2-15: "The Economist" - Bertrand Cesvet

BertrandCesvet.jpg

"The Economist"

Bertrand Cesvet is the CEO of Sid Lee - a multidisciplinary, brand-building creative company with offices in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Paris, and Los Angeles.

He looks constantly to the future, is sensitive to the different needs of the people that works for him and sees the world through both the lens of the possible and the lens of the practical. He is a business builder, an author, a creator, a tennis player and a father.

He is also an Economist. Which is the name of this episode.

Oh, and he says what he thinks.


Three Takeaways

  • Relish the future

  • Declare your values

  • Be sensitive to the differing needs of others


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-15: "The Economist" - Bertrand Cesvet

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

Bertrand Cesvet is the CEO of Sid Lee - a multidisciplinary, brand-building creative company with offices in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Paris, and Los Angeles.

He looks constantly to the future, is sensitive to the different needs of the people that works for him and sees the world through both the lens of the possible and the lens of the practical.  He is a business builder, an author, a creator, a tennis player and a father.

He is also an Economist. Which is the name of this episode.

Oh, and he says what he thinks.

“Breaking boundaries is something that we ... It's the grown up version. The real version is fuck status quo, you know?”

I am not a fan of the status quo. For the simple reason that there is no such thing.

The status quo is this moment. Now this one. Now … You get the point. 

In the time it’s taken me to say these words and you to listen to them, we have both changed. Some of our cells have died. Some have transformed. And some new ones have been created. 

We are different. And there’s not a thing we could do about it.

Companies work exactly the same way.

In business, the status quo is a lie. A falsehood. A fabrication. An illusion. You can’t hold onto today. Or this hour. Or this moment.

You can only do something about tomorrow. 

And if you’re the leader and you’re not meeting tomorrow on your terms, your company is going to get swept away by the tsunami of new that shows up every day.

In business, you’re either growing or dying.

Which means leading comes down to a very simple philosophy.

Fuck the status quo. 

Or be fucked by it.

Here’s Bertrand Cesvet.

Charles:

Thanks for being here Bertrand. It's great to have you. Let me ask you this question; what's your first memory of creativity? When did creativity ... when were you first conscious of something being creative?

Bertrand Cesvet:

For me, I think it was writing essays when I was in primary school, being asked to write a story that came from my mind, from my imagination. For me, I think the medium has always been writing more than anything else. I grew up in a very artistic house. Arts everywhere, lots of music, so it was all around me. Yeah, and the question, write a story, tell a story, tell something that ... invent something. That's my oldest memory.

Charles:

Your parents were creative?

Bertrand Cesvet:

It was interesting. I come from a family ... we're immigrants. My background is French and Asian. So, I may not look Asian, but like a lot of people who are immigrants, there's this notion that creativity is a hobby, but you don't make a living out of it. So, I was basically surrounded by very ... my dad was painting and everything, but he was really an engineer, really was doing something serious, and in my family, you had to be an engineer or doctor. So, for us, it was like a hobby. Never thought about it as a way to make a living.

Charles:

Were you a risk taker as a kid?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Absolutely not. No, absolutely not. I was an only child, overprotected, playing tennis, very, very much studying very hard, doing a lot of things to please my parents.

Charles:

How did the overprotection manifest itself?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Well, you know, it's just being scared of losing your only kid, being told by your parents also that ... because, I grew up in Canada, and being told this country, we're not home here, so be careful. Don't overstep the boundaries. Don't do too much. But, it was great. Nonetheless, no regrets, but no, there was not a lot of risk taking in my culture.

Charles:

Do you feel that's still with you?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Not at all actually. So, it's a story that I'm sure that you've heard many times, again, spending a lot of time in a very creative environment as I said, but with the constraint of doing my best to conform to the norm, and the norm was, you go to a very good school and you get the best degree you can, and then you get a proper job and everything. At one point, basically I had a cathartic moment where I said, "The hell with it," and then everything changed. That's great. That's a great story and for me, my childhood was what it was, and today, it's funny because I have an interesting ... and to me, creativity is all about the future, and I have an interesting ... I like to say my relationship to time is interesting. I like history with a big H. I'm mildly interested in the present, but I'm very excited about the future and what I'm not terribly excited about is, and I see a shrink like most people and all of that, but I'm not very interested about, I have very little memories actually of my childhood. For me, it's always been all of a sudden what took over and what drives my creativity is that passion for what's next, what's the next ideas, and I don't reflect very often on where I come from and whether I'm scared or not. I just want to invent stuff.

Charles:

That's really an interesting perspective. Within that context, what's your relationship with fear?

