Lavoie’s N.Y. State of Mind

NEW YORK Taxi New York, the two-year-old outpost of the Canadian agency run by Taxi co-founder, and chairman and CCO Paul Lavoie, has already had a good year.

Its won seven of its eight last pitches, including Molson Canadian, Rail Europe and Jig-A-Loo lubricant. It suffered a loss, however, when it parted ways with Amp’d Mobile in April. Coming up: the May 31 awards gala for the Art Directors Club, of which Lavoie, 50, is president.

Lavoie, a passionate entrepreneur, according to colleagues, and an early believer in “small is good,” discusses New York’s problematic plumbing, saying no to Jeff Bezos, and more.

Q: Taxi opened in New York in December 2004 with a lot of hype. Do you feel you’ve lived up to it?
A: Well, we didn’t create the hype. I think we’ve done well. At the end of the day, we’ve only been in business for two years. [Taxi Toronto opened in 1992.] We won small Agency of the Year at this year’s 4A’s … and seven of our eight last pitches. We’ve got momentum, we moved into new offices, we’ve been able to attract some of the smartest people. … The most important thing is not the clients, the most important thing is to ensure that we get the smartest people per square foot, which has always been my mantra. But to go from zero clients to turn it around like that was hard. It was a humbling experience to be No. 1 in Canada on so many metrics, then to come into New York and have to start over. We made some errors and had some successes, but we’ve gotten to a point in the last year that we’re on a roll.

How would you rate your performance on a scale of 1 to 10?
I would say an 8, which is strong but not perfect. We’ve got a really smart growth plan, we were profitable the first year. We won a Lion. And we’re doing some work I’m proud of. The Blue Shield of California is getting traction [there]. We’re helping Versus [a cable sports network] gain some traction. Amp’d Mobile has been a hugely successful project; even though we’re parting ways, we’re very proud of the work. Could we get better? Absolutely, but I’m very happy with the results we have now.

What have been the biggest surprises for you in this market, both pleasant and unpleasant?
I didn’t know it would be that tough to get plumbing. Getting the right contractors-all that stuff [has been hard]. Getting the right people and the clients seemed to be easier than getting stuff done. Sometimes New York’s a
little slower than I thought it was. The positive surprise is New York is still a hub, an energy of ideas and has a great pool of talent. For me, New York after two years is one word: potential. The potential is always very high and very exciting. But the daily grind can get to you sometimes.

Do you see any major differences between last year’s winners and those for this year’s upcoming Art Directors Club awards show?
Every awards show is different. Every assembled group of judges and the chemistry that exists between them produces different results. The one thing we do a little differently is we really … focus on the craft of design, advertising, interactive and give it the attention it deserves. However, that being said, you tend to see the same stuff popping up here and there.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?
Building Taxi in 1992. I realized I had to build an infrastructure that would move with … the acceleration of the changes [creating some] chaos in our industry. I think we built a lean infrastructure … and from the beginning [we had this] notion of building a brand experience as opposed to building advertising. In 1992, I was so frustrated that I was about to leave advertising.

Why were you about to leave?
I was creative director of the largest agency in Canada [Cossette Montreal] and I worked there for six years and had a great ride. But I felt that the culture of advertising, the way it was built-a model built in the 19th century, building these big buildings with lots of floors, lots of departments, trying to integrate everything-[just doesn’t] work. You had a culture where it was easy to crush a small, great idea. … I thought, I just don’t like this experience. I spent five days in a remote cabin and started thinking about what else I wanted to do. … And then I realized I love advertising and I love design. What doesn’t work is the way that those disciplines are brought together.

What’s the dumbest business decision?
Refusing to take a meeting with Jeff Bezos [in the early ’90s]. We had just
done a launch for software manufacturer Metrowerks for its program Code Warrior. We’d created clothing called Geekware [to promote it]… and they went from 0 to $25 million in two years. [Around that time] Bezos talked to our business partners about [working on the pre-cursor to Amazon.com, Cadabra.com] selling college books, but it was so complicated we passed. After it became Amazon.com, they wanted us to come in and pitch [creative] and we passed on it again. We were too busy.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the business?
I would tell them that this is the most exciting time we’ve ever had. We talk with reverence about the ’60s being the creative decade and it was for sure, but this is totally blowing everything away; it’s so full of opportunity, most of it based on technology.

Would you do anything differently if you were setting up shop in New York today?
I would do the same thing. I think I came down here and I asked a lot of questions. I was curious to see why some agencies had been successful and some agencies had failed. I realized, most importantly, that some people have come into New York but they haven’t fully invested. I think that the full investment was Jane [Hope, evp, ecd, design, and Paul’s wife and Taxi co-founder] and I being partners and founders of the company coming and living here. We obviously left Canada in very, very good hands, as they have more than doubled the business since we’ve left.

Which is the most overrated agency out there?
I don’t really care. Criticizing another agency or another creative is, for me, the lowest form of beef that exists in our industry and I have no time for it. If ever I’m walking in the halls in Canada or in New York and I hear somebody criticizing some other person, I stop and I ask the person, “Why are you doing this? Why aren’t you focusing your energy and trying to add value?”

Who do you consider your key competitors?
I think everyone really. Unless it’s a global exercise where we have to be in every market around the world, then we’re really not in that competition with those agencies. But I see every agency as a competitor for us in that size does not matter anymore. … We’re really looking at a 360-degree approach. So we’d be competing with [agencies that are] able to bring all these elements together.

What inspired you to get into advertising?
I think it was a storytelling thing. I started in my career as a designer [but] gravitated to advertising because of film and photography. It was just a broader canvas to tell stories with. Advertising wasn’t something that I thought I’d do when I was kid, though. I remember watching Bewitched as an 8-year-old and saying I’d never do advertising.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising?
I think I would be directing. I directed a couple of commercials [one for Covenant House and one for Molson] and a short film that had done very well. I really enjoy the collaborative process of taking an idea and crafting it into an end product. Or I’d like to be a chef.

Taxi’s new U.S. campaign for Molson Canadian plays up America’s ignorance of Canada. What should Americans know about its neighbor?
Americans don’t know anything about Canada, but it’s Canada’s fault. If there’s one brand I’d love to work on, it’s Canada.

How do you get past a creative block?
First of all, one of the things you do is to get out of the agency. I have a sticker that I put on books in all the annuals here; it says “This is an annual, not a manual. Look to life for inspiration.”