The World's Leading Independent Agencies: Taxi

Size matters when it comes to independent creative shops, Rob Guenette and Zak Mroueh say.

The basic economic principles of supply and demand don't seem to apply when it comes to ideas. With the renaissance of the independent agencies that shook up our industry in recent years came a flood of new ideas, media and approaches to advertising. And yet, with more of them floating around, they haven't become less valuable, as we learned in economics 101. Quite the opposite: their currency is on the rise. Why? It is a time of enormous challenge for businesses and they are looking for answers.

Great ideas that can solve problems are valued more highly than ever before.

Enter creativity: our business is no longer confined to making ads or creating websites. It is much bigger than that. Creativity has become a business tool and that makes it an exciting era for advertising and presents a tremendous opportunity.

The independents can lead the way to this next frontier. An ability to translate creativity into business results will continue to change the role of agencies from mere advertising partners to true business partners.

How do agencies get there? By protecting their creative cultures. After all, our most important assets are the ideas we generate. Creativity comes from many different places. At Taxi, it begins with a culture of doubt.

We like to say: "Doubt the conventional. Create the exceptional." Initially, doubt is an uncomfortable concept for many clients. But think of doubt like cholesterol: there are good and bad kinds.

Good doubt launches the problem-solving process by eliminating accepted wisdom and category paradigms. Every project should start with a blank canvas. This enables real creativity to flourish. Bad doubt, on the other hand, is the kind that's mired in a culture of fear and timidity where nobody is empowered to say "yes" to a new way of thinking - "no" becomes the safe way out.

Turning category paradigms upside down is a scary proposition, but it gets you to the sweet spot: creative ideas that can have a huge impact on a business. It's a process that smart clients are starting to demand.

We went through that process to develop a campaign for Pfizer's Viagra, and came up with the idea to use humour to address the sensitive issue of erectile dysfunction. It was nowhere near conventional, but it worked.

Creativity can do lots of things, but one thing it should not do is ignore the currency of an established brand. It is imperative to get to the truth of a brand: why does it exist, what does it stand for and how is it different?

And then bring it to life with smart, surprising creative expressions.

We use the same approach with our global clients (Nike, Mini, Viagra, Molson) and our Canadian ones (Canadian Tire, WestJet Airlines and Telus Mobility).

Part of our philosophy is that we believe a brand should impose itself on the agency, not the other way around. In other words, an agency's "house style" should never dictate what's right. Every project should begin with an approach that is media-neutral. In some cases, an existing product does not need a new advertising strategy at all; the most effective idea might simply be a packaging redesign. The use of strong design has been just as important to the success of many of our clients as more traditional ad media.

Looking for the best business solution for a client can mean knowing when to bypass a creative brief altogether. When pitching for the launch of Mini in Canada, we did not present creative concepts at all. Instead, we went to the client with a strategy for the brand's positioning: market the Mini primarily to men and avoid the pitfall of positioning it as a cute, trendy vehicle. It became one of the most successful Mini launches in the world.

Every agency has its own way of doing things. Here is what we at Taxi believe works:

Assign small brain trusts (about as many people as would fit in a Taxi) to brainstorm on a client's business problem. People are most creative when they work in small groups: they are empowered to make decisions and are accountable for the work.

Make everyone's role a creative one. The invisible line that used to separate the client and creative sides of the agency has been erased.

People from all areas of an agency should have ideas to contribute.

Every challenge is different. Instead of bombarding a new client with examples of what has worked for others, show up to a first meeting with a blank pad and a pen, ready to listen.

Finally, if an idea hasn't got you so excited you want to jump up and down and hug the mailroom guy, you're probably not there yet.

Being independent gives you the luxury of being able to choose your clients.

We like to work with what we refer to as the "challenger brands". The number two, three or four in a category who is willing to doubt convention and take risks to get there. (Or a number one brand with the same challenger mentality.)

Maybe you can never be too rich or too thin, as the saying goes, but an agency built on a foundation of creativity can become too big. Jay Chiat, the founder of Chiat Day, once asked: "How big can we get before we get bad?" Taxi's co-founder Paul Lavoie has the answer: 150 people.

Once an agency within the Taxi network, from New York to Toronto, hits that number, we will close the doors on new business. If there's still a need in the market, we'll set up a second, independent agency with its own president and creative director. Not a conflict agency, but a living, breathing entity.

And that's ultimately the greatest thing about being independent - you can control your destiny and hold on to your creative culture. Every agency should have a magic number.

- Rob Guenette is the president and Zak Mroueh is the vice-president and executive creative director at Taxi Toronto.

AT A GLANCE

Name: Taxi

Founded: 1992

Principals: Paul Lavoie, chairman, chief creative officer; Jane Hope, executive vice-president, design creative director, Taxi New York; Zak Mroueh, vice-president, executive creative director, Taxi Toronto; Rob Guenette, president, Taxi Toronto; Daniel Rabinowicz, president, Taxi Montreal; Steve Mykolyn, vice-president, design and interactive creative director, Taxi Toronto; Ron Wilson, chief financial officer, Taxi

Staff: New York (20), Toronto (120), Montreal (42), Calgary (2)

Locations: New York, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary

Mission statement: Create an environment that attracts bright people and challenges them to do great things that are socially and economically relevant

Describe your agency in three words: Creative, strategic, fearless.

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