Those in Canadian creative circles and in the international know are well aware that Paul Lavoie's creative and physical stature are matched-both being rather big and distinctive. In 1992, in the middle of a recession, he and his partner Jane Hope gave the metaphorical bird to lumbering agency behemoths handicapped by bureaucracy, leaving big shop Cosette to launch a new model and approach with creative boutique Taxi. Built on a platform that married advertising and design, they believed the shop would create more thorough and impactful branding messages for their clients. And it did. Originating in Montreal and then opening in Toronto, the shop became a veritable advertising phenomenon, delivering successful and award-winning multi-tiered advertising campaigns for clients like Mini, Nike, Molson, Viagra, Telus, Covenant House and a host of others. For over a decade, Taxi has topped itself year after year, hoarding international accolades and industry recognition. 11 out of its 12 years in business, it landed in the top ten advertising agency list of a major Canadian trade publication. Six of those years it was in the top three and in 2004 it three-peated the Agency of the Year title. In November, Lavoie and Hope embarked on perhaps their most challenging endeavor yet with the launch of Taxi/New York. Leaving Canada in the reputable hands of executive creative directors Zak Mroueh and Steve Mykolyn in Toronto, and Stefane Charier in Montreal, the founders today find themselves in a familiar position. Once again, they're starting from scratch, but this time, in a sun-flooded penthouse in the middle of the concrete jungle.
Chairman/CCO Lavoie, who resembles a debonair Mr. Clean, sits back in the conference room in the New York outpost's Union Square digs. The space, nicknamed the "James Bond" room, still emanates new carpet smell and is decked out with all the appropriate gear-platinum-covered electronics and shades that rise from nowhere to shield visitors from the blinding rays that splash in through its picture-window panes. Looking out onto the bird's-eye views of the cityscape, "New York always has room for another taxi," he quips, in his resonant, gravelly baritone. Joking aside, Lavoie has plenty to contemplate with this new venture. "I realized coming here that New York, when it comes to advertising, is not really a creative town," he observes. "It's a business town. Don't get me wrong. It's a fantastic creative city culturally, with all kinds of innovations happening, but in the industry of advertising, from our perspective, we don't look at it and say, 'Wow! That's a creative hotbed.' I believe that creativity is a business tool," Lavoie continues. "I don't think it's a self indulgent exercise. Creativity is about making new opportunities for our clients. I think it's important to be able to clearly express that to them."
Not even open for a month, the office here feels spare compared to what Taxi's creatives up north describe as an always buzzing vibe in the 90-person Toronto office. But founders Lavoie and Hope plan to fill it out by following the successful template upon which they built their Canadian operation. "From a business perspective, Taxi has a model," Lavoie notes. "Our mission statement is how can we create an environment that attracts great people to do great things-creatively, and economically for our clients, because we are communicators and we should be thinking about the cause and effect of our work." Setting up the conditions for that means careful attention to size and structure, Lavoie explains. "Jay Chiat asked the question 'How big do you get before you get bad?' I have the answer. It's 150. There's an African tribe that does that-builds up to about 150 and then sends off the senior couple to start another tribe. The American military does the same thing. And of course, based on my experience working at larger agencies, you get to a point where things get out of sync."
Meanwhile, "if you hire smart and brave people, you have to make sure they're in the position where you can really draw out the best from them," Lavoie continues. "Therefore, there are no lines in our company between account people and creative people. We only have creative people. Creative people are about thinking and innovating, not about the science of writing and art directing, it's about purely thinking, first and foremost. That's why we called our agency Taxi. Because instead of departments, we wanted to create small braintrusts-about the same number of people you can fit in a cab-that can really be empowered and make decisions. "
As for what those braintrusts set out to achieve, "The way I define good work is when you solve the business problem and you innovate somewhere along the chain," Lavoie notes. "Strategically there's a new spark, creatively there's a new way of expressing the brand, or from the media point of view, there's a new way of delivering the message. You solve the business problem and you innovate. When you do that, it's like a narcotic. I think it's gotten everybody excited doing that, and doing that consistently."
That fervor is evident at Taxi's Canadian shops, where members attest to the culture of inspiration, collaboration and high standards. ECD Zak Mroueh, who has been instrumental to bringing the Toronto headquarters into creative prominence in his six years there since joining from Chiat/Day/Toronto, notes, "Before I came to Taxi, I was in a good position and was very happy where I was, but Paul really empowered me and let me do my thing, but was there to help when I needed him. We were able to build a lot of great things together. What's great about him is he sets you up to win. In the time I've been at Taxi, he's never said 'Don't do this' or 'Do it my way.' He offers his opinion and he's very supportive. Another thing he taught me was you can't be afraid of hiring smart people," Mroueh continues. "His hiring practice was like David Ogilvy's-'I want to hire people who are better than me,' which is smart. Whenever I hire now, I want to find people who are going to challenge me, rather than people who are just going to do what you tell them to do. Otherwise that's no fun."
In New York, Taxi's carload currently consists of Lavoie and Hope, who will reprise their respective roles as advertising creative director and design creative director, account director Richard Muhlstock, and the first U.S. creative team, former Ogilvy & Mather/N.Y. senior creatives Kenny Herzog and Jim Larmon, the pair behind memorable work for Miller, American Express, as well as sharp campaigns for Turner Classic Movies and Discovery Channel out of director Jim Jenkins' independent advertising vehicle Nice Big Brain. Currently, Lavoie dedicates his time to the search for a New York president and additional creatives, heading up the jury of this year's Art Director's Club awards, to which he was recently named chairman, and overseeing the shop's three accounts-College Sports Network, MW Cleaners, a new dry cleaning extension of Men's Wearhouse, as well as a project for Microsoft. These might seem a long way from the big name Mini and Molson partners Taxi has in Canada, but in a sense, they're familiar territory for Lavoie and crew, who have established their reputation on teaming with clients who want to build their brands, not just protect them. "We want challenger brands, the hunters," he notes. "We want those who want to grow their market share."
