming through the agency’s doors, they’re well on their way. And one thing’s for sure… the agency is certainly not an ‘outpost’ anymore.

Genre: People , Strategy/Insight