Bertrand Cesvet:

I'm not that fearful, to be honest. I'm again, building the Sid Lee business was a lot about experimentation. We tried many, many things. It was a startup, kids out of the basement, and you do stuff, and you go for it. Most of the time, we failed very often. If you're in our business, sometimes you lose clients or you try new things and they don't work. There's been a lot of experimentation. Yes, there were moments where we were scared because also in addition to being a creative, I'm an entrepreneur, and there are moments where business is not very good, so you're afraid to lose everything. But, I have to say that no; I'm not overcome by fear at all. I just try stuff and I'm willing to fail.

Charles:

You mentioned that it was a pivotal moment, that it was sort of a transition moment?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Well, again, you do what you do, so I went to McGill and business school and management consulting and everything, and then my dad got sick, passed away. I was miserable being a management consultant. I hated that, and at one point I just said, "Screw this. I'm going to do something different," with my partner Jean-Françios Bouchard and Philip, with whom we started Sid Lee, and it was nothing to do against ... I was always in love with my parents. There was never any rebellion or whatever. It was just I was tired of this. I just said, "I'm going to be myself." So, it's been a great, great, great moment.

Charles:

That must have been a dramatic moment of realization or self-awareness, the moment that you could actually decide who you wanted to be?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah, and sometimes you get that also from other people. Like I very much believe a big part of the Sid Lee experience is that we believe, it's a very collective kind of organization, and I have to say that my partners, the founding partners of Sid Lee, Jean-François and Philip were a lot more entrepreneurial than I was. I was supposed to come in there as the MBA, the smart guy that would operate our business, and what happened is I got co-opted into ... I became the crazy one, and it all happened very naturally. So, there was not a lot of catharsis in the way it happened. It just had to happen. It just felt right and you start, you keep doing it, and it felt very good.

Charles:

So, you were brought in to be, to your point, the grownup. You were an economist, right?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah, economist, yeah.

Charles:

So, you were brought in to be, "I'm going to take care of all of the ... make sure this is safe."

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah.

Charles:

And in fact, the roles got flipped around?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Got completely flipped around, I got in there and I realized that yeah, I was good at what we call sometimes in creative industries, I was good at the "work". But, again, being an economist and business school and management consultant, banker, and all of these things, of course it created something really interesting. It's very rare that you have somebody in so-called creative industries that has put himself or herself through all of that bullshit, and I had had the chance to put myself through it. So, I just took that as a great ...

Charles:

Were you surprised to discover this about yourself? Did it take a lot to encourage you to lean into those?

Bertrand Cesvet:

No, no. It happened very naturally. No, it just, as I said, if you're obsessed with the future, if you think always about what's next, well then, there's this notion of yeah, and you forget about where you come from, quite frankly. I think that there's a certain dose of amnesia that's important and somehow I think ... and over the years, so here I am today, down the road and I'm sort of back in. I'm the CEO of a 900 people company, and so I'm back. I do "management". But, for me, I think it's a great privilege. I think there's too much emphasis on the question on whether you're creative or not. I think that there's a lot of emphasis on ... it's not binary.

I think you can be both. I think you can be very good at being a creative person. I just spent four years sitting as a board member on one of the biggest sovereign funds in the world and doing finance decisions, and I can do that, too. So, I feel good about it.

Charles:

What made you decide you wanted to be part of a startup?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Desperation, quite frankly. No, seriously. I hated my life and also, context is important. I mean, it's interesting because Canada right now has a fair bit of momentum. I think that Canada has a bit of a golden age, but if you look back at a city like Montreal in the mid-90s, there weren't a lot of opportunities. What happened is we had our version of Brexit back then that didn't end up ... it was very different in '95. We had a referendum, and the economy in Canada was very, very bad, so it was simply hard to find a job. So again, you create your job, and then things happen, and it was a great moment because from a cultural moment, this is where part of my experience is, and my discovery of creativity has to do with Cirque du Soleil.

Cirque du Soleil has been our client since the beginning. They were our investors, partners, mentors, friends, and so this whole thing, the whole ... as I was setting up, your colleague was telling me about Arcade Fire, and there's very much an environment for this in Montreal that's been percolating, and right now, it's the golden age of our city. It's very, very interesting. But, at that point, it was just, "Let's do this."

Charles:

What were you looking for in partners?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Friendship, first of all. You know, one of my paradigms about creativity is a couple of things. I think that creativity is about focusing on the future. That's the first thing. The other thing to me that's very important is creativity is not something that happens in pain. I don't believe that you need to be Van Gogh and cut your ear to have an idea. I actually believe that harmony and collectivism, I think, is so ... yeah. So, my partners, and I speak of these 2, but in the end we ended up with, still to this day, we have like 60 partners. But, in our business, we value harmony. We value friendship. We value ... it's a little bit ... it's very Scandinavian, if you want, in terms of how we approach things. So, that's what really I was looking for. I find it's so hard, especially if you’re an artist, and creativity is about self-expression, I think it's one thing, but if you're running a business like Sid Lee, well that's a different story. If you're running Sid Lee, you’re competing with other, you’re competing with Droga5 or McCann or whatever. I've always told myself, "Listen, if it's going to be so hard fighting for clients, fighting against people who are smarter than us and have more experience than us, the least we can do is get along." If on top of that, we start not being supportive, not supporting each other, we're going to fail.

