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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles > Slideshow « Agency Profile: Taxi

Agency Profile: Taxi

Posted on September 17, 2007 and read 8,616 times

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Over the years we at ihaveanidea have done quite a few of our famous agency profiles. We’ve popped in on many different shops, from multinational headquarters to small independent upstarts, from headline newsmakers to ones that slip in under the radar, from the other side of the Atlantic to out on the Pacific. All of these informal, fun visits are done to give you loyal readers a glimpse beyond the mission statements on their websites, to see what it’s like to work in such hallowed halls. Still, every so often, one question comes up regarding these agency profiles.

“So when are ya gonna do Taxi?”

To be honest, that’s a really good question. After all, they’re perennially one of the hottest shops on the planet, they’ve always been on great terms with us, and they’re only a block and half away from ihaveanidea’s old base of operations. So there isn’t much of an excuse now, is there?

With that in mind, may we present to you… Taxi, ihaveanidea style.

The intersection of Wellington and Portland, with its ever verdant Victoria Memorial Park, is the west end of what is sometimes referred to as Toronto’s ‘ad ghetto.’ Several agencies, design firms and production houses are within a casual walk from here, and you can’t pop into the local Starbuck’s or Irish pub without running into some creative team scribbling away at notepads. But few of these shops have garnered the international accolades as the one that resides in a low-rise building at this corner. Few agencies around here have as much global clout as Taxi.

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Taxi first opened its doors in 1992, not here in Toronto, but down the 401 in Montreal. It was founded by Chairman/CCO Paul Lavoie and EVP Jane Hope under what Taxi Canada’s CCO Zak Mroueh calls ‘a culture of doubt.’ “Back in ‘92, multinational agencies ruled the roost,” he explains. “Paul was the creative director of one of the largest agencies in the country at the time, but he doubted the traditional agency model with all its inefficiencies.

This way of thinking also lead to the concept of the ‘taxi’: the number of people empowered to drive a piece of business should be about as many as can fit into a cab.
“I was working at Chiat/Day Toronto in ’92 and I remember when I first heard about this start-up agency with the ‘taxi’ philosophy, I thought ‘wow, what an amazing concept,’” recalls Zak. “I also realized that on all the pieces of business I had worked on at other agencies, the most successful campaigns came from small, very empowered groups. So I knew right away that Paul and Taxi were onto something.”

“Taxi will affect you, and you will affect Taxi.”

When I walked into Taxi’s brightly lit and display-rich reception area, I immediately sensed a buzz of energy in the air. As I sat to wait to meet with Zak, there was a continuous stream of people flying through this way and that, and sharing a laugh with the receptionist. Coincidentally, this buzz was one of the first things Zak mentioned when we got to his office. “There’s always this infectious energy around here, he says. “When I first came to Taxi all those years ago, Jane Hope, Taxi co-founder said to me ‘Taxi will affect you, and you will affect Taxi.’ And it’s so true. Whenever a new employee comes in, they are affected by the culture already in place, and they affect Taxi by bringing something new to the table, and continuing the culture of doubt. When people arrive at Taxi, they leave some of their baggage from other agencies at the door, but then they also bring new ideas to the agency. As a result, Taxi is always evolving and changing into something better.”

The main Toronto office of Taxi famously hovers around a magic number of 150 staff members (the theory being that any more would begin to erode the culture, which led to the formation of Taxi 2 last year.) When asked how many of these people are creative, Zak smiles and says. “I’d like to think that we have over 150 creative people here at Taxi. The idea is universal here, nobody owns it. Anybody from any department can put one forward. We don’t care where it comes from.”

Rob Guenette, President of Taxi Canada, agrees wholeheartedly. “Our three overarching principles are exceptional creative standards, financial health, and harmony between management, departments and clients,” he explains. “But the creative standards are crucial. No matter what your role is in Taxi, if you’re not on a creative agenda, you’re not on the agenda.”

But seriously, gentlemen. Your creative department?

“Approximately one third of Taxi works in the creative department,” says Zak. “This includes not only traditional art directors and writers, but also interactive people, designers, and I’ll even include production people, as they are integral to the creative process.”

“No matter what your role is in Taxi, if you’re not on a creative agenda, you’re not on the agenda.”

Many agencies maintain the traditional AD/CW pairing in their creative departments, while others have experimented by partnering writers with designers, or art directors with interactive people. Taxi has taken a slightly different approach to the concept of teams. When working on a concept, a larger group might be formed, one that includes people from every discipline. This group would function as a ‘mini-taxi’ of sorts, creating and developing a creative platform, a core idea for the project. Once that has been conceived, the next step is to decide the best ways to execute this platform.

