On September 6th 2022, global creative agency Sid Lee announced the appointment of its new chief executive officer, Martin Gauthier. While this alone would be exciting news, Martin’s promotion is also a big deal for Canada. Given that he works out of the agency’s Montreal office, this officially makes Martin Sid Lee’s very first CEO in Canada.
While this may be a first for Sid Lee, this appointment has been a long time in the making. Martin is one of the agency’s original founding partners - serving for nearly 24 years. In that time, he’s moved from senior partner and VP of interactive marketing to president, before ending up where he is today.
Due to the experience gained throughout these years, one of Martin’s highest priorities has been joining the agency’s Toronto and Montreal offices. While they’ve worked closely together for the past ten years, they will now be considered a singular Canadian entity, with Martin at the helm. The decision will continue to build Sid Lee’s reputation, vision and growth - maximising its presence in Canada and strengthening its ability to push creative boundaries for clients and communities.
Speaking to LBB’s Josh Neufeldt, Martin discusses what this appointment means to him, how he approaches leadership, and why Sid Lee makes him feel “at home.”
LBB> How did you get started in advertising? Tell us about your story!
Martin> Around ‘94 or ‘95, I started a company with my colleagues in digital advertising - called Stratego Media. We were creating CD-ROMS that did taxes for Canadians, but at the same time, we also created websites for our clients and handled a lot of communication through the web. We did the websites for CCM, KOHO, JOFA, BAUER, Cascades, and many more. From 1995 to 1999, we grew from three employees to thirty-five.
In 1999, we merged Stratego Media with Diesel to create Sid Lee. As a result, I became one of the founding partners of Sid Lee. This is how it all started.
LBB> How did you feel about advertising while growing up? Was this industry something you always felt destined for?
Martin> I wouldn’t say that I was destined for it, but like everything in life, there are impressionable moments which leave their impact on you. I watched a lot of TV when I was young, and I always liked the ads from Apple, Nike and adidas - especially since I was very into sports. In college, (the now infamous) Jean Lafleur (who had an advertising agency at that time) came and spoke to us. He did a presentation on his job and his entrepreneurial path, which really appealed to me. He also explained how projects in advertising were created thanks to a team of different talents including creatives, musicians, account services and writers. I specifically remember him showing us a Miller Lite project for the Quebec market: ‘C’est l’heure de la Miller’ (‘Miller Time’). I thought this work looked really, really cool!
On that day, I decided that this was what I wanted to do in life. So, I studied advertising. This also reminds me of the importance of sharing your career path, knowledge and passion with the next generation, because you never know who you will inspire along the way - just like Jean Lafleur did for me.
LBB> Congratulations on your appointment as the first ever Sid Lee CEO in Canada! Can you tell us more about what this means to you, and what it means for the agency?
Martin> For me, the nomination does not change much because, in my eyes, it’s not what is important. We are a collective. We like to work together, and that will be my role: to refocus Sid Lee on its values. We are a ‘people’ company. We want to work on doing things right, take our time, and above all, do everything with respect.
For us as an agency, we are working hard to build a globally-recognised Canadian entity known for reinventing branded consumer experiences at scale and speed through creativity and innovation. Having one integrated studio (film/audio production, digital, CRM) and a focus on growth - all with a unified business strategy - will make us more agile and capable of supporting pan-Canadian and international brands.
LBB> Why does it make sense for Montreal and Toronto to come together under one umbrella?
Martin> Our teams in Montreal and Toronto were already working together for many of our clients. Unifying our offices was the natural next step toward offering an even better service for our clients, building a vibrant culture, and delivering the best creative work in Canada.
Most importantly though, we want to double down on digital. Right now, it's a big growth driver for us. We're really on a roll, and there's no better time to join Sid Lee than right now. I'm really proud of the team and what we're building.
LBB> Martin, you’ve been working for Sid Lee for nearly 24 years. What has your experience been like, and how has it developed and changed in that time? What’s made you stick around for such a long time?
Martin> Since day one after the merge, I felt at home. I love people in general, because we are all complex individuals with different ways of thinking, and throughout the years, I‘ve met many uber-creative and entrepreneurial individuals. This is especially true of Sid Lee. Here, we always say that we are a band. Everyone has their strengths, and mine was in digital when I first started, as well as relationships.
Something else worth noting is that the industry evolves constantly, and things have gotten more complex. We used to only have traditional media like TV spots, radio, websites and magazines. More and more now, we find ourselves focusing on customer experience at every touchpoint.
In terms of what’s kept me at Sid Lee, I’ve seen people leave and come back because of the culture and creativity we have. But I can ultimately say that I stayed because of the people.
