Taxi deconstructed

The drivers

The drivers

Taxi’s drivers don’t spend a lot of time on the golf course; in fact, they aren’t even members of a club. ‘We have a really blue-collar approach,’ says Taxi Toronto president Rob Guenette. ‘The partners, myself included, all have dirt under our fingernails. We work in the business day in and day out.’

Another plus is senior management harmony. Per Guenette: ‘It’s virtually a politics-free zone. When you respect your partners, it makes it a lot fucking easier.’ And that makes for a functional mini-network, points out Taxi Montreal president Daniel Rabinowicz, as the shop now has six offices: in addition to Montreal, there’s Calgary, Vancouver, New York and two in Toronto. ‘Contrary to the other networks that tend to be very dysfunctional, ours is different by the closeness of the management and friendship that drives that management relationship.’

The journey

Since Taxi opened its doors in Montreal in 1992, collaboration has been one of its key mantras. It continues to be at the core of the network’s operations, with offices pooling resources on various campaigns, such as the successful Dairy Farmers pitch in Montreal.

Rabinowicz says the Montreal office handles relationship marketing ads for brands helmed elsewhere, like WestJet, and that it contributes to the Telus campaign with the Toronto and Vancouver offices. ‘What we have is this totally interconnected network between Montreal, Toronto and New York, and now as we’ve expanded into Calgary and Vancouver, that model gets replicated.’

‘One of the things I didn’t like about [traditional agencies] was there were all these departments and everyone seemed like they were on their own agenda,’ says Taxi cofounder/chairman/CCO Paul Lavoie. ‘So Taxi has always been about breaking the walls down. Collaboration, the need to do consistently good work and profitability – that’s how people get paid and bonused at Taxi. If you do really good work, and we’re making money, but everybody hates each other, it’s not good enough.’

In fact, Taxi NYC’s president John Berg meets regularly with both Guenette and Rabinowicz to share challenges and opportunities. Says cofounder/EVP/design ECD Jane Hope: ‘It’s all very collaborative, very open communication.’

The destination

‘I’ve worked at some agencies where you feel like you’re defending the notion of creativity,’ says Zak Mroueh, VP/ECD of Taxi Toronto. ‘Whereas at Taxi, creativity is ingrained in everything we do. It doesn’t matter what your discipline, you know you’re here to do great work. That’s never wavered.’

Taxi Toronto president Guenette goes so far as to claim it’s his duty to stay out of the way of the creative process: ‘There is no hurdle between the creative department and the client. They don’t have to clear me, they don’t have to clear other internal hurdles before it goes to the client. We’ve created a process that facilitates creative and doesn’t impede it.’

Another factor in Taxi’s success, adds Mroueh, is a focus on simple goals: Every member of the creative department has a clear mandate – one career-defining campaign a year.

The passengers

Think it takes a wicked portfolio to become a part of the Taxi crew? Think again.

Mroueh says the characteristic he searches for in candidates is potential. ‘Talent is part of it, but sometimes people are in situations where they aren’t able to do great work because of culture.’

What do you need to get in the door? ‘An open mind and curiosity about the world. A strong work ethic, hunger and passion,’ says Mroueh. ‘I’ve met people who have had the best portfolios in the business, but they aren’t the right fit. Sometimes when people have done it somewhere else, they feel it’s owed to them and they have this arrogance. I think the other part of Taxi and the people we hire is that we’re pretty humble.’

And what about the clients? They have to be the right fit too, admits Hope. ‘We’re very conscious of the kinds of assignments we take on, so when we meet with a potential client, we have very serious discussions internally about a handful of things – whether or not we’re going to get along well, whether we’ll have truly shared objectives and function as a team, what is the canvas, can we really make a difference in the marketplace and whether that client has the endorsement of the company behind it.’

Once a brand is signed on, Taxi doesn’t try to impose itself on the brand, just the opposite. Mroueh points to Canadian Tire. ‘We tend to go to the epicenter of the brand and then push it out. Versus [saying] ‘You need a complete makeover.’ [Then] the consumer sees the work and says that doesn’t seem true to the brand.’

The baggage

From the beginning, when Hope brought her design competency into the shop, Taxi was about ‘building brands, not doing ads,’ says Lavoie. Since then, interactive, brand TV through a special division called Chocolat, media planning, and mobile have been brought into the mix, among other things.

Lavoie says early instincts to be more than just an ad agency are paying dividends now, particularly in New York, as the ad world becomes less reliant on TV. He adds: ‘We don’t get paid for media. We never did and we never will. And that keeps us clean and objective and we’ll do the right thing.’

The engine

Everyone agrees it’s the culture that keeps Taxi running at full throttle. And Lavoie et al will do anything in their power to preserve that culture, even if it means hanging up a no vacancy sign after the shop reaches 150 staffers. Which is exactly what the T.O. shop did. Well, sort of. Once Taxi Toronto reached 150, the agency opened Taxi 2, also in Toronto. The idea is that infighting occurs and culture disintegrates when groups become larger than 150.

But it’s not just numbers. Says Mroueh of the now far-flung six-office network: ‘What it takes is continuing to cultivate the culture, making sure you have the right people, checking with the people who are there. We don’t just make a statement: ‘Hey, we’re going to do this,’ and that’s it. We check in regularly.’