Lavoie taxis over the line
Maverick ex-Montrealer creates waves with suggestive ad

When Taxi Advertising and Design won the job of promoting the Mini -- BMW's new economy model --here in Canada, Paul Lavoie wanted his staff members to understand the car. So he borrowed one, took out an office window, and had it dragged into his studio where it now sits.

"When we take on an advertising assignment, our employees always use the product first," said Lavoie the agency's founder. "It's the only way to understand its features. That goes for mobile phones, beer, software, and even cars."

Lavoie, is a maverick in the advertising world, a free spirit who likes to push the envelope. He is why Taxi is recognized as one of the most creative agencies on the Canadian scene.

But it looks like the ex-Montrealer has gone a little too far this time. Last week Lavoie got himself in hot water after on of Taxi's three ads for the 2002 Marketing Awards - which he was supposed to chair -- apparently led to the firing of the magazine's publisher Cameron Gardner.

The ad features a skeptical awards judge in bed, with the outlines of another person under the sheets presumably performing a sexual act. The tag line reads: "The 2002 Marketing Awards, really tough judging."

Though suggestive, the ad is hardly shocking to anyone who has seen a Britney Spears video lately. But the reaction was immediate. Rogers Publishing officials put out a statement apologizing for putting out the ad, and stating that steps would be taken to ensure that it did not happen again. Soon after Gardner was fired.

Although the decision to run the ads was not his, Lavoie resigned as chair of the awards, both in sympathy with his client, and because "creative awards shows should push the envelope not censor content."

Rogers Publishing officials have been cagey about what happened, and refused to make available a copy of the ad. Though they initially went to great pains to make it look like they fired Gardner because of the ad, no one will confirm it, and many believe that the whole story has yet to emerge.

"Although the ad is in bad taste, it's hard to believe that somebody would be fired just for that," said Normand Grenier, editor of Grenier aux Nouvelles, a widely read industry gossip sheet. "(Gardner) was probably already in the company's bad graces, and this was just the straw that broke the camel's back."

On Friday, Marketing Magazine editor Stan Sutter issued a statement on the publication's Web-site defending the decision arguing "...that ad is one agency professionals if they are honest with themselves, know would be rejected by 90% of their clients."

But Marketing Magazine is not just any client. Its readership consists mostly of hardened advertising professionals who have seen and heard it all. Indeed according to a spokesperson from Advertising Standards Canada, the Taxi ad does not contravene the organization's guidelines because it did not target the general public, but was inserted in a trade publication.

Many of Marketing Magazine's readers strut to the Cannes International Advertising Festival on the French Riviera each year on company expense accounts to watch cutting edge advertising. They know what it takes to make an ad stand out.

Indeed, it was partly because of his success on the international scene, that Lavoie was asked to chair the Marketing Awards this year, and to design advertising to promote the show.

Lavoie first came up on the industry radar while assigned to the McDonald's Quebec account at Cossette Communication Group, when his team came up with an innovative design for the "pizza" logo that used the golden arches to form the two "Zs".

The design won a Gold medal at Cannes and McDonald's ended up using the logo in ads around the world. Shortly after, Lavoie founded Taxi. Lavoie was one of the most visible figures in Montreal's advertising community, when he raised eyebrows by moving his agency to Toronto during the mid-1990s.

It's hard to create solid and effective advertising in one's second language. But Lavoie quickly become as prominent in Hogtown as he had been here, and he soon landed key accounts such as Telus Canada, Krispy Kreme Donuts and Pfizer Canada.

For example Taxi ads for mobile communications player Clearnet featured cuddly little frogs and other animals - which have no obvious connections to cell phones. But the frogs caught on. The look of the ads was so distinct that when Telus bought out Clearnet, they kept the ad style and the animals, and handed Taxi the national account.

Labeling someone a maverick who produces cutting edge advertising may seem strange. But there is not much of a market for innovative advertising in Canada. Canadians are a politically correct lot, and are far touchier about a wide range of issues ranging from sex to violence and humor than Europeans leaving marketers much less room to maneuver.

Advertising using sophisticated humor or complex messages, is almost instantly weeded out by focus groups before it gets to market. McDonald's once pulled an ad that featured single parents because it received just a few complaints from "family values" proponents.

So while most Canadian agencies have made a living churning out vanilla advertising, filled with film of cars going up the hill, cars going down the hill and cars driving in the desert all to elevator music, Lavoie has carved out a little niche among companies willing to take chances.

But Lavoie's efforts to get Canadian agencies onto the international radar have hit a big roadblock. In the short term his troubles will serve as a shot across the bow to advertisers and designers everywhere who are thinking about taking chances.



Photo caption: When Taxi Advertising and Design won the BMW Mini account, Paul Lavoie (shown at the wheel) had one brought into the studio so his employees could study its features before designing the ad campaign.

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