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IS PAUL LAVOIE THE JERRY DELLA FEMINA OF Canada? Let's count the similarities. First off, neither has much use for a mother-of-pearl comb and brush set. Secondly, both are rather recognizable figures outside their chosen professions; as all Americans know, Della Femina is our most famous adman, and, by some accounts, Lavoie is one of Canada's most recognized adfolk, certainly the one with the most pate recognition in his native Quebec.

It is here, however, that their paths mercifully diverge. Yes, Lavoie is goatee free, although Della Femina had his before the damned things became ubiquitous. But unlike his counterpart below the 38th parallel, Lavoie's reputation seems to rest more on the work of his agency, Taxi Advertising & Design, than on his ability to proffer amusing quotes for the media. As countless Canadian creatives know, Taxi is hardly the kind of outfit that could unleash a cat food campaign featuring dancing kitties singing "chow chow chow." Instead, the kind of work these hacks like to dish up usually mixes a hip sense of humor and a flair for art direction with a sound set of strategic underpinnings. A campaign for Reactine, an allergy medication, for example, illustrates how well it works by showing happy former sufferers exacting revenge on their old tormentors; one gleefully thumbs his nose at a pussycat, while another recruits a band of krishnas to harass a ragweed plant.

But isn't a discussion of strategy more the province of big agencies and their cloying, account-driven layers of structure and bureaucracy? What's this doing in a profile of one of Canada's more talked about, creatively focused startups? Well, a lot, if you let the 39-year-old Lavoie tell you. The Taxi philosophy holds that without an informed and intuitive understanding of a client's market position and strategic outlook, creative tends to drive around in circles. Widely hailed by clients and former colleagues as a pretty good strategy guy himself, Lavoie believes the secrets of success are found in hiring responsible pros with experience and giving them the authority to follow their instincts. It's a mature take on the business; no wild and crazy poster campaigns for erotic bakers here, folks. Rather, a growing client list peppered with names of big advertisers like Sprint and Pfizer, and an emphasis on producing work that, as Lavoie likes to stress, gets results.

First off, while they don't make too big a play on the Taxi name, its choice was not an arbitrary thing. Lavoie believes the right number of people needed to do good advertising would fit comfortably in a Chevy Caprice. "I always found a taxi efficient," he says. "I guess I was working in a bus at the time." Back then the bus-and he says that, as far as buses go, he thinks this is a pretty good one-had the name Cossette painted on the side. Canada's largest independent agency, it had been Lavoie's home for six years, following a stint at JWT, for which he worked mostly in Montreal with side trips to the Chicago and Paris offices.

Lavoie believes that while there are many talented people in large shops, the basic process by which they go about doing things tends to dilute its value. "I found that sometimes big agencies throw a lot of people on a project, and sometimes they throw too many," he says. "What happens is you get into these committee solution-oriented projects, and it homogenizes the end result." Instead, Lavoie dispatches his little "business brain trusts" on clients' problems. Each Taxi team, he explains, consists of "a bunch of people who are of different disciplines and jurisdictions. There's a client in there, along with creative, account and planning people. And what they do is take responsibility. The buck stops with them. I don't believe in this hierarchy bullshit.

"Most agencies are built with a crust of very talented people, but there's a whole bunch of mediocrity in it, it fills up the agency," he continues. The result is usually an unequal balance of "product people and process people." At Cossette and again at JWT, he says, "the process people took over, and when that happens the product becomes less consistent." Any agency can do a great campaign, he adds. "The real trick is to do them with consistency."

With this goal in mind-producing consistently good work that, freed from the ideology of big agencies, was able to take whatever form he felt necessary-Lavoie left Cossette in 1992, where he had become CD at its Montreal office. Initially partnered with Cossette colleague Francois Sauve, they were joined within six months by Jane Hope, 36, a Cossette art director who, like Lavoie, has a strong background in design.

The Taxi plan is one that allows the task force to set the agenda for what they think a client needs. While Taxi contracts out for everything from media buying to public relations to sales promotion, Lavoie says that having in-house designers lets them look at every aspect of the process as another strategic front, whether it's in package design or collateral or designing promotion kits for a client's sales force. "This is not just to make some bucks," Lavoie says of the design work, "it's the one thing we wanted to control." They view design not as a profit center but rather "as another element of an overall thrust to grab or preserve market share."

