There’s no stopping Taxi
It’s been a big decade for the agency that Paul Lavoie and Jane Hope started as a small office in Montreal in 1992. So it seems fitting that Taxi should end 2010 with some big news. By now it’s common industry knowledge that it’s been acquired by global holding company WPP and is now part of the Young & Rubicam Brands portfolio.
But rather than signal the end of an era for the agency, the deal can be seen as the beginning of its next evolution – Taxi won’t be changing its name, management or famous attitude any time soon.
“I sold the company, I didn’t sell the brand,” says Lavoie, noting that the acquisition will allow Taxi to have access to more services like CRM and PR, and will help the agency grow even further globally.
According to Peter Stringham, chairman and CEO of Y&R Brands, it’s the Taxi attitude that makes it a great fit within Y&R. “In 1923, [Raymond Rubicam] wrote the phrase ‘resist the usual’ as a mission statement for the agency,” he says. “Be original, be innovative, whatever people are doing in the marketplace, do it differently. Paul also really believes in challenging convention and talks about doubt.”
This past decade has seen the agency spread its roots across the country and internationally. In 2004, Taxi opened a New York office, and while some big U.S. agencies couldn’t cut it in the big apple, Taxi continues to thrive. In 2006, Taxi 2 opened in Toronto, as well as a Calgary office. That year the agency experienced 49% year-over-year growth. The following year, a Vancouver office was opened, and Taxi’s top-line growth was 50%. In fact, it’s grown financially year-over-year, every year for the latter half of the decade despite the recession. The most recent expansion has taken the agency overseas to Amsterdam in May 2009.
CEO Rob Guenette, who joined the agency in 1998, notes that the key to successful expansion has been to be smart about cash flow and never put the base operations at risk. “To facilitate that foundation, we kept the backroom in Toronto,” he says. “So when we opened Taxi 2, Vancouver and Calgary, we didn’t burden those offices with extra costs, we centralized the cost and had one system – one gigantic P&L. It wasn’t a dog-eat-dog environment.”
While risk is always calculated, Taxi has never been afraid to dive in head-first, whether it be expanding into new markets or taking on clients that come with big challenges – as proven with one if its crowning campaign achievements of the past decade. In 2002, a TV spot aired featuring a man skipping to work to a happy tune. Viewers didn’t know why he was so happy until the spot ended without a word spoken, just a super that said “Viagra.”
“Viagra is probably the one campaign that the global creative community associates with Taxi,” says CCO Steve Mykolyn, noting that wherever he is – whether it’s Cannes or the Czech Republic – he just has to mention Viagra and people automatically know Taxi.
To make a pharmaceutical campaign clever, sexy and even fun is one thing. To make it those things under intense restrictions is another – it was a solution to draconian DTC regulations that heavily restricted product information. The campaign has since become ingrained in pop culture, and has spawned various other Viagra campaigns, all using humour to get the message across.
Among the agency’s other prized campaigns is the consistent (and consistently cute) work for Telus. For over a decade, Taxi has introduced countless critters to the Telus roster, with the result being an easily recognizable brand identity that stands out from the highly competitive pack.
Telus reflects a source of pride for Guenette and the agency – keeping clients. “I think the reason why we’ve had this amazing client retention is because we have one foot in the present and one in the future,” he says. “We act as much as possible as brand stewards and strategic partners, so without that kind of vision we wouldn’t have such great client retention.”
Taxi’s work for Telus also led the company to have enough faith in the agency to entrust it with the brand identity and launch of Koodo in 2008, which became instantly recognizable at warp speed, and which was recently named one of strategy’s Brands of the Year for 2010.
Taxi seems to have a magic touch when it comes to launches. It launched BMW’s Mini in Canada in 2001 and its work for the brand has since been consistently awarded locally and internationally, and picked up around the world.
A more personal source of Taxi pride is the 15 Below project, launched in 2007 to celebrate Taxi’s 15th anniversary. Mykolyn led the creation of a jacket that could be stuffed with newspaper to achieve various levels of warmth, or folded up into a pillow, and handed them out to the homeless to keep them warm in the winter. All the Taxi offices participated in the year-long project, which distributed about 3,000 coats.
“It reflects our philosophy that we love to do work that gives back to the community and is socially responsible,” says Mykolyn, also noting Taxi’s work with Toronto-based youth shelter Covenant House, for which Guenette is a board member (as was Lavoie before he moved to New York).
The notable work, often humorous, could stretch on for pages – for WestJet, Reitmans, Reversa, Dairy Farmers of Canada, and the list goes on. Taxi’s enviable track record has been duly noted by international and home turf juries; it’s been amongst the top three most awarded agencies in Canada, according to strategy’s Creative Report Card, every year since 2001 (in 2000 it ranked fourth). And it has been amongst strategy’s Agency of the Year top three a total of nine out of 10 years, including five Golds. Overall, in the last decade, the agency has won roughly 1,200 national and international awards (2,000 including shortlist/finalist positions).
Taxi was also named one of the 50 best managed companies by Deloitte each year from 2003 to 2007.
“The work has been consistent through the decade, but more telling, it’s been consistent through periods of extreme growth,” says Guenette. “A lot of people, through extreme growth, lose their way, and I’m proud of the fact that we’re still Taxi in every sense of the word.”
Part of being Taxi is a work culture that caps each office at 150 people maximum (hence the opening of Taxi 2 when the Toronto office reached capacity). Guenette says that without that rule in place, “I’m not sure our work would be that diverse, I’m not sure that we’d have a strong succession plan [or] our client base would be quite as diverse.”
Lance Martin, ECD at Taxi 2, coincidentally celebrates his 10th anniversary with the agency this year. He carried the Taxi work ethic – which involves a lot of collaboration and leaving egos at the door – with him when they opened the second Toronto office. “There’s really no politics here,” he says. “The only thing that holds you back at Taxi is whether or not you can think of the idea.”
Guenette notes, with pride, that Taxi is a hard place to work. “I always tell people, the standards are really high, so if you’re not part of that, you’re not part of Taxi…It’s an intense place. It’s not personal, this is about building a better company, this is about doing the right work for our brands and creative standards. People who gravitate to that love the intensity. People who shit their trousers should go work someone else. This is not a place for timid people.”
Adds Mykolyn: “Rob’s famous – he sets goals, and if we meet them, he sets new ones.”
In another 10 years, Lavoie wants Taxi to be known as the “biggest little agency in the world” – big ideas, within a culture of staying small and agile. “A bus leaves at a certain hour and you have to wait for it. A taxi – you can call it up and get there.”
The Book of Doubt
Taxi has written the book on doubting convention – literally. On Dec. 13, Doubt: Unconventional Wisdom from the World’s Greatest Shit Disturber hits bookstores. Told from the perspective of a little character named Doubt, the book presents 12 insights into using doubt as a catalyst for change. The insights are backed by stories about 40 “Disciples of Doubt” (the Sony Walkman, for example), imparting wisdom in 250 words or less. Illustrated by Gary Taxali, the book features a QR code that drives to Doubttheconventional.com, where readers can submit their own “doubtful” stories.
“It this book fails to disturb its readers, its authors will be deeply disappointed. Only the most blinkered traditionalist will fail to benefit,” says Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, in praise of the book.