An international agency with a design pedigree, TAXI prides itself on producing arresting solutions for all its clients, be they telecoms giants or underdogs in the cosmetics game. Mark Penfold discovers the secrets behind the agency's success.
There was a time, not that long ago, when design and advertising just didn't get on. "Ad people thought designers were wankers," reveals Steve Mykolyn, executive creative director of TAXI Toronto and Calgary. "Design people looked at advertising and saw it as vacuous, disposable and in some cases just downright crap."
Mykolyn himself comes from a design background - digital and interactive, to be more accurate. Yet he has worked for TAXI since 2001. Is he a defector or a double agent? At this point, professionally laid-back, he wheels out what sounds suspiciously like a catchphrase. "I always said I'd never work for an ad agency," he explains. "And I still haven't." TAXI, Mykolyn insists, isn't an ad agency - it's something else altogether.
TAXI has a mixed parentage. Its two founders came from opposite sides of the creative crevasse: Paul Lavoie, art director turned designer, and Jane Hope, designer turned art director. They decided that the two disciplines were perfectly suited and set up TAXI as an integrated design/advertising shop. "This turned out to be a really smart business decision," observes Mykolyn.
TAXI loves integration, and it always has. Now this love is being rewarded with heaps of awards, an expanding client roster and a growing international reputation. But what does the firm actually mean by 'integration'? According to Wayne Best, executive creative director at the New York HQ, it's a cultural thing: "The most important thing to me is the collaboration."
Best is willing to admit that it may be a little cliché but that can't be helped: "There's walking the walk and there's talking the talk." Best works two doors down the hall from Stewart Devlin, the NY head of design. Best explains, "I'll be looking at an ad and say, 'Stewart, what do you think?' And we'll just sit in a room and hash it out."
The story is the same at every office - collaboration is the name of the game. Mykolyn explains how this works in practice. "At the outset of any challenge, any brief, we work on the development of a platform." Platforms come in two flavours, 'brand' or 'campaign', the essential difference being that a campaign has a limited lifespan.
At this stage anybody can be involved, be they writer, designer or planner, and together they decide on the platform - the big idea. "We then look at the different media channels and build the execution around that," he adds. The ideal is to have a core team as diverse as possible without bloat. This ensures the maximum amount of 'new thinking', 'empowerment' and 'innovation'. These are advertising people, after all.
Best was recruited in 2005 to help build the New York business. Until the two founders, Lavoie and Hope, moved to the city in 2004 TAXI was a Canadian agency. Their decision to set up in New York reflects a facet of Canadian corporate culture and of advertising in general.
Essentially, ad agencies grow through their major brands. TELUS is a huge telecoms provider but, like a lot of Canadian firms, it hasn't expanded globally. Agencies like JWT grew with Ford, and Wieden+Kennedy with Nike. To hook a fish like that, you need to be where the action is. And that means New York City.
Viagra, MINI and TELUS: while they may be corporate in nature, these clients appreciate the integrated, non-standard approach that TAXI represents. "My heart has always been in smaller agencies," says Best. "I love the feeling that you're all on a mission together." TAXI's independent status is mirrored by a preference for independent thought.
The shift of focus to NYC gave the agency a chance to show its entrepreneurial spirit while retaining the stability of its Canadian offices (two in Toronto, plus one each in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver). "We were able to build the agency for this whole new era of advertising," Best concludes. "Where it's a lot more media-agnostic, and a whole lot of other media terms and clichés"
When TELUS first came to TAXI, the mobile-phone market in the US was poorly understood, and most of the ads focused on their value in emergencies. Mykolyn sums them up when he laughs, "You need this phone because disaster can strike at any moment." TAXI came up with the catchphrase 'The future is friendly' twinned with a palette of images and colours that suggested nature. This was more than ten years ago, and TELUS is still with TAXI.
It may sound trite to say that an ad agency is forward-looking, but five minutes in front of the TV tells you that most of them aren't. TAXI may not walk the walk to quite the degree its staff would like to think, but it kicks the living daylights out of 95 per cent of the competition. And behind the talk of 'a new age of advertising' is both genuine consideration and positive action.
It's clear that Mykolyn enjoys this topic: "The new thinking doesn't pertain to the discipline as we know it: ads, interactive or design. It pertains to the media channel." It used to be the case that agencies would buy a 30-second TV spot then come up with something to fill it. "Now you're starting to see firms finding new ways to talk to people on different surfaces, through different digital media." For TAXI this is a good thing, since it fits the company's integrated approach.
It would be easy to get carried away with all this talk of new surfaces and media divination, so it's comforting to hear that TAXI maintains a connection to the basics. "Traditional media is not dead," explains Stephane Charier, the creative director of TAXI Montreal. "We just have some new ingredients now."
NYC's Best echoes this. "New technology's got to be baked into a smart strategy that's appropriate for the client and executed perfectly."
In the end, it comes down to a question of motivation. "There are many ways to tell a story," observes Mykolyn. "The goal is to do something nobody has ever done before." Maybe designers and ad people can live together after all.