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Taxi Drives Against the Grain

The once-independent creative shop sold to WPP and has seen gains, with a little sibling assistance

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Apparently, Paul Lavoie didn’t get the memo. Just as creative chiefs like Ty Montague and Gerry Graf fled corporate parents, Lavoie, creative leader and chairman of Taxi, sold his agency to WPP Group.

Agencies that do sell these days generally prefer the holding company run by the hands-off Canadian (MDC) to the one steered by the British taskmaster (WPP). Lavoie, however, may get the last laugh.

Ten months after the November 2010 deal, Taxi, a seven-office micro-network still known primarily in Canada, has generated revenue growth of about 20 percent en route to its best year ever. The numbers are small—total revenue hovers around $60 million—but the growth rate stands out in a torpid economy.

And, while Taxi pitches most accounts solo, its biggest New York office wins this year—Revlon and Kraft’s MiO water flavoring—came with help from fellow WPP shops. BrandAsset Consulting’s John Gerzema provided research for the MiO pitch and Young & Rubicam and VML were partners in the pursuit of Revlon, which Lavoie and CEO Rob Guenette readily admit that Taxi couldn’t have won on its own.

“Those who have bitched and moaned and left the big agencies because of an overbearing parent—you know, I get that,” says Guenette, 50. “But to me, you have to be the architect of your own fate. And if we keep our creative standards high and overachieve our business objectives, we will be autonomous.”

When sold, Taxi was a big player in Canada but merely a dot on the map in the U.S. and Europe, where it acquired Amsterdam shop Ottonico in 2009. New York opened in late 2004, but suffered from bad casting and the bankruptcy of key client Amp’d Mobile. Guenette subsequently installed new leadership, hiring Mother’s Durk Barnhill as president in ’09 and Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s Dave Clemans as executive creative director last year. Since the deal, staffing has grown from just 25 to 40 today.

Canada, with five offices, still supplies most of the revenue, however—about 70 percent, according to Guenette. To achieve better balance, grow faster, and expand to Asia and Latin America, he and Lavoie realized they needed a partner like WPP, which made Taxi a unit of Y&R Brands.

The new owner “understands our culture and the business that we have and will help us as we help them,” explains Lavoie, 55. “We’re not selling this and running off. Rob and I are still in it for the long run.”