Charles:

Did you have big ambitions when you started the business? Were you looking at the future? To your point about being future oriented, were you looking at the future and saying, "This is what success looks like?"

Bertrand Cesvet:

We had a big ambition. I would say, again, it's all about where you come from, but there was a deeply rooted belief. Again, I was born in 1964, and growing up, I enjoyed something that nobody else, that we take for granted today. When I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, you're a nerd; I had the ability to come home and watch the news on French Canada. I could watch the news on the CBC. I could watch BBC. I could watch [inaudible] and then I would wrap it up with American news. So, today, we have that in our phone, but it's pretty amazing, being able to grow up in the 80s and the 70s and have access basically by virtue of where we were basically.

Because, I find Montreal is the most European North American city and the most North American European city. So, for us I think that there was this notion of boundaries and so it was all about breaking boundaries. The whole model of Sid Lee is about breaking boundaries, you know, boundaries between creative disciplines, boundaries between people, boundaries between culture. So, of course if you start with that, it's easy to get very ambitious. And then, if you bump into Cirque du Soleil, especially at the tail end of the 90s when these guys were just going everywhere, and basically I was sitting in the back of the [inaudible] express with [inaudible] flying to the four corners of the world. All of a sudden, you have things possible. So very quickly, yeah, it was huge. I mean, we were dreaming very, very big.

Charles:

What did the first stage of that dream look like? So, you started in Montreal?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah. Well, the dream started with ... again, another thing I would say about creativity for me is that it's a synetic thing. Creativity, you need movement. You need different perspectives. So, again, it takes some ... Cirque du Soleil, it's the ultimate nomadic organization. Like, one night, you're in Zurich. The next night, you're in Dusseldorf, and so on. So for us, yeah, that's what it looked like. It looked like breaking boundaries and going places and meeting people from all walks of life, and again, enjoying a diverse city or point of view that has always ranged from basically some of us as educated people, performers on Cirque du Soleil, and a lot of people in the world of entertainment that were attracted by the Cirque du Soleil vibe and everything, and you're just part of that, and all of the sudden, you do your thing.

Charles:

Did you set out ... You just articulated so clearly essentially the purpose of the company is to break boundaries, right?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah.

Charles:

Could you articulate that at the beginning? I remember when we built our film editing business, which is revolutionary in terms of the way it was conceived and constructed. It was only later that I was able to describe what I realized to be the purpose, which was to connect talent and opportunity regardless of geography, and we built the business through that lens, instinctively.

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah.

Charles:

But, it took a while for me to be able to articulate that. Could you articulate breaking boundaries from day one?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Well, absolutely. Breaking boundaries is something that we ... It's the grown up version. The real version is fuck status quo, you know? Again, I love music. It's a big thing for me, but Sid Lee is a punk rock organization.

Charles:

That's great.

Bertrand Cesvet:

So, even today, people ask me, "Who's Sid Lee?" I say, well, it's Sid Vicious meets Bruce Lee or some version of that. We're making this up. This is not what it is, but until basically three years ago, we still had hats at Sid Lee that said, "Fuck status quo," and yeah, so that was very much part of it.

It was fairly rebellious. Again, that's interesting as well. I think that creativity, there's a notion of, can creativity arise in culture or in counter-culture? And, I find that we've always managed to find the right balance between counter and counter-culture, and so yeah, it was all very, very deliberate.

Charles:

So, with a reference point that's that clear, I mean, fuck the status quo is as clear as it gets.

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah.

Charles:

Did that make it easier for you to hire people for whom that was compelling?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah.

Charles:

What did that give you?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Basically, it creates an environment where that declaration is so bold that this notion of reducing the boundaries between people, between disciplines and all of that, it becomes very appealing. That's honestly, I mean, if there's one thing that we can be proud of is that the gravitational pull, if you want, from that thought, if you want to attract talented people, you want to change the world; I mean, that's pretty cool, so that's worked really, really well for us.

