Cannes Lions 2005

Zak Mroueh

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When you hear the agency name "Taxi," the face that might come to mind is that of Paul Lavoie, the iconic founder who in November 2004 moved to the U.S. to launch the Canadian hotshop's New York office. He couldn't have left his baby, however, without entrusting it to the able hands of ECD Zak Mroueh. A self-professed tough critic, Mroueh has helped to lead Taxi to four consecutive Agency of the Year titles from a major Canadian trade publication, thanks to consistently fresh and groundbreaking moves for Mini, Covenant House, Nike and most recently, its Gold Lion-winning campaign for Viagra, featuring newly libidinized lovers whose morning after play-by-plays are cleverly bleeped out by the little blue pill.

C Taxi is well-known for its no-media-barred approach. How have you set up your departments to facilitate this type of work?

ZM We try to stay true to the Taxi model to keeping it to a small braintrust of people who are empowered to make decisions. You've got your production person, the account team, the creative team working closely together. Everyone's part of it, so when we develop an idea, there are no surprises. We really believe in account service people. They play a crucial role. At Taxi not only do they believe in creative ideas but they're also the glue to make sure we're all communicating.

C What have been the challenges in moving from a hands-on creative to a CD and now, an ECD role?

ZM When I started my career, the only thing I loved was coming up with creative ideas. Now I enjoy seeing other people succeed. That's part of the growth of a creative director. The first few years it became about making Taxi stronger, so I set goals for the department, devised a strategy to do great work. The next evolution for me happened about a year ago. In the last 14 months we've gone from four or five teams to 12 creative teams and have picked up really big clients. Now I have an ACD, Lance Martin, and I promoted four people to group creative directors. My biggest fear was, will the standards be up to par as I empower people, but it's working really well. I still see the major campaigns and still want to set the vision and standard. It's just like what Paul did with me. My job now is to make sure there's a succession plan, that I know that there are people here who have the same high standard.

C Paul Lavoie has professed that an agency gets too big when it has more than 150 people. Are you nearing that mark now, and what will happen if you do reach that size?

ZM We are committed to that. We're at 120 in Toronto now, and basically once we hit 150, we're not going to take on any new business. Obviously if there's still a need, we'd probably have to set up a separate agency that would be totally independent with its own president and its own creative director, versus what some agencies do-they say they're setting up a separate division but it's really part of the same agency. The great thing is, we've got a lot of the next generation in place to do that.

C How do you define good work?

ZM The first thing I look at is if it's on strategy. Do I believe this is going to sell the product or the idea? The next thing is the magical quality. Does it have the tingle factor? Either I feel it or I don't. The third thing I look for is appeal. If you're talking to mothers, will moms like this ad? There are times you do want to push the envelope, but for the most part, 95% of the time, you want the ad to appeal to people, especially the target. The next thing, a former creative team nicknamed it-is it "Zak-obvious"? I'm big on clarity. I think of myself of average intelligence, so if I don't get it, why do we think other people are going to? Lastly, it has to have a killer insight and killer execution. What that adds up to is S.M.A.C.K. Really, it's nothing new. I think the mistake a lot of creative people make is they think it's only about getting attention. Yes, you do have to break through. That's a given. But if you don't do all those other things, you're not going to hit a home run. On some of our best campaigns, all five of those things have been checked off.

C Do you have a particular philosophy about advertising?

ZM We don't want to impose ourselves on a brand. We don't want to follow an agency formula for success. When we work with a company, we try to understand the culture internally and externally, what its employees and what consumers feel about it. Some agencies try to create disconnected from brand, then when the work comes out, consumers will say, "That's not right." In the case of established brands, it's knowing what the boundaries of the brand are, working from the inside out, getting into the culture and redefining how to position it from within.

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