Lunch with Paul Lavoie

—Mark Smyka joined the ad world as a reporter with Marketing magazine, right at the tail end of the Mad Men era. One of the sacred rituals of the day was lunch—a time when industry people would take a break to talk shop, commiserate, quarrel, gossip or simply revel in the business itself. In this series, Smyka revives the lunch tradition for intimate conversations with icons of Canadian advertising and marketing—

Some people just have it. Call it charisma. Magnetism. Presence. Whatever word you want to use, it means the ability to fill a room just by being in it.

Paul Lavoie most decidedly has it.

I was already seated in a booth at a Toronto brasserie when Lavoie entered. There’s no mistaking Paul Lavoie. Tall, gallantly bald, a fashion persona he had adopted long before it became a thing. He spotted me and began walking in my direction, a big, broad smile widening every step of the way.

He greeted me with his distinctive baritone voice, hand outstretched… and suddenly an otherwise gloomy winter day became brighter and a helluva lot more interesting.

He began at the beginning.

His first memory of being swept up in the magic of communications was a fascination with the simplicity and purity of graphic design. He was just a kid when his brother took him aside and pointed to the “I” superimposed on the “H” in the International Harvester logo.

“What do you see Paul? It’s more than two letters. Can you see a man on a tractor?” Lavoie was knocked out. Amazed. Welcome to the visual genius of designer Raymond Loewy. Lavoie was hooked.

Paul Lavoie in his high school years.

From his parents he learned the value of curiosity and the power of self-confidence. At high school in Quebec City he learned about creativity as editor of the school newspaper, and the impact of performance from running a school radio station and as an stage actor in school plays.

Confidence and performance paid off many years later, when his agency, Taxi, was in one of its biggest agency pitches of the decade—the launch of BMW Mini in Canada. “We decided to go in with strategy alone,” he recalls. “They already thought of us as being creative, so why pitch creative?

“Instead, we asked them the question, ‘Why do you need advertising?’ You have already been named the car of the millennium. You don’t need advertising to launch this new version of the Mini. You’ll make your numbers without advertising for the first three years.

“The real question is what do you do when the novelty wears off? What do you stand for? Let’s talk about how to build a brand, not just a fad. Let’s concentrate on getting the foundation right first. And sell this brand for many years.” Taxi won the pitch, and Mini became one of the agency’s biggest, award-winning accounts.

Lavoie went to a local community college after high school, but never finished. He had a summer job at a graphic design studio and ended up working there full-time.

“I knew within five seconds of working in that studio that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I loved everything about it… even the smells in the place. The idea that I would be immersed in the world of visual imagery and get paid for it… that kind of blew me away.”

He opened his own studio in Quebec City at 25, but wanted to get into the big game. So, he took a job as art director at Montreal agency PNMD, before moving to Cossette when that agency was the very definition of advertising in Quebec.

Two of his big campaigns at the time, one for grocer Provigo and the other for McDonald’s, shook convention, won international acclaim and foreshadowed the kind of against-the-grain thinking that would make Lavoie’s career. The Provigo idea required two large outdoor billboards to speak to each other across one location. The McDonald’s campaign for the launch of pizza took the sacrosanct Golden Arches logo and placed it at an angle, representing the two ZZs in the word pizza.

“Everyone said ‘No,’ you can’t do that. It’s never been done,” Lavoie recalls. “I said, ‘How can you run an agency when you behave like a lawyer and always say, ‘No.’”

Like so many of the ad industry’s legends, Lavoie’s work had the imprint of a rebellious, maverick spirit. “Creativity was instinctive to me. You really need to be able to see things from a different perspective. To see things differently.

“But the essence of all great work is still the idea. You work from the platform of an idea and then the execution either elevates it or crushes it. You make mistakes, but the experience helps you. And you need to distance yourself from your work. You need to hear when your work is being boring or predictable. You need to hear rejection. It helps create tension.

“I love tension because tension helps me to continue to question and to probe. I think doubt is productive. When it’s the right kind of doubt.

“When you are about to shoot a new TV spot and someone asks, ‘Maybe we should be using outdoor’… that’s not good doubt.

“Good doubt is about asking the question, ‘How can we do it better. How can we do it differently? It begins with the brief. Great creative always starts with a great question. What is the big issue that we need to think about? What is the problem we need to solve?”

When he opened Taxi with partner Jane Hope in Toronto in 1992, the agency was differentiated—radically for its time—by offering an equal partnership between advertising and design. The big question to answer was how to structure the agency. “All the other agencies were too big, too bureaucratic, too many silos, too many people.

So Taxi famously became both a metaphor and an agency name. “All you need for good work is a good planner, a good creative team and a great client. Or roughly the number of people who can fit into a Taxi.

“For us, it didn’t matter how many people we had and it didn’t matter who came up with the idea. Everyone worked collaboratively. The challenge was how can we get a few people into a small room and come up with the big, ballsy question. Then get to it with clarity and expand it onto the disciplines.”

What emerged from Taxi in the mid-1990s were landmark campaigns that earned both Taxi, and Canada, international attention—a series of distinctive critters that became the brand essence of Clearnet and later Telus, powerful outdoor for the BMW Mini brand, and Viagra’s breakthrough “Good Morning” campaign, among others.

“We created a culture where we let people be themselves,” Lavoie says. “It’s not the campaigns themselves, but the environment and culture that we created that I’m most proud of. And that we had the guts to do.” His advice to young people in advertising today? “Focus on the road ahead. Don’t look in the rearview mirror and don’t cling needlessly to what isn’t relevant any more.

“The best part of being in the business today is that you can tell your story. There’s nothing to hold you back. The world is there for the taking. There is more open-mindedness today. The business is much more democratic.

“But I also believe in the virtue of generosity, the idea of giving something, not asking for something. These are the people who should be driving the business today.”

Lavoie left the agency he built at the end of 2017, but while one career ended, another has just begun. Lavoie is now CEO of Beau Lake, manufacturer of high-end boating and water sport products, which he intends to build into an international nameplate for luxury products.

“It all started right after 9/11,” Lavoie remembers. “Jane (his life and business partner) and I were returning from our honeymoon in Spain when the world was thrown into chaos. I turned to her and said, ‘We need to get away from all of this. We need to find a safe haven in this crazy world.’”

They found the answer in the Laurentian Mountains. A stately 70-year-old log cabin clutching the shoreline of one of the region’s uncluttered, calm-water lakes. “This place is where my soul is,” he says. One day, while gazing out across the shimmering lake surface, a local cottager came thrashing by in a noisy and disruptive paddleboat.

“It looked like it was made of Tupperware and I thought, ‘What is it doing in this majestic place? Why can’t there be water products that match this setting in design and elegance?’ I saw a huge gap… and an opportunity.”

So Lavoie launched Beau Lake with partner Lee Kline, to manufacture and market a series of sleekly designed paddleboards, paddleboats and, this summer, solar-powered runabouts modelled after classic handmade wooden Muskoka boats.

“I am going back to my core, which is about aesthetics and design and the highest quality. Beau Lake starts with water products, but the vision is a global brand. Why not create a business where we can build beautiful products and market them globally? The key elements are there—aesthetics, design, a certain kind of innocence, peacefulness and craftsmanship—that’s luxury.

“I spent my career building brands for other people. Now it’s time to build a brand for myself.”

Which means that Paul Lavoie, adman, is now Paul Lavoie, client.

When did he realize that he had suddenly assumed a new identity? “When I was on the phone with the guys who had designed the Beau Lake print materials and I actually said: “Hey guys, can you make the logo bigger?”