“At that point, we draw from our design, interactive and advertising expertise. Whoever is most qualified to handle a particular component executes,” says Zak. “It’s kind of like having the initial team design a house together, but then we decide who’s the best electrician for this particular job, the best plumber, the best painter? Does the project include long copy? Who is the best long-copy writer we can put on it? Is there an annual report that needs to be masterfully designed? Which designer is best at this? Which creative team is exceptionally good at big scale TV spots? This is not to say that others don’t give input or suggestions, or that the experts don’t seek feedback and opinions from the others, but we really believe that everybody should have an area of expertise. But the ownership of the idea belongs to everyone.”

At Taxi, you’ll also have the opportunity to flex your creative expertise on a wide variety of accounts. “Each piece of business is headed by a constant CD or ACD, whose job includes fostering great relationships with clients,” explains Zak. “But beneath them, it’s important to keep the talent fresh, so creatives often get different chances on various brands.”

Within certain agencies exist a certain ‘us versus them’ mentality between the creative and account departments, whether it’s a creative-driven shop where account people are looked at as people who must sell whatever they’re given, or an account-driven agency where process comes before creativity. Not so at Taxi. “When I’m interviewing somebody creative and I hear them use the word ‘suit’ it’s almost an automatic point against them,” warns Zak. “Calling them suits is a throwback to the traditional way of thinking. Here, account people are absolutely critical to the process and highly regarded. Great account people have a combination of skills sets. They’re strategic, creative, able to manage relationships and, of course, they can land the plane and bring all the pieces together.”

Now before visiting Taxi, I’ve heard plenty of ghost stories about the agency’s work environment. I’ve heard tales of very, very long workdays (usually from people who later confide they’d still want to work there.) So when I arrived at the shop, I asked Zak, honestly and openly, about the workday of the average Taxi creative.

“We’re a really hard working agency with what Rob Guenette likes to call a ‘blue-collar work ethic,’ explains Zak. “The majority of people arrive by 9 AM, with a few early birds who start as early as 7 or 8 AM. We’re definitely not the kind of shop where people drift in at 10:30, 11 o’clock.”

And quitting time? “ Taxi is an incredibly fun place to work, but it’s also very challenging, and it’s driven by people who all really want to do great work,” he concedes. “I think there are truly few creative geniuses in this business. We have no magic formula for generating ideas. We’ve found great work requires a lot of hard work, effort and perseverance. . The kinds of people we attract are very ambitious. They want to build their careers and will push themselves more than anything.”

“The kinds of people we attract are very ambitious. They want to build their careers and will push themselves more than anything.”

“Our goal has never wavered. We want to become the number one agency in the world, and to redefine and set the benchmark for our clients,” continues Zak. “Have we achieved that goal yet? No. But everybody here is aware of that goal and knows it can only come through hard work. I’d be the happiest guy in the world if we could achieve amazing work in an hour. If it takes us twelve hours, that’s fine too. Deadlines need to be met, of course, and we tend to work hard right up until the deadline, whether it’s a very short one or a long one.”

“That said, we’ve never told anybody they had to work late. In fact, I encourage people to get out and have a life, to try and not have to work over the weekend. I feel bad if people have to work the weekend. The kinds of people we attract are very ambitious. Most of them work the extra hours by choice. They want to build their careers.”

Well this certainly speaks volumes when it comes to Taxi’s commitment to excellence. But what does Taxi do to keep the creative juices flowing? For one, Zak doesn’t believe in ideas mandated from the top down. “I’ve never been a fan of agencies putting together things like creative or agency off-sites to stimulate creativity. I’ve been at agencies where they tried to unlock a formula for success. They tell you you’re going to go away and solve the world’s problems, and then nothing gets done. When we get together as an agency, it’s usually to have some fun.”

Instead, Zak likes to see initiatives that originate from the staff. These have included an agency wide ‘speed-dating’ session, to allow people whose paths don’t frequently cross to get to know each other, and high enrolment numbers in Second City’s renowned improv classes.

Zak also speaks of how an in-house idea at Taxi has evolved into something greater. “We had an account person and a creative person approach us about six months ago, and they said they’d like to work on making music videos as a creative outlet. Rob Guenette rubber-stamped the idea, and a month later we’re shooting and editing our first music video. Steve Mykolyn is going to be directing a film.” There is a creative outlet right here for everyone.

And if there were one thing that Zak is most proud about at Taxi, what would it be? “Taxi is a real, homegrown agency, and I absolutely love that. In baseball, you have some teams who rely on hiring big name free agents, and then there are those other teams with a deep farm team system. I’d like to think of Taxi as having a wonderful farm team. I have at least a dozen people here who have developed through Taxi and could be CDs anywhere. People tend to stay at Taxi longer than at other agencies, but when they do leave, it’s always on to do great things. Although we’re always sad to see people go, there’s an excitement in bringing in someone new. We get to help develop a gem all over again.”

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Thanks to Zak Mroueh and Rob Guenette for opening Taxi’s doors to us.

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer/SBN2




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