Charles:

How did you start to expand? What made you decide that you needed to do this somewhere other than Montreal?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Well, I mean, Canada is an incredible environment, but it's not a country of brands. We're a country of natural resources, and it's branding aluminum and electricity. I think, it's not … Now, we were lucky 'cause, again in the history of very cool brands, I think Cirque du Soleil was a big deal, and for us it was more ... It was almost like a lifestyle aspiration. I mean, we just wanted to shrink the world around us, and again in the breaking the boundaries quite literally. Coming out of a moment where Montreal in the '80s and '90s was our Brexit moment. And was very intense and there was a lot of conversations about national identity and all of that. And for us, national identity was like, "Yeah, we're global. Like, I'm going to be comfortable anywhere." And we took it almost as a dare to us, to say, "I don't care where I'm going to go."

Again, because you know, having had the ability to grow up in French Canadian, English Canadian, American, British and French media, gave me, all of us, it gave us a good basis to say, "Okay, yeah, I could show up. I can take a meeting in London. I could take a meeting in Munich. I could do that." And so it was just what we wanted to do.

Charles:

In all of these conversations as the podcast has evolved, my own sort of appreciation, understanding, exploration of different people's relationship with fear has obviously been a big thematic-

Bertrand Cesvet:

Of course.

Charles:

-Foundation of it. It sounds like from what you're describing that fear of the future and fear of what might happen was really never part of your construct.

Bertrand Cesvet:

No.

Charles:

It sounds like, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds more like you were more afraid of staying doing the same thing.

Bertrand Cesvet:

The fear of the status quo.

Charles:

Right.

Bertrand Cesvet:

When you declare ‘fuck status quo’, what are you scared of? Is the status quo. You're not you know, like you're excited. Find the future exciting and the status quo actually very boring. And that's exactly it. That's very well put that was for us, the fear of not moving, the fear of not growing, experimenting with new things, the fear of not meeting new people and that was the real fear.

Charles:

Does that drive you to this day? Does it drive the company to this day?

Bertrand Cesvet:

It does. It does. For us, I think, to this day, it's a little bit different because of course what happens when you get older, is your ... Again, if I go back to our punk rock beginnings, you don't want to be ... You reject the establishment, you don't want to be ... Of course, as you get older and if you're moderately successful in business, and then all of a sudden you hang out with CEOs, and you do cool things, it's a little bit different today. I fear that sometimes I long for that initial moment where we were more outsiders than inside.

But again, like in the U.S., I have to say that we still have a lot of things to do. Like, our business, if you look at, we're basically in three geographies. We're in the U.S., we're in Canada and we're in France. Completely different environment. I don't feel, of course, in Canada where now we're doing like skyscrapers, like there's very few people that went from logos, to “I'm going to build a Four Seasons Hotel”. I don't think there's anyone else in the world that's ever done that. So in Canada, we have the license to try anything we want. In the U.S. is different. I mean, we work with the North Face and these people, and we're still trying to prove ourselves. And France is a completely different thing.

So, again, it depends a little bit on where you are. And so, for us right now stepping out of our comfort zone is experimenting with solving different problems. I think that's very important, but also doing it elsewhere.

Charles:

I think it's such an important point, because if a business becomes successful built on the back of being afraid of the present, and fearless about the future, you do get to that point where some of the consequences of getting it wrong become much more, as you said, you've got 900 people working for you. You've got clients in three different countries. You’ve got a lot of people's expectations and needs.

How do you keep this sort of punk rock energy as you've described it, permeating through a company as the consequences become more significant?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Well, the other thing is leadership, because I think that, again, I said before, I'm going to be 55 soon. I think that I'm certainly less scared, but I hope that there are some people within my organization who are 35 year old today, and that have exactly the same. And I feel that as a leader, what I have to do is support and make sure that that sentiment is very much embraced by the people within my organization. So it becomes a little bit different. I think that you have to be comfortable also, as a creative person. Again, with the caveat. Of course, if you're an artist and you're in self expression, you can do that all your life, but I find that in films, in architecture, and in advertising and what. I think the role becomes, how do you enable others to have that sentiment that drew you here?

Charles:

To be less afraid than you are, in fact.

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah. Exactly.

Charles:

How do you go about doing that? I mean, I think you're absolutely right, the notion, the responsibility of transitioning the thing that made you successful into other people. I mean, it's an act of leadership and also an active extraordinary generosity, because you and I both know, a lot of leaders walk around pretty fundamentally insecure about their own place in the world and the company, and if I support the development of somebody else, is that a direct threat to me, right?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah, yeah.

Charles:

We get into our 50s and so it's suddenly the existential crisis of, "Oh my God, who am I, and what am I leaving behind, and how much longer can I do all this?" And all of that stuff. How do you go about doing that? How do you go about making sure that the people coming up behind you are actually challenging you, and that's really what you're saying, right? That you want people to say, "Step aside. Either lead us fearlessly or to step aside 'cause I'm going to."

