TAXI’s co-founder recently announced his departure from adland, so LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with him for a trip down memory lane
Paul Lavoie co-founded the agency TAXI 25 years ago with his partner Jane Hope. It was announced recently that he would leave the business - and the advertising industry entirely - at the end of the year to focus on the development of Beau Lake, a luxury paddle board and lifestyle brand that he founded over the past year.
At the beginning of 2017 Paul stepped down from his day-to-day chairman and CCO positions, instead taking on an advisory role of chairman emeritus. In the 25 years that he ran TAXI, he oversaw the agency’s growth from a Montreal outfit to having outposts across Canada (stay tuned for the brilliant story of how the Toronto office was founded), and internationally in the US. In 2010 he sold TAXI to WPP and became part of the Y&R network. It was also he that played a significant role in drumming up interest in Cannes Lions across Canada.
In light of his upcoming departure from adland, LBB’s Addison Capper couldn’t help but pick his brains to see if he could pry some of his biggest, best, and even disastrous stories from him.
LBB> Most important piece of work?
PL> The last piece of work is always the most important. So the most important has changed a hundred times over, Viagra, Reactine, Telus… but Clear Channel was my last campaign as a creative and so it’s the one that sticks. Clear Channel wanted to demonstrate the responsiveness of its digital billboards and remind the industry that it is not just a regional but a national medium. The July 4th weekend was less than two weeks away. The amazing thing was not only that we could create, produce and be on boards across America within days, but that people were able to add their own personal images of celebration during the weekend. The tag at the end – although not meant to be political – is even more meaningful in the Trump era of today.
LBB> Favourite piece of work?
PL> Just one word, but it triggered so much. In 1991 McDonald’s launched Pizza in Canada. It won best of show in Canada and that show sent it to Cannes. There it won Gold, and the following year I was invited to judge. It was my first Cannes and I was the lone Canadian. I was so inspired by the people and the event. I realised Canada needed to be there. I went home and rallied the industry around the theme Canada Cannes. I believe it upped the quality of Canadian work to international standards. Now, Canada has a consistently healthy showing. Oh the Pizza? Awful crust. Was shelved after 24 months.
LBB> Biggest/best disaster story?
PL> Faking it so hard it became real. In 1992 we had just opened Montreal but had sights on Toronto. Opportunity came in a call from Susan Ross of kid’s network YTV, based in Toronto. We’d made the shortlist and the next step was a visit to our offices. We had no office. We made a deal with a real estate agent to borrow a vacant space in the MuchMusic building. If we won the pitch, we’d sign the lease. We faked an agency with borrowed furniture, and borrowed staff. The pitch went off without a hitch. Until the client – pre-cell phones, pre-Uber – wanted to call a cab. Oops. No phones. I led her next door and introduced myself as their new neighbour, still waiting for our phones to be installed. The receptionist frowned, “that place is still listed for rent”. The jig was up. Back in our fake office, I fessed up. And tried to make light. I promised, if we win the business, we’ll get phones! Susan was good humoured, but when she left with her entourage, the fake TAXI sign fell off the wall. I was sure that was the last I’d see of Susan and that office. But YTV came through. It was the cornerstone of our Toronto agency, and an award-winning collaboration. No lie!
LBB> Favourite brief you ever received?
PL> My best brief became my best friend. Rob Guenette, now CEO of TAXI, was VP of Molson Brewery at the time. The campaign message was don’t drink and drive and aimed at youth. The challenge for my partner Zak [Mroueh, now founder and CCO of Zulu Alpha Kilo] and I was to avoid sounding preachy and to talk to kids on their own terms. I thought, what would deter my own seventeen-year-old daughter? The line was “If you’re going to drink and drive, plan ahead”, signed off with kids shopping for a wheelchair, or visiting a plastic surgeon in advance of a night out.
LBB> Best piece of advice given to you?
PL> I was twenty at the time, but it came from a fifteen-year-old. Robbie Nash was world windsurfing champion. When asked what he liked most about the sport, he answered “falling down”. I thought, huh? Falling is losing, it hurts, you look like a fool. Sure, falling down is also getting back up. And we’ve all been told that before. But he said he liked it. The advice was to enjoy failure. And so I did. I got better at parlaying it into something better every time. If I have been a success, I believe it is because I allowed myself to fall down more than most.
