Taxi's customized ride

There's a lunch party going on at Taxi's Toronto offices, but the gathering of about 35 agency staff isn't to celebrate an account win or even a successful campaign. This is a surprise birthday party for Danny Smith (better known since 2010 in Western Canada as Telus' "Danny the installer"), an actor who is much-loved by Taxi for helping the communications co's Optik TV achieve a 22% market share since its launch. Which is why Jordan Doucette, ECD and general manager for the Telus account, has hopped off a plane from Montreal and picked up a one-foot-tall cake shaped like Star Wars' R2-D2 (Smith, 40, had posted on his Facebook page that it was the birthday cake of his dreams).

Later, Doucette reflects on Smith's significance for Telus and Taxi. Danny the installer was the brand's first attempt to move beyond its nature and animal branding, and Doucette credits the character, who explains how Optik TV works to customers, with helping to broaden the brand's scope.

"He was a really important moment in time," she says.

Now Taxi is at another important moment in time. Smith carves a slice of cake inside a space that is dedicated to Telus and employs the telco's branding, with picnic tables and strips of artificial grass in the centre of an office with walls painted green. Dubbed T3, Taxi's newest venture is a custom offering inside the same building where the shop's largest client and other partner agencies, such as Cossette, can work side by side on the Telus brand.

Staff sit in project pods, the work is up on the walls for all to see and there's room for the client to join in and work on the projects.

"We don't want [other agencies] to feel like they're working at Taxi," Doucette says. "We don't even really want Telus to feel like Taxi is their agency."

"Everyone talks about collaboration and inviting people into the kitchen," adds global CCO Frazer Jelleyman. "We built an entirely new kitchen."

As it turns 21, Taxi wants to show through initiatives like the bespoke agency within an agency that it has the right ideas and the right people behind the wheel to navigate these tricky times for traditional agencies. It's that drive to innovate that Jelleyman, who joined the team in October 2012 from U.K.-based Red Bee Media, says attracted him to the shop.

"We have created an internal structure that allows us to not just plan toward the future...but to respond very quickly to what we need to do today," Jelleyman says.

One way it's doing this is through an "accelerator program," a small, fluid team from the agency and the client that take a break from their day-to-day duties and collectively focus on what's happening in culture, then brainstorm ideas they can bring to market directly. Currently, it's focused on Telus, but Doucette says what they learn from the pilot project will be applied to other work. One idea it produced involved using 3D printers to create customized phone cases on-site for customers who bought an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy at the launch of new Telus stores, such as one in August at the St. Laurent Centre in Ottawa.

"Taxi believes that technology in itself is not the answer but it can be part of how you deliver the answer," Jelleyman says.

In that vein, the agency recently announced it is launching a Facebook crowdsourcing project called No Place To Hi.de to try and find an answer to cyber bullying, targeted at engaging the marketing and advertising community (see p. 8).

The shop also made changes to its structure this year, giving two ECDs (Doucette in T3 and Pascal De Decker, who joined in Montreal this year) general manager roles, rather than the usual route of having two separate positions. CEO Rob Guenette says that is significant, in that it breaks rank from the traditional thinking that creatives "may not fully exercise both sides of their brain."

Some might have questioned whether innovation and creativity would be watered down at Taxi when it was acquired in 2010 by global holding company WPP. But after winning a Bronze in strategy's AOY in 2011 and a double Bronze AOY and Digital AOY last year, Taxi's back as a Silver AOY winner.

It heads into the new year with drivers behind the wheel who are constantly looking for new ways to get to their destination. It's an approach Jelleyman says the agency owes it fare-paying clients.

"I think we are beholden not just to ourselves but to our clients," he says, "to always be looking forward."