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah. Well, it's a very good question. I think that on the fear thing though, I'm not fearful now, even less. Materially, I have everything I need. I don't need anything else. I don't need, so you know, it's very vulgar to talk about this, but at one point [crosstalk]-

Charles:

-To Maslow’s [crosstalk]-

Bertrand Cesvet:

Exactly. So, all the fundamentals of my life. I mean, the worst that could happen to me is that I get sick or that my kids get sick or, you know, that's it. So, there's very little downside. So, for me, being a fearless leader, I can still do that. I really don't have a problem. Now the second part of your question, which is getting this next generation, which has good reason to be afraid.

Charles:

Yes, and we're doing it more and more every day, right?

Bertrand Cesvet:

[crosstalk] Exactly, and there's overwhelming of evidence that they should be afraid.

Charles:

Yes.

Bertrand Cesvet:

And their future is very much unknown. Well then, the role is what? The role is to help them, to reassure them, to help them take risk. The hard part is letting the next generation telling you, of course, a lot of organizations ... I think the issue with leadership also is sometimes, if you have a leader after a long time and I'm not sure that everybody is telling, I don't know, Tim Cook the truth all the time.

Charles:

Pretty clearly not based on [crosstalk] going.

Bertrand Cesvet:

So, it's very difficult, so that's very difficult. And then at one point, as you get older, I think that you're unaware of it, but all of a sudden you're projecting something to the people around you that you know there's a bit of reality distortion. And that's hard. I mean, for me, that is the hardest thing to manage.

Charles:

How do you deal with that? How do you move through that?

Bertrand Cesvet:

It's harder. You know, there's another thing that's important about, and that's related to creativity, but whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, and it's really silly on while we're a punk rock organization, very entrepreneurial, very fearless, is a company of introverts. And that has struck, you know that it creates something a little bit different as well. So, it's hard. It's hard because again, if you have the layer of, “I'm older than these people, I lead a different life. I represent many things.” It's easy for people to fetishize who you are, and that's something that takes a lot of energy to unpack and, again, there's another level. If you're more introverted, and you're not the kind of person that's going to get on a table and say, you know, pump your chest and say, like, "Follow me, going ..."

So what I find is, I tried to be as explicit as possible. So this year, what we did is, I wrote a book. I just sat down and I said, "Okay." It's called “A Short, and Almost Entirely True Story of Sid Lee” and basically in this ... It's a small little book you can read it in two hours, but in that book, I tell the entire story of Sid Lee as it is, where we come from, why we're here, what we're trying to achieve. So I find that being explicit is the best way to do this.

Charles:

It's increasingly obvious to me that organizations need different kinds of leadership, right?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah.

Charles:

And your point about, you're not instinctively comfortable in that thumping your chest, standing on the table, “Here we go-”

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah.

Charles:

“-This is the way.” Doesn't mean that the organization doesn't need somebody to do that at some point, in some way-

Bertrand Cesvet:

True and other people have to do it.

Charles:

And other people have to do it-

Bertrand Cesvet:

Of course.

Charles:

So I think the awareness of who we are as leaders-

Bertrand Cesvet:

For sure.

Charles:

-Is really important.

Bertrand Cesvet:

Oh, yeah. Very good point.

Charles:

Right. And I'm increasingly struck by that as I go through these conversations, and through my own experience.

So as you go through this sort of your own personal growth in your own personal evolution, where are you focusing your energy and time? What have you discovered is the best way for you to focus your time? Because one of the issues I see with a lot of leaders is that they lose control of their calendar, right. Stuff just appears and they're showing up at meetings, they're not really quite sure why they're there. What have you learned about how you need to spend your time to be effective?

Bertrand Cesvet:

A couple of things. Again, this sounds saccharine, but you know trying to be as healthy as you can. I think that a lot of people, as they get older, they're addicted to alcohol, devices, sex, ego, gambling.

So I find, for me it's the notion of trying to be as healthy as I can. I think that that's what it is. And have a clear mind. It's interesting because, I find that creativity is something, I don't feel less creative now than I was 30 years ago. On the contrary, I feel a lot more creative.

So, for me, I'm trying to spend most of my time, I think, with the people that matter to me. Within my organization, or personally for that matter. But it's really about that so if you take, you say like, "Okay, you know, I have a love of creativity that's somewhat expanding, I feel, maybe I'm wrong, but I feel very good about it." And then you know, so maximize, especially if you're running an organization like mine. Spend time with the people that need that need that reassurance that I referred to earlier on, that are ... And try to do it in an honest way, and try to remain somewhat healthy and cut down on the Ambien, because you're always jet lagged.

Charles:

The act of writing that book must have been very clarifying for you, I mean, there's the Old Alan Ayckbourn, English playwrights the sentiment, he said, "I don't know what I think until I write it down."

Bertrand Cesvet:

Absolutely.