CULTURE OF DOUBT
The founding partners weave together numerous philosophies to form the Taxi way of thinking, but perhaps the binding thread is the singular idea of doubt. Thanks to Lavoie, this very notion hangs over the heads of everyone under a Taxi roof-not like a dark cloud, but like a light bulb. "Doubt is the foundation our whole company was built on," he asserts. "Our mantra is 'Doubt the conventional, create the exceptional.' It's about getting people to start to think before they execute. That just simply ensures that they won't assume that there's a pattern or go by an automatic response."
"I can't tell you how much that guides the way I think about everything," explains Steve Mykolyn, Toronto ECD of design and interactive who took over the reins from Hope as design creative director. "Whenever we start a project, doubt is the first thing that comes to mind, starting with the media we choose, right to the way we approach the creative brief, the strategy. Once we distill everything, go through our doubt process, we start to apply logical, rational thought to solve the business problem. That thinking you can also use to vet whether or not a client is a good fit for Taxi. Within five minutes, you can ask them a question and based on their answer you know that doubt is probably something they will not easily gravitate toward or accept."
That's the approach that has led to tremendously fruitful partnerships with clients big and small. Taxi executed one of the most successful nationwide launches of Mini, an account the agency won without a single piece of creative. At the pitch meeting, homing in on the eventual roadblock of any hot new car on the market, "I walked in there and said, 'You don't need advertising the first year,'" recalls Lavoie. "It's the Mini, it's an amazing car and it's hot. You need us for year three. How can we position this brand on the market for years three, four, five and six? I'm going to spend all my time thinking about that, not doing creative. " In the end, what Taxi offered was a strategy that pinpointed the vehicle's brand essence in a simple acronym, FLIP (Fun, Legacy, Individuality, Performance). That thinking ultimately informed a tantalizing multi-course media plan that included everything from outrageous outdoor stunts-putting a Mini in a cage with a sign "Please do not feed, tease, or annoy the Mini," to a website that included an Austin Powers-reminiscent psych exam.
But the same method applies even to lesser known clients, like software manufacturer Metrowerks for its program Code Warrior. "For the launch, we created clothing called Geekware and it was unusually successful for them," Lavoie says. "If you're not in that thought pattern of doubt, we would have done trade ads. We did hardly any ads. We did clothing, great trade shows, great packaging. Basically the idea was there's all kinds of clothing out there merchandised for physical power, sport, athletics, but there was nothing in there to support great thinking. So Geekwear was not the stuff of jokes, but clothes that looked cool, hot, with packaging that looked great."
"The most important thing is defining a brand on terms that can be expressed on many different canvasses, and what we're really good at it is telling those stories, whether it's traditional advertising, packaging, any touchpoint for a consumer, including branded entertainment," Lavoie continues. "We're capable of telling a client like College Sports, 'We're going to define your brand on the marketplace. We're going to express it on air, internally and externally, with any storytelling mechanism we can.' That really sums up what we do here. " Aside from bringing in outside partners in areas like media, PR and research to help craft its campaigns, for branded content pursuits, Taxi also has an entertainment division, Chokolat, which will have another roost in the New York shop.
"I think that clients today are very aware that the media environment has changed, " Lavoie says. "The consumer is in charge now, and they may not want the traditional TV commercial, they may want to experience the brand in different ways. We've been able to master those expressions that are not the traditional. Yes, we'll do the traditional campaign, but we'll also do the packaging, we'll do the interactive. We'll do it in a way that will be much more coherent."
But all told, in today's market, this thinking is not new and by no means a guarantee to success in the U.S., or New York for that matter. Spurred by the success of agencies like Crispin and Wieden, countless other shops have jumped on the multi-disclipine bandwagon, but have yet to make newsworthy breakthroughs. Moreover, other well-pedigreed "immigrants"-Mother, BBH being prime examples-also have arrived but arguably are still working to match the creative success they've achieved in their native turf. Taxi, however, does have a few things going for it. For one, the shop is 100% independently owned by its partners-Lavoie, Hope, Mroueh, Mykolyn, CFO Ron Wilsonand VP/Print Production Director Beth MacKinnon. "We're not for sale and we'll never be for sale," Lavoie insists. "The whole thing about being independent is really being able to report to your clients instead of your shareholders. When you work in a network, you usually have to make decisions that support the network. Here, the real shareholders are our clients. So we make decisions that are about the work."
Meanwhile, perhaps the most unique aspect of Taxi's venture is that the founders themselves have taken it upon themselves to establish the New York office. Partner Hope, who has the reputation for being the metaphorical perfect ad-someone who can cut straight through the clutter like a samurai's sword-observes, "When reputable agencies expand, often the formula is sending a scout over or recruiting locally. But it's important for us to be here to instill in this market the same value system we have in Canada and to make sure that doesn't get diluted." Moreover, "Paul and I are builders," Hope continues. "That's fundamental to who we are, and the idea of a new challenge makes us tick."
Indeed, Taxi's history shows that opposition and obstacles are, in a way, more fuel for its fire. "When we started this agency, I was the creative director of the largest agency in Canada," notes Lavoie. "When I gave my resignation, the owner of the agency looked at me and said, 'It will never work.' Then a financial guy told me, 'Why are you starting a business? It's a recession.' When we opened in Toronto (from Montreal), there was only one agency that had ever been successful with such a move and everyone said 'Paul, nobody can do it.' But I did it again. Coming to New York, there have been a lot of challenges for sure, but I kind of like the fact that people are saying you can't do it. It's inspiring and it always has been."