The World's Leading Independent Agencies: TAXI

Uncovering the truth is how the creative sleuths at TAXI aim to deliver fantastic ideas for clients.

Climate change. Business change. Social and political change. In times of crisis, when dysfunction can no longer be denied, old orders become fragile and unstable. Our own industry has not escaped this. Chief marketing officers are in and out in the blink of an eye. Client/agency relationships used to last decades, but now they rarely hit the seven-year itch. Media, once dominated by television, has fragmented. Today, unceasing technological evolution is forcing the industry to rethink everything, from business models to compensation.

When TAXI opened 15 years ago, my partners and I didn't build it on the existing industry framework. Advertising then operated on a 19th-century model of many secular departments trying to integrate everything ad hoc. Most cultures were so layered that a great idea was easily crushed. We needed a flexible infrastructure, able to move with the pace of change. TAXI started lean and nimble, and remains so today. We build small brain trusts of creative thinkers, each of whom brings a unique skill - and then set the group to work solving clients' problems. It's allowed us to blossom when many legacy structures are withering.

Yet, as much as TAXI thrives on change, we think it is just as important not to dismiss what remains constant. Around the headlines screaming "change" is a whole lot of hot air. By subtracting from the frenzy of change that which has remained constant, the hype falls away and the truth is uncovered - the opportunity for our clients.

No question, it is a different world than when TAXI opened in 1992. We live in an accelerated society. Instant messaging. Instant breakfast. Instant entertainment. Hours after the French soccer star Zinedine Zidane head- butted the Italian player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup Final, I received a hilarious compilation on my mobile. The head-butt, as seen from three different perspectives: Italian, French and American.

When I started in advertising, back in the analogue world of 1983, there were no mobile phones. The only computer in the agency was to be found in accounting, and it had an 8.4 megabyte-hard drive. It was a steal at $6,295. By those metrics, the Mac I'm typing this on would cost $60 million. Ads back then had prescribed parameters: 8x10, 10x20; 30 to 60 seconds, and production was at a snail's pace.

Today, agencies can write a print piece, produce it and ship it to hundreds of different publications in a few days. Prescribed parameters have given way to variable formats, and ads are viewed not only on TV, but also on desktop computers and mobile phones. In 1983, the internet was in its infancy. Now, it's ubiquitous. The impact on advertising is enormous. Think of the agency creative, asked by his client Six Flags to create a campaign to give away 45,000 tickets for the amusement park's 45th anniversary. He posted them on Craig's List. Five hours later, they were gone.

Technology has transformed how consumers and advertisers interact. When I was a junior creative, advertising was a monologue controlled by marketers. Marketing's three tenets were brand positioning, wide distribution, and competitive pricing. Consider how just one of those, brand positioning, has changed. Years ago, it focused on product functions, and messages were spread widely. Now, because product innovations are quickly copied, that differentiator is useless. So positioning today is based on a truth - about the product, the culture or the consumer. Messages aren't simply disseminated widely. Media options have multiplied, and consumers have splintered according to media preferences. Communications must now be targeted to appeal to small groups with shared interests.

TAXI's founding principle of media-agnosticism has always allowed us to think differently. Our recent campaign for Reversa anti-ageing cream focused on a website and the notion: Beware of side effects (www.seemoresideeffects.ca). We made a single print ad to jump-start traffic, and the resulting buzz increased sales by 27 per cent, and generated more than one million unique visits over nine weeks.

Technology's impact on media means more possibilities. It doesn't mean the death of TV, as many have wrongly concluded. Think of the famous Apple ad "1984." It aired on TV during the Super Bowl and played to 72 million viewers. Last year, CareerBuilder's Office Jungle ad also ran during the Super Bowl, and reached 100 million viewers. It was seen on personal video recorders by 2.5 million viewers and on YouTube by one million-plus web surfers. Visitors to the site increased 20 per cent versus pre-Super Bowl day traffic. Television is still hugely effective for reaching large groups, and also for directing them to other media.

All this has not altered agencies' purpose nor rendered us obsolete. We still persuade. How we do it has changed. As Procter & Gamble's global marketing officer, Jim Stengel, said: "What we need is a shift in mindset - from telling and selling to building relationships." And so great has this shift in control been from marketer to consumer that consumer-generated content was practically the theme of the 2007 Super Bowl, long known as the Super Bowl of (agency-created) Advertising. Some even predict that consumers themselves will supplant agencies. That's nonsense. As powerful as consumer-generated content can be, it does not set out to build brands.

New technologies will continue to shake up the old order. The definition of a good idea is far more demanding than a TV spot with a clever punchline. TAXI has always approached problem-solving with a mantra of doubt, questioning the obvious solutions. Our biggest value to clients is ideas, and the ability to craft and create a compelling tale. That's our heart and soul. We delve into consumer behaviour and investigate human nature. We know what hasn't changed: the need to be loved and to love, to protect and to nurture, to procreate and survive. After 15 years, TAXI continues to embrace change yet resist hype and, in the process, uncover the truth, which is the foundation of all great ideas.

Paul Lavoie is the chairman and chief creative officer of TAXI.


Name: TAXI

Founded: Montreal,1992

Principals: Paul Lavoie, chairman and chief creative officer; Jane Hope, executive vice-president, executive creative director; Rob Guenette, president, TAXI Canada; Daniel Rabinowicz, president, TAXI content; John Berg, president, TAXI New York; Zak Mroueh, vice-president, executive creative director English Canada; Steve Mykolyn, vice-president, creative director; Lance Martin, creative director, TAXI 2; Stephane Charier, creative director, TAXI Montreal; Maxine Thomas, planning director, TAXI Canada; Ron Wilson, vice-president, chief financial officer

Staff: Toronto (150), TAXI 2 (19); Montreal (77); Vancouver (16); Calgary (10); New York (48)

Locations: Toronto (two offices); Montreal; Vancouver; Calgary; New York

What's the future for independent agencies? We are the change agents, and our currency has never been higher

How will you be part of it? Doubt the conventional, create the exceptional.