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'Permission to be great'
by susan bourette

The awards shimmer beneath the spotlight. But none of the creative types who rumble by the reception desk at Taxi seem to notice. They're too busy focusing on the next big thing.

"We're always looking ahead," explains Zak Mroueh, Taxi's VP/CD, amid the clutter of his office situated in a warehouse-style building in downtown Toronto. "We're always trying to create something that's never been done before and give people the permission to be great."

Great? Stellar is more like it, if you count the staggering pile of Canadian awards as well as international laurels garnered by the 95-person company over the past several years. They include honours from Cannes, D&AD, The One Show and the London International Advertising Awards.

And at least one more is going on the wall. Once again, Taxi is Strategy's Agency of the Year. No small feat given that the company took home the trophy last year.

Among its most touted ads of the year that was? New strategic work for the BMW Mini as well as new campaigns for The Movie Network, Telus Mobility, Viagra and Covenant House.

That's in addition to winning highly coveted accounts like Nike and Diamond and Schmitt Architects this year. The company has also clocked year-over-year growth rates in the order of 20% - a rate matched in the past 12 months. New business currently accounts for about 15% of overall company revenues.

Indeed, the maverick agency has come a long way since its modest roots in 1992 when Jane Hope and Paul Lavoie left Cossette to start the agency that would eventually turn the Canadian advertising establishment on its head. Plans are now in the works to catapult the agency to the next level. "There are a lot of irons in the fire," says Heather Fraser, the company's business director and executive VP of strategic planning. "Things geared at what the market needs. Right now, we're looking at a world stage."

In its bid to crack the American market, the company is currently scouting for an office in the United States - an office it hopes to open in the coming year. But Fraser says Taxi will also be concentrating its efforts on building both its strategic planning group and a new, separate company, Chokolat.

Chokolat is Lavoie's baby. The company, headed by president Jeff Spriet, formerly of Toronto-based Wiretap, is dedicated to creating "branded entertainment" for television.

"It's really about taking storytelling to another medium," Lavoie explains. "And the challenges are the same with Chokolat as with Taxi. To be consistent. To be good for all of our clients."

Chokolat aims to help companies deliver their message in the crowded 500-channel universe by giving clients 22 minutes in which to embed their message, instead of the traditional 30 seconds.

The agency has just struck its first major deal south of the border, although, for the moment, Lavoie won't discuss the details. The Chokolat venture is a big part of the company's plans for the future, he adds.

"The media landscape is changing. We're looking for new ways to collaborate and create relationships with programmers.... It's very, very new and pioneering."

Hope, who holds the lengthy title of executive VP brand culture and design CD, says the company has set its sights on scoring bigger accounts in the next year. It's a departure of sorts for the once-fledgling agency, which has traditionally sought out like-minded underdog clients willing to risk innovation.

Still, Hope believes that the same creativity that has made Taxi an industry leader is also sought by larger clients.


"There will have to be a good fit between the two organizations," Hope says. "Our credo will be the same: doubt the conventional; create the exceptional."

How do they churn out such creative work, day after day? Mroueh puts it down to a culture of collaboration that encourages mentorship and creative thinking above all else.

"We're really focused on how we can become the best agency in the world," Mroueh says.

Looking back over the past year, Mroueh says he's particularly pleased with the agency's work on the Mini campaign, which has been recognized by BMW as one of the most successful launches in the world. It was a challenging assignment, he says, because the car had little awareness in Canada. The agency also wanted to secure long-term growth for the vehicle in the aggressive small car category. In a bid to appeal to men, the campaign extolled the car's performance, hip attitude and spaciousness. One spot shows a couple in the car, obviously having just had sex. The woman says to her lover: "There's a lot of room in here," when another woman pops up from the back seat and adds, "Yeah."

The spot was so successful, Taxi has now been tapped to work on the campaign internationally.

It's just that kind of thinking that lured Nike on board in May, according to Sarah Atkins, brand communications manager for Nike Canada. "We liked their entrepreneurial spirit and the fact that they really push the envelope all the time. That's what we're all about too," Atkins says.

"We were also very impressed that they really ramped up in getting to understand our brand," she says adding that the company is poised to roll out an even bigger campaign that was not included in Taxi's Agency of the Year submission.

Taxi is getting kudos, however, for more than just its creative punch. The company is now competing for a place in Deloitte and Touche's annual list of Canada's 50 Best Managed Companies, to be announced early next year.

Of this, Hope is most proud.

"Our creative accolades are what the business recognizes us most for," Hope says. "But we're now being recognized for our depth. Our business model. For being more than just a bunch of creative crazies."

Copyright 2003 Brunico Communications Inc. All rights reserved.