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#NeverNeutral: How TAXI Turns Up Every Time


TAXI Canada's president Emma Toth and CCO Graham Lang discuss 30 years in business, creating a strong team, and why the goal this year is to bring fun back into the work, writes LBB’s Josh Neufeldt

#NeverNeutral: How TAXI Turns Up Every Time

TAXI is a North American brand experience agency that harnesses creativity, technology and culture to create connected brands. An extension of the VMLY&R family, the agency has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and New York, and is known for its work with brands like Volkswagen, Coca-Cola, and BC Dairy. 

Having recently passed its 30th anniversary, TAXI’s success can be attributed to the way in which it has embraced technology’s capacity for revolutionising human interaction. By recognising and emphasising the value of putting people at the centre of everything, the agency is proud to not only help clients and partners connect with people on an emotional level, but deliver results while doing so. 

To learn more, LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Canada president Emma Toth, and CCO Graham Lang, discussing key agency values, the Black TAXI initiative, and how TAXI fits into the Canadian advertising scene. 

LBB> Where are you trying to take TAXI in 2023, and how does it tap into the overall vision for the future of TAXI?

Emma> Last year we celebrated 30 years in business - making it felt like the right time for us to celebrate the past and set our sights on the future. Specifically, it gave us the chance to focus on something that we believe will help us springboard into the future: TAXI’s culture of restlessness, curiosity, and nimbleness and that is being ‘#NeverNeutral’. 
#NeverNeutral is our agency mantra, and is the foundation from which we plan for growth as well as our vision for the future. It is about being agile, creating with purpose, having an opinion, and leveraging change. Importantly, #NeverNeutral is not only a promise to our clients, but also a promise to ourselves and the business. As we look to the future with this spirit in mind, we have expanded our service offering. 

As an agency, we are widely known for our culture-defining brand work, but less known for our CRM, performance marketing and commerce chops, which are becoming increasingly important to our clients like Volkswagen, Colgate and Circle K. So, we have been adaptive and creative to meet the needs of our clients by standing up a practice called TAXI Commerce – a group dedicated to conversion, shopper insights and execution.

The other facet of this mantra is that we are active and vocal on issues that impact communities across Canada and the world - we are never neutral. This ideology not only keeps us honest with the rate of change, but also ensures we keep showing up with an opinion on the work and culture.

LBB> Recently, TAXI has placed an emphasis on bringing in talent. What have you been looking for, and how will this factor into the bigger plans you have?

Graham> At the end of the day, as much as you can have a great ethos, fancy offices and the best equipment, really, we are a human resource-based business. We believe building a strong, diverse team is key to driving success. Last year, more than 50% of our new hires were women, and more than one third came from diverse backgrounds. But beyond that, I've been blessed with having an incredible bench of talent since the day I joined. Plus, we’ve attracted like-minded talent for key positions across the board. 

As a creative leader, my job is to create an environment of support and stretch. Talent needs to feel like they are working in a safe space where they can express their individuality, but at the same time, we are in a highly competitive business, so pushing for excellence on the daily is part of the culture.

LBB> In the same vein, TAXI is known for Black TAXI - an initiative to recruit and retain Black talent. How did this idea come about?

Emma> Black TAXI started in 2020 as a TAXI initiative headed by Stephanie Small, now the director of Black TAXI/Transformation, in collaboration with an internal team of allies. The goal: to attract, hire, and retain Black talent. As such, we re-looked at hiring practices, job descriptions, recruitment, and the way in which we were nurturing Black talent in the agency. 

We are also exploring expanding the remit to include DE&I strategic consultancy services, and advertising services for Black-owned businesses. Central to the initiative is a paid internship programme aimed at giving greater access and opportunity to the black community. This is especially important, as it’s worth noting that most internships in Canada are unpaid - making them accessible to only a certain demographic of students. Today, we are going into Black TAXI’s fourth year, and are proud to have had 350 internship applicants for five coveted positions, per year.

LBB> Continuing the discussion of culture, what sets TAXI apart, and how does this impact the agency’s success?