LBB> Worst piece of advice given to you?
PL> There’s a bad time for good ideas. In 1992, I was creative director of the largest group of creatives in the country. Canada was in the depths of a recession. Everyone told me it was the worse time to start an agency. But when times are good, CEOs are out on the golf course. When times are bad, they need new thinking and new ideas. TAXI was founded on June 15, 1992
LBB> Most important moment in your career?
PL> Meeting my soul mate, partner, and best friend, TAXI co-founder Jane Hope. There would be no TAXI without her.
LBB> The best idea that never made it past the client?
PL> Poop. Styled by Martha Stewart, shot by Helmut Newton, on backlit billboards across town. And a week later a message to media planners, “If these beautiful backlits can sell shit, they can sell anything.” The client actually bought it. But – pun intended – crapped out. Bad taste? Oh yeah. But what media planner could ever un-think that image?
LBB> The ad you wish you made?
PL> It’s not an ad. It’s Red Bull Stratos. Makes everything I ever created Pantone Pale.
LBB> The award that means most to you?
PL> Thanks. I’ve won a bunch of lifetime achievement awards for my work and my participation in the industry. But since I announced my departure, I’ve received a flood of messages on social media and privately from colleagues telling me how I made a difference for them and their careers. Nothing compares.
LBB> Biggest career regret?
PL> Saying no. In TAXI’s first year of business we launched a piece of software for Metrowerks out of Texas at the Mac World show in LA. A week later we got a call from a guy who wanted us to help sell books to students using their college intranet. We were slammed doing pro bono to build reputation so turned him down. The company was Amazon and the guy was Jeff Bezos, now the richest man on the planet.
LBB> Most important mentor?
PL> The guy who bought me an Etch A Sketch for my eighth birthday. And my drawing table at art college, a bed to sleep in when I was broke, my first gigs as a designer… my best friend and brother, Robert Lavoie, never stopped giving. It was what made him a huge success in business and in life. He passed away in June.
LBB> Strongest career memory?
PL> Start up. TAXI in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Amsterdam. There is nothing like the high stakes energy of a start up.
LBB> The thing that effected / changed the industry most in your time in it?
PL> Algorithms and data. It’s the farthest thing from the principles of design that began my career.
LBB> Creative dream team: You’re making one last ad, assemble the perfect crew to make it happen.
PL> Client: Rob Guenette, CEO of TAXI and at one time arguably the best client in Canada.
Writer/Director: Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, American Beauty)
Digital Strategist: Tom Pitfield, Founder & CEO of DataSciences (behind the electoral campaigns of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron).
Mick Ebeling of Not Impossible. One of the smartest problem solvers working today.
Producer: Paul Macot, a magician who through skill and creativity ups the standard.
LBB> If you hadn’t have ended up in advertising, what would you have done?
PL> Aren’t we all frustrated artists? I would have liked to be a director or a painter.
LBB> What’s a fact that people might not know about you?
PL> I forgave the guy. In 2009 a doctor made a terrible mistake. I was in the hospital for weeks and spent months recovering. People asked, why don’t you sue? The error made me realise that everyday is precious. Why would I waste even one day in court arguing about it?
LBB> The thing you’ll miss most about adland?
PL> Madness. Not the frenetic pace and absurd challenges. The genuinely mad, delightful, brave, dedicated, fascinating people that I have met.
LBB> The thing you won’t miss?
PL> Being expected to whore. Because that’s what pitching is. If we could harness all the energy and ideas that go into pitches – knowing that most will never see the light of day – and pour it into causes around the planet instead, think how much positive change we could affect. Clients need to hire agencies the same way they hire other consultants, like lawyers and accountants, based on credentials, experience and chemistry.
LBB> What are you excited for in your new venture?
PL> I’m a client – I know that because I asked our digital agency to make the logo bigger.
And along with partner and designer Lee Kline we created a company called Beau Lake. We meld authentic lakeside lifestyle and high design to create paddleboards, chairs, and soon, a stunner of a non-motorised runabout.
Canadian lakes are where I find my compass, my joy, my friends and family. It's an experience I want to share with the world.