Charles:

Obviously you instinctively understood what Sid Lee was about, but was the act of-

Bertrand Cesvet:

Absolutely, I mean, for me, I will say, and we started this conversation by referencing the first time I felt creative, and you're absolutely right. I think penning down an idea, all the sudden, I think it takes ... One of the things that I'm less and less interested with, you know, with time is ideas and PowerPoints and text. I think that you can either express it eloquently, as I'm trying to do now. Or you write it down. I think it's very, very important. And then this is where media becomes an issue, the devices become an issue. I don't think Slack is a terribly good medium to, I don't know, to clarify your thoughts. And I don't think that WhatsApp cuts it. I don't think Instagram does it for me. So, yeah. It's important.

The other thing, I love podcasts. One of the things we've started to do within the organization is to create podcasts. So, that medium I find is a great medium for where it's really exploring it in a B2B environment, internally with our employees to try and initiate these conversations.

Charles:

Give me an example.

Bertrand Cesvet:

Well, we have a series of podcasts, where like for instance, this year we wrote our creative credo, so the creative credo comes with a narration. All the history of Sid Lee has been packaged with the book that we've done about Sid Lee also has all kinds of … basically we've created something that you read the book, but at the same time you can listen to stuff. And to add color to this, but yeah. So, that's what the goal and [inaudible] were very good at. I think that this is a very, very powerful medium. I mean, not for everyone, but I think that for the kind of people that, who are in these creative organizations, I think that that has become my find. One of the more interesting medium.

Charles:

Yeah, it's interesting how powerful and how resident it is. I am constantly struck by how many times in a, not on the street, but certainly in professional situations I get stopped by people saying, "I listened to this and that was so interesting," and it really is extraordinary actually sort of the reach that this-

Bertrand Cesvet:

It is.

Charles:

That a medium has.

Bertrand Cesvet:

And just the setting where the way we're sitting down right now, and I think that this microphone creates an aperture to organize your thinking a little bit better than you would or I would otherwise.

Charles:

Well, and it's almost in this day and age, this is almost a unique situation. I mean, other than having lunch with some with somebody else, you don't get this the opportunity to sit down one-on-one in a quiet room-

Bertrand Cesvet:

In a quiet room.

Charles:

And be non-distracted, and your devices off. We don't create that environment. It's actually sad that we have to go through all of this to actually do that. But as you continue to expand the company, what have you learned about the environment in which creativity flourishes, what do you know now has to be present as you expand and develop these offices?

Bertrand Cesvet:

A couple of things, I think that the first thing is, I go back to this notion of a non-adversarial collaboration. I mean it sounds, again, everybody talks about collaboration, but to collaborate, you have to be somewhat benevolent. You have to listen a little bit more than you talk.

I think that people need to feel safe. They need to be, as I said, I don't believe that screaming at people or creating ridiculous pressure on people is the way to foster creativity. I believe that, as I said before, one of the things that's important for me as well, because culture is important, as I said earlier on, is also recognizing where we're coming from in a globalized world. Like, you grew up in England, you have been in upstate New York, in America for 25 years, that's part of your story. For me, I think, and that's part of being French Canadian, there's very few of us. I'm always a minority, maybe at ice hockey for sometimes. We may look like ... so yeah. That's a big deal as well, That's one of the things that I think that people have to be mindful of is the sort of mono culture that's being promoted in the world that creativity can only happen in Brooklyn or creativity can only happen in Silicon Valley or for that matter, people who are, I don't know, speak Finnish or don't express themselves as eloquently as you do in your mother tongue.

That's important because this whole notion of diversity, diversity is a point of view and all of that, it's easy to say, but it's a little bit harder to do in practice. It's a little bit harder to do when I'm ... interestingly for us. France is a very very, even though we speak the same language is a radically different world in terms of how they handle hierarchy, and the things they value or whether they're more or less explicit than we are. I pay a lot attention to that. One of the things I think that, if I look to the future of my business is, we could see Sid Lee as a business, but we can also see Sid Lee as a community and it's a community that, they are the people who are within our community, but it's broader. I think they are our clients are part of the community or alumni are part of the community. It's a fairly big community. So for me, I'm really excited about this because I don't know what the future is. If we go back to the initial point about, what do I care about is what's happening tomorrow morning. It's getting a lot harder to find out what's going to happen tomorrow. So my fallback position is, “Okay, if I'm tapped into the proper community of people and that community, that sort of society functions, somewhat effectively, or is not too dysfunctional, well, things will take care of themselves.” So, that's very much what we're trying to do. So and bring in words to business that are counterintuitive like collectivism.