Emma> I will go back to #NeverNeutral, as it’s the thread that connects our offices and team members across the country. 
Written on the walls of our agency it states the following: 

Not only do we believe these words, but we also put them into action for clients and our own business. We originally opened an office in Vancouver with a café instead of a reception; we built a multi-agency WPP super team for both Volkswagen and Rogers to meet their unique, modern marketing needs; and most recently, addressed the underrepresented Black community in advertising with Black TAXI. This shared value system attracts a diverse group of like-minded people – all excited to jump out of bed in the morning knowing they’ll have the opportunity to make a dent in the universe.

LBB> As a whole, what are you trying to achieve with your work in 2023?

Graham> Coming out of the pandemic, a lot of the work was in response to the doom and gloom of covid-19, and everything that entailed. But for me personally, I just wanted to bring the fun back. I want to bring the fun back into remote working, I want to bring the fun back into client meetings, and most importantly, I want to bring the fun and the warmth and the smiles back into the work. 

Advertising used to have so much more comedy and so much more humour, not just because it's great entertainment, but because it's a great way to make people feel good about a brand, product or service. It's a fact: ads that evoke a smile really do work. They're more memorable, and they create more affinity with the consumer. So, I would like us to continue having fun with our work - putting warmth and humour in as an antidote to the past two years. It doesn't always have to be slap-your-thigh humour - it can be a-wry-smile humour or it can be awkward, weird humour, but as a whole, I think brands need to take themselves less seriously and have a little bit more fun. Not everything needs to be a big heavy anthem with dramatic music and dark cinematography. 

With this in mind, I'd like to see us continuing to have fun for the right reasons, and we’ll certainly be pursuing that at TAXI.

LBB> In the same vein, what recent work sticks out as being particularly important for the agency, and why? 

Emma> Some of my favourites include: 

Coca-Cola Holiday 2022 (Quebec market) where we proudly act as OpenX Canada, by WPP. 

And, in partnership with our brave clients at the Native Women’s Association of Canada, there’s also the ‘Change the Bill’ campaign - a reimagining of Canadian currency to have the first Indigenous woman on a Canadian bill in history. 

Graham> There's a lot of great work that our Type1 team has done for Volkswagen. In particular, a spot called 'Le Pompiste' stands out. It delivers the product benefit with that classic VW humour, and it’s baked in tons of cultural nuances. Another memorable one is ‘The Hockey Bag of Chips’ for our Circle K client. I love how the team created a new promotional prize that collided hockey and ‘all dressed’ chips. It could be the most Canadian prize ever! 

LBB> What are your thoughts on the state of Canadian advertising as a whole? 

Graham> I think Canadian advertising is extremely strong, and that it's been in fine form over the past five or six years. In fact, a lot of the work that put Canada on my radar before I even got here was work that came out of TAXI; the Viagra work and the MINI work in particular. But, beyond TAXI, there are undoubtedly some amazing agencies producing high-quality, world-beating work, and it's for this reason that I think the landscape in Canada is extremely competitive. Put simply, the work that's coming out is extremely good. 

I do believe, however, that TAXI is very much a bright spark within the Canadian landscape.  And, I think it always will be. There's a certain style of work that we do: we are very focused on delivering great brand work and great commerce work through the funnel of big brand platforms. We understand the retail landscape incredibly well. So, I think we are set up for success based on our history in the marketplace. In addition to this, the way we are spread across the map gives us incredible tentacles into many different pockets of talent and experience - tentacles we draw upon all the time! 

LBB> Any closing thoughts?

Emma>  It’s impossible to lead on a national level without talking about the great leaders we have running our offices across the country. From Toronto to Montreal, Vancouver to New York, each leader brings a uniqueness to the workplace that I am grateful for. They are business-minded creative spirits who live the ethos of #NeverNeutral and show up every day with impeccable grit and grace. 

Graham> I think the thing that gives us an amazing competitive edge is underpinning that idea of shifting from a network to an ecosystem. Agencies that can be true to their skill sets and their core, but who are also able to deliver from one office or deliver as a network across Canada gain an incredible ability to respond to all sorts of different tasks. For us, we don't see ourselves as a one size fits all agency. There is no client for which we are one singular size or shape. We are always in different shapes, different sizes, and different ecosystems. That is something that gives us a real competitive edge.

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TAXI - Toronto, Wed, 22 Mar 2023 14:42:45 GMT