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Creating culture one moment at a time

As CEO of creative agency Sid Lee, Bertrand Cesvet keeps his eyes trained on the future. But he remains deeply connected to his McGill past.

Bertrand Cesvet de Sid Lee.

Bertrand Cesvet, BA’86, MBA’88, DLitt’16 is CEO and Senior Partner at creative agency Sid Lee.

Bertrand Cesvet ventured onto McGill campus as a bookish CEGEP student, drawn to the Alcan Lectures in Architecture.

He later decided to study inside the Roddick Gates, launching a deep connection to McGill that continues to this day – as an active volunteer, donor, speaker and mentor.

“I’m super passionate about McGill,” says Cesvet, BA’86, MBA’88, DLitt’16, CEO and Senior Partner at Sid Lee, the creative agency that developed the new Made by McGill/Forgé par McGill brand platform and accompanying anthem video.

They were unveiled in September with the launch of Made by McGill: the Campaign for Our Third Century and will be used to promote McGill and showcase the success of students and researchers.

Cesvet is a member of the campaign cabinet for McGill’s ambitious $2-billion fundraising drive. He’s also a Desautels Faculty of Management global expert and has volunteered on committees at McGill over the years. In 2015, he established the Cesvet Family MBA Fellowship to support outstanding students entering the Desautels MBA program.

Cesvet envisions his role as two-fold on campaign cabinet: he travels frequently and has offered to meet with McGill alumni, if requested. He also hopes the agency’s facilities will be used for McGill fundraising events.

“Sid Lee is really ‘Made by McGill’, he says, noting that most of the people in the top 10 senior positions at the agency are McGill alumni.

A Montreal-area native who grew up in suburban Laval, Cesvet has said going to McGill was one of the ‘defining moments’ of his life.

“When I went to McGill it was just discovering a whole different world – a pluralistic world, a bilingual world, different faiths. So, it just opened my horizons in terms of world view and engaging with people from all over the world. That was one thing.”

The other thing, he adds, is that he didn’t speak English.

“If I didn’t have a reasonably good command of the English language, I don’t think I could have built this business,” he says.

From Cirque du Soleil to the Toronto Raptors

Sid Lee has offices in Montreal, Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, London and Paris, and is the creative agency behind the Toronto Raptors hugely successful “WetheNorth” campaign. The agency is currently working for Tennis Canada on the narrative of women’s tennis and what breakout star Bianca Andreescu represents for Canadian tennis.

“What we do is very interesting when you create culture. The Raptors is a cultural moment,” says Cesvet.

“Whenever we look at something, we say ‘would I get tattooed with that?’….Not that I wear tattoos, but can you create that level of commitment and engagement around an idea and then hopefully that it becomes part of the zeitgeist or the culture of the moment and it has an enduring value. This is when you realize that you’re doing something really special.”

The company’s first big break came in 1999 when it landed the job of creating Cirque du Soleil’s first website. Sid Lee wasn’t one of the digital agencies invited to pitch for the work. “They had not invited anyone from Montreal because they thought nobody knew how to do this. So we snuck in. I insisted on getting interviewed, allowing us to pitch,” Cesvet recalls.

Cesvet read a poem the agency had written for the occasion. “It was a beautiful artful book about the journey, the inner journey of (Cirque du Soleil). It was fantastic.”

Cesvet got choked up reading it and so did his audience. Sid Lee won the assignment. Twenty years later, Cirque du Soleil remains a client – “which is very unusual in my industry,” Cesvet notes – and also an investor in Sid Lee. “It’s a very deeply rooted relationship,” he says.

McGill’s connection to the world

Cesvet keeps his eyes trained on the future.

“I like history with a big H – that, I’m passionate about,” says Cesvet. “I’m mildly interested about the present. And I love the future. That’s my thing. I live in the future and that’s what I do.”

Asked about the best part of his job, Cesvet mentions three things: “I think one is when we’re able to make a small dent in the universe and creating culture.”

He also loves that it’s a “business of humans”.

“Now we have about a little more than a thousand people, and it’s like running a sports team,” says Cesvet, who spends his day engaging with people.

The third thing is exposure to the world – he never thought he’d one day have offices in different parts of the globe.

“I never envisioned that I would have this level of connectivity with the world,” he says.

“I think that’s what McGill can deliver is that level of connectivity to the world. It’s a big, big deal. And this is why I’m so involved, and I cherish this institution and I give as much time as I can and money and support and ideas to this because I think it makes sense. I think it’s the future.”