Collectivism is a funny word because, in sports, I mean, that's what you want to do. You play football, you want collectivism. You talk about collectivism in business and people go Trotsky or call marks and it's a bad thing. So for us, it's really about stretching the boundaries and trying to discover ... Same with creativity, by the way. Creativity, there's sort of a gradation from analytics and then you go innovation and creativity. Then on the right side of creativity, on the edge of creativity is art and again art and business is not something, collectivism and art and business. I mean they sound artsy, fartsy, whatever. But I think that this is where we have to take the edge, creativity now, everybody's creative.

My accountant is creative, everybody's being asked to be creative and what does that mean? Right? So that's another thing that's really, really important is to clarify what that means and also pull people towards new edges. These edges could be art, they could be collectivism, they could be something completely different.

Charles:

And you're describing, I mean an ecosystem, a culture that is dependent actually upon instilling tension, constructive tension at its heart, right? I mean everything you are describing is two different forces, and counterparts. Art and commerce, for instance. How do you make sure that that is a healthy dynamic as opposed to an unhealthy dynamic?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Again I go back to the mindset. I think again, yes there needs to be, tension is important. It needs, tension resolution, it's the oldest, this is how problems are solved. But I think that this is where not being an asshole really matters. This is where being able to say, okay ... It's really wanting to be with the people you're with. You asked me at the beginning about how I pick my partners in business. I mean that's what it is. So, that's the best, again at scale it's harder and harder to do, but I think that there's no way out otherwise, you give up and you go home, and a lot of people have that theory that you cannot be creative in an organization with more than, I don't know if it's 100 and on-

Charles:

Changes by the day right, depending-

Bertrand Cesvet:

-What's the number. But I still think that doing this at large scale, is possible. I certainly want to try it. I'm not sure I'm going to … you're not always going to be successful, but we're going to try and ... yeah.

Charles:

I think coming back to your earlier point, the greater the level of clarity that you as the leader have about what the organization's intention is, right? Why it actually exists, purpose with a capital P and so on. What are the values. The easier against to be able to have been still a culture that celebrates and relishes actually tension of different forces because you are aligned in what it is you're trying to achieve, right?

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah, exactly.

Charles:

So the force become different. I want to get just spin back to the importance of declaring and the use of language. You wrote a book I think about-

Bertrand Cesvet:

'Conversational Capital'.

Charles:

‘Conversational Capital’, but how do you get people excited around, what was the genesis of that and what did you learn in writing that book?

Bertrand Cesvet:

That was interesting. I wrote that book a little bit too early. It's interesting because the idea of the book is Conversational Capital, how to create stuff people want to talk about. Now I wrote that book in 2008 and I wrote it basically to justify why Sid Lee should go into Environment Design. So the idea was, when you design a store or when you design a product, how do you design a product for the maximum talk value of it? Because conversation has become capital, if I want to know who you are, I'm not going to ask … people go … sadly, a lot of the consumption experiences are how people unpack who you are. So if I'm sitting down with you and you go, "Yeah, well I was snorkeling in the Maldive," you're telling me something about yourself.

So that was the whole idea, but I didn't write it. So it happened when social media was developing. So this idea was extremely powerful. This is what drives social media. But I drove, I wrote that book to justify our entry in the world of environment design, and experience design, and architecture and all of that. It was very, very successful for the business, in terms of getting that out of the way. But anyhow, so it was a very important, it was a good experience writing that book.

Because again, especially in if you're a so-called creative company, I find that the words matter. The semantic field, the lexicon of an organization is really what defines … again, we're very much of a consultancy and one of the things that I look into when I walk into an organization is, do people have a common language? Do they own words that no one else owns, that are not acronyms like ERP's and BDP, all of that stuff. But really so for me, I mean that, that's the purpose that these things … this is why they matter. That's why it's important to take time to define these things.

Charles:

Yeah. I think so many leaders are more obsessed with the doing than the declaring. I think declaring is such a critical foundation of leadership that you actually have to be willing to say, we stand for. I stand for.

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah, exactly.

Charles:

We are trying to achieve this.

Bertrand Cesvet:

Yeah, absolutely. Because again, that's another thing that's interesting is, part of the conversation about what it is to be a creative person, it's like, you are either a business person or a creative person or an intellectual. It's interesting, again that's a cultural thing. In France, it's completely okay if you're a CEO and to be “intellectual”, for a CEO to write books about philosophy is perfectly acceptable. I find that in America if you heard that, I don't know of many CEOs who will do … and that's interesting as well. I mean that's also part of the boundaries if we go back to the ‘fuck status quo’, reject boundaries. For me personally, that's one of the boundaries that I want to again, it's important for me because I think yes, I'm a CEO, yes, I've been doing, I understand finance and all of these things I can do many and all of that.

