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COC partners with Sid Lee, agency behind ‘We the North’

Raptors home opener in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre on Oct. 29, 2014.

Emma Ewing-Nagy/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto Raptors' iconic "We the North" campaign generated a whopping 160 million impressions on social media in its launch season alone.

But Vito Piazza didn't need numbers to know it would be an astronomical success.

"When I went to the first Raptors game right after (its launch), and people were chanting it in the halls, you knew it was going to be something special for sure," said Piazza, president of Sid Lee Toronto, the ad agency responsible for "We the North."

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Hoping to capture some of that "We the North" magic, the Canadian Olympic Committee has partnered with Sid Lee as its creative agency of record.

The "We the North" campaign would generate half a billion impressions on all media combined in its 2014 launch season, with its pervasive black flag and resonant lyrics — "We are the North Side, a territory all our own. And if that makes us outsiders. . .we're in."

The campaign took something that could be seen as a negative — the NBA's lone outpost in Canada and the perceived challenges that came with it — and turned it into a positive. It was embraced not just in Toronto, but virtually across the country.

"You can cite metrics, page views, YouTube views, but a true mark of success is when a campaign actually reflects and penetrates culture, changes people's views beyond a brand or a product or a service, and it becomes part of the common nomenclature," said Sid Lee's Joseph Barbieri. "That campaign itself, it's about a brand, but it really reflects a state of mind for our country."

Sid Lee didn't create the "enthusiasm" for basketball in Canada with "We the North," Piazza added.

"We just captured it and amplified it," he said. "We didn't reinvent basketball, we found a way to express it in a way that ignited some fuel that was already there."

The unique challenge for the COC is promoting athletes that compete largely in the shadows in the three seasons when there are no Olympic Games.

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"There's the bright spotlight during the 17 days (of Olympics), and our goal is to try and extend the window," said Derek Kent, the COC's executive director of corporate and brand communications. "But it's a challenge. . . how do we extend that window? How do we tell more stories leading up to the Games, more impactfully, and then after the Games in the same vein? And how do we profile these amazing athletes who toil behind the scenes largely anonymously, but so fruitfully for the country?

"And they are inspiration for Canadians. They are the ones who are future Olympians. . . they look up to (Olympians) right now, the kids who are watching on screens and devices, watching the compete at the Games. How do we bring that together more forcefully?"

Olympic medallists Natalie Spooner, Adam van Koeverden and Mark Oldershaw met with Sid Lee's Toronto staff Tuesday in their office in the urban chic Distillery District. They posed for photos waving the Olympic team's recognizable red mittens.

Kent addressed the staff.

"This is not selling soap," he said. "This is not selling detergent. Or razor blades. . . this is selling the country. This is about inspiring our athletes, and that next generation of Canadians who are future Olympians. This is big-time work, and we have a big-time agency we're going to work with, to make and bring those stories to life.

"You can make a difference for the country and our athletes. . . can't wait for you to do it."

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Sid Lee also created Toronto FC's catchy "It's a Bloody Big Deal" campaign around the signing of English international Jermain Defoe and is behind the Maple Leafs' centennial campaign.

"I've worked with Sid Lee a little over the years and I'm always so inspired by what they create," said van Koeverden, a four-time Olympic kayak medallist. "I can confidently say that the folks at Sid Lee are basically the Olympians of the marketing/advertising space. . . excited to see the stories of the COC told through their lens."

Oldershaw, an Olympic canoe bronze medallist, said he was caught up in the excitement of "We the North," and hopes Canadians will be similarly inspired by the country's Olympic athletes.

"The success that they had with 'We the North' was incredible," Oldershaw said. "I tweeted it. We were down at training camp in California, we went to a Lakers game against the Raptors, and had our 'We the North' T-shirts and everything. So we're just really excited about this partnership."

Sid Lee also has offices in Montreal, Paris, New York and Los Angeles, and has been named Agency of the Year four times since 2009.

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