LBB> Before becoming CEO, you were president. How have your responsibilities shifted, and how has the experience of adapting to the new role been?
Martin> Previously, I was the president of the Montreal operations. However, I had a dream of creating a united Canadian structure to work as one. Since landing this role, adapting has been very smooth thanks to our super team of managers who are helping me create a better integration of all the units. This includes our production studio, our digital front, and the CRM from our sibling company BIMM. Because of this, our branches in the U.S. and Europe will also be able to benefit from this new Canadian structure.
This idea of working together and working as one is also important for helping us pursue our bigger ambition of bringing back international mandates. We always aim to create better products for our clients, and by doing so, bigger opportunities will naturally come. At its core, creativity has always been, and always will remain what’s essential at Sid Lee.
LBB> What are your main aims and ambitions at the helm of Sid Lee? How would you define your leadership style, and what factors have played the biggest influence on this style?
Martin> I like to see myself as a facilitator, and I like to be close with my management team. The industry can be difficult; you get thrown curveballs sometimes, and I hope to demonstrate a clear vision and guide my team towards a unified goal.
It’s also important to me that they don’t see me as their boss. I want them to see me as a colleague - working side by side to accomplish great things. I think this mentality has helped me throughout my career.
As I mentioned previously, what kept me at Sid Lee is the team spirit. I give my team a lot of space because I trust them, and they have a lot of latitude to make important decisions. Even if occasionally, things go wrong, instead of being reactive, we take time aside to discuss what can be learned from it. I am not a CEO who looks over people’s shoulders. My team knows that they can reach me whenever they need my support.
LBB> As president, how would you describe your values? And how do you go about reflecting them on a day to day basis?
Martin> Two of my values - both of which I’ve emphasised for a long time - are humanity and humility. When it comes to humanity, I try to be kind to everyone, every day. Of course, this extends to our clients and partners as well. By osmosis, it will come back to you. I don’t believe in putting stress and pressure on people around you. People have priorities outside of work, such as families and friends. When I see someone who is overworking themselves, I check in to see what’s going on. We say that at Sid Lee, we create what matters, and this value has to reflect in our culture - where we also prioritise humanity.
As for humility, I will never take credit for the success of the agency, because it is a team success. I’m one of the ingredients, and I work with so many talented people. I feel like this sentiment is reflected in one of my personal favourite sayings: ‘alone you go faster, together you go further’.
LBB> What are your thoughts on the Canadian ad industry in general at the moment? What are the main factors affecting conversations with clients?
Martin> Brands and CMOs want to see the value of the agencies they work with. Because of this, I think the industry often gets caught up with creating campaigns to win awards, or ones that might look good in a portfolio, but don’t actually move the needle for the client. Rather, the industry needs to be effective and create value in everything they do.
Reflecting on this, I always remind my team to have conversations with clients and to make sure that we are aligned as to what the desired effect is from the get-go - whether it’s to create awareness, sales, or something else. There also has to be transparency, especially if things don’t go as planned. You have to be able to pivot and keep the clients in the loop. They need to gain value from the industry and see that they made a great decision in working with an agency.
LBB> Is there a piece of work from the past year that sticks out as being particularly important for the agency? And if so, why?
Martin> There is a lot of work that has been significant for Sid Lee. To choose a few highlights, the work we did for adidas, Cirque du Soleil, and MLSE (‘We the North’ campaign) really showcased our ability to - as a Canadian agency - produce impactful work for an international market. Not only did this work help generate revenue, but also created great brand awareness.
Most recently, we worked with Hyundai Motor Company and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to create a long-form documentary that is now on Amazon Prime. Titled ‘For Tomorrow’, the documentary is named after the digital platform we also created in 2020. Designed to facilitate grassroots innovators from around the world in connecting and finding solutions to sustainability and accessibility issues, it addresses the growing need for brands and companies to care for our planet. I’m super proud of this piece of work, and I think the project will resonate for years.
LBB> What do you like to do outside of work? What helps you de-stress after a long day at work?
Martin> I’m a people person, and I love spending quality time with friends and family around a nice fire. I’m also a big wine enthusiast and collector, and I love the way opening a good bottle of wine can really bring people together. Aside from that, I try to run 25 kilometres a week (this helps to balance out the wine!).
Another fact I love mentioning; ever since I watched ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, I started to play chess. Now I’m addicted, and I play for at least 30 minutes a day to destress - either in the morning, during the day, or before going to bed. It’s a war game and I love that it’s challenging. In many ways, it’s like being in our industry or winning new business.