But yeah, I'm an artist and I'm an intellectual. For me, I want to occupy this space as completely as I can and I have found that the most inspiring people that I've met were people that were capable of doing that. I think that these boundaries that we impose on one another, I think that they're useless. It's sad that we're asking ... education is still a problem today. We're asking kids to choose … and I'm going like, yeah, let's be all of the above, let's be a man of action, a woman of action, let's be an intellectual, let's be an artist, I mean, why not?

Charles:

Yeah, I am increasingly conscious of how many companies I see who for whom the physical space of that company becomes such an early important expression and how little time they spend worrying about the declaration of the businesses here too, and these are the values and this is how we're going to lead it and so on. Interestingly, over the last few weeks I've just been involved in different conversations with people saying, "When we first started out, the space was too small. It wasn't that nice, we're all jammed together, but it was this amazing energy and then we got more money, we could get into this great space and we've lost that."

Bertrand Cesvet:

Lost the mojo.

Charles:

And you also see companies that you walk into and obviously open plan has become much more popular and there are some companies you walk into, where open plan has created the quietest, most sterile environment possible because people are staring at screens with headphones on and they're just, it's like out of ‘1984’. Other companies, same kind of space who clearly have declared and same dynamic but people are talking to each other, there's an energy in the space. It's really remarkable. And so I think one of the differences and this conversation I think has added to that insight for me is, the stronger the willingness of the leaders to declare this is why we're here and this is what we're here to do, the less important the other stuff becomes on a relative basis, not unimportant, but less important.

Bertrand Cesvet:

You know what I would completely agree. The difficulty with that is that people are increasingly ADD so that even that declaration you go to the, what are the media that, what are your media options internally to your constituents and-

Charles:

Instagramming the values of the company.

Bertrand Cesvet:

-Exactly, or the podcast, or the book, or … people don't listen. I mean, that is the difficulty. I think that even if the leaders of an organization declare these things, it's extremely surprising that people have lost the ability to-

Charles:

You have to absorb.

Bertrand Cesvet:

To absorb that, but you're right.

Charles:

How do you lead?

Bertrand Cesvet:

How do I lead? Well, as I said, I think I lead by ... well the first thing is, again, I go back to the beginnings of the conversation. I think that my perspective on the future. Again, for me it's, this “vision”, I think this is the thing that is the most, probably my special sauce. So what I want to be able to do is, as much as possible, enable people to trust themselves and help them see a future that they may not be able to see. I mean that's how I do it, and by being as I said, as explicit as possible. I mean I'm not, I don't lead by, as I said, that's another thing ... The other day, I gave an interview and it was on this notion of introverted versus extroverted leadership and it's quite interesting the way, again, a little bit like collectivism, which are not readily associated with business. That's one of the things that ... the other thing is, you have to be explicit, but also there's people out there, you have to be, a lot of people are sensing.

The other thing is the emotion of being in the presence of someone who's optimistic, of someone who believes that we can solve the problem. So a lot of effort also has to be put into projecting that sense of optimism. Even if you know that the future is very much uncertain and you don't quite know what you're doing, there's a bit of theatrics, I guess.

Charles:

For sure that's true, no question. What are you afraid of?

Bertrand Cesvet:

I'm afraid of, as I said very little. I'm afraid, I'm really worried about my kids and my wife. I'm afraid of macro stuff like most of us. I'm afraid that, I worry about the end of the world, the end of democracy, the end of our environment. These are the things that are worth being afraid of because most everything else, there's very little we can do about it. So, this is another element I think that's important is, and maybe it's wisdom or age or whatever, but all of a sudden you get to worry about stuff that … I'm worried that … my passion in life is tennis. I play tennis every day. So I worry that one day I will injure my shoulder and not be able, small stuff, but I don't worry about Sid Lee I don't at all. I trust the next generation of people. I'm going to do my very best to let this organization flourish and I have nothing to lose really.

Charles:

I wrap every episode with three takeaways.

Bertrand Cesvet:

Sure.

Charles:

That I think have contributed to your success. So let me try these on for you. One is, you relish the future clearly with rare, from my perspective, rare levels of enthusiasm and the sense of possibility.

Two is, I think is, your willingness and ability to declare, to use the way we've used a couple of times in this conversation, just so you know, we are here for this purpose and we are going to be, these are the values that are important to us.

Then third, I think is your sensitivity to the needs of different kinds of people that you recognize, there is no one stop solution that you both from a company standpoint and from a leadership standpoint, people need different things in different ways and you're sensitive to being able to find ways to help give them that. Do those resonate?

Bertrand Cesvet:

That makes a lot of sense. The last point is connected to the word that I've used before, benevolence. Having a little bit of generosity with other people and accepting that they're not the same. Yeah. You're good at what you do.

Charles:

As are you. Thank you so much for being here.

Bertrand Cesvet:

Thank you very much. This is great. Thank you for having me. Bye. Bye.