The agency is still small, even by Canadian standards; its equivalent in media billings is about $30 million (Canadian), Lavoie says, and total employment in its two offices, Toronto and Montreal, is about 40 people. Nevertheless, the account roster-which includes Hershey Canada, Abbott Laboratories, the music company BMG, Johnson & Johnson and YTV, Canada's answer to Nickelodeon-is big and growing and includes at least one U.S. account, Metrowerks, a software concern based in Austin. (Taxi also worked for the U.S. company Power Computing, makers of the first Mac clones, but quit the account last year.)

Taxi's work for these clients runs an interdisciplinary gamut, with an emphasis, says Lavoie, on launching or repositioning products and on doing work that could be described as nontraditional. For Metro-werks, makers of a software program called Code Warrior, Taxi developed a line of nerd chic clothing called Geekware. A hit with software engineers, the line has been written up in The New York Times and Penthouse and is popular at trade shows, Lavoie claims. "It's a little idea that sort of hit a bull's-eye," he says, pointing out that the agency only did one ad for Geekware, for Wired. Most of its work for the client is design and promotion for conventions.

For client HMV, the large U.K.-based music store chain, Taxi came up with a goofy but nonetheless neat promotion idea. Buyers of selected CDs got boxes of HMV Makaroni-macaroni and cheese in packages designed by Taxi-that they could either take home or toss in collection bins in the stores for distribution to food banks. "The CDs were all alternative music, and the promotion was aimed at college kids," explains Judie Dahl, HMV's Canadian VP-marketing. "It was very cool."

By and large, Canadian creative directors seem to admire Lavoie as much for the work his agency has produced as for his attempt to create a new kind of agency there. Several cite both Taxi and Toronto's Roche Macaulay & Partners as being among the few examples of small, creatively-driven boutique shops in the country. Fallon McElligott copywriter Peter McHugh, an American who spent a year and a half as CD at the Toronto office of Chiat/Day, sees some parallels between what Taxi is now and what Chiat used to be: still small enough, a little edgier and bent on doing great creative work-and "a great place to hire from," he adds. "Their art direction is fresher than most of the work you'll see in Canada now." He also cites their ability to create strong bilingual work, which is important in Canada.

Still, challenges await. Daniel Rabino-wicz, VP-managing director at Cossette in Montreal, and a former colleague of Lavoie's, says Lavoie has a great ability for winning new business, but adds, "so far, he's not shown the same talent for keeping it." While there's been some client churn at Taxi, Rabinowicz believes the agency's people "devote a lot of energy to coming up with great ideas and campaigns, not on cultivating and nurturing the relationships, which is what big agencies do." He expects that should the agency start working on a big piece of business, they'd begin to settle down.

Which might not be the greatest thing in the world, of course. Some worry about how big clients might affect a shop like Taxi. "People at P&G and Unilever will say, 'There must be something interesting there, let's see what's happening.' And the moment that happens, you begin to die," says Ron Caplan, group CD director at JWT/Montreal and Lavoie's partner in his JWT days. "You become a corporation. You're not the small, scrappy agency fighting every day."

Nevertheless, the one thing that Lavoie agrees the agency is missing is an account that, in addition to providing them with a showcase, will help define them not only in the eyes of the agency community but to the business community at large. He says Taxi has recently been awarded two large pieces of business, but at presstime he couldn't reveal the assignments. Despite the consulting, the projects, the launches and repositionings he says they've been asked to do, "you need canvasses that are larger," he admits, particularly if you plan to one day expand southward into the lower 48, as Lavoie clearly does.

As for his agency philosophy, he's aware that you can evangelize all you want, "but the bottom line is the work." Lavoie is comfortable enough with the Taxi portfolio that he's intent now on taking to the revival circuit to spread his canon. "The work is your voice," he says. "Getting a big account will let us show people that our philosophy does work, and we feel that's just around the corner."

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