Now hear this: Paul Lavoie, co-founder of ad agency Taxi

Hewers of wood and drawers of water? Ad man Paul Lavoie says Canada can do better in its image-making on the world stage.

Canada has no brand aside from its reputation as a land of natural resources, and it’s impairing the competitiveness of domestic companies abroad, says Paul Lavoie, co-founder of ad agency Taxi. Lavoie spoke with Joe Castaldo about how Canadian firms can showcase innovation and eliminate the image of being hewers of wood and drawers of water.

“Our essence as Canadians is to be outside thinkers. It gets at our own unique, incredible spin on innovation. It’s something that’s true, credible and starts a shift that is really important for this country: a shift from a land of stuff to a land of ideas. Now we need to take that idea and see what kinds of projects we can work on that would bring tangible evidence to that claim.

We haven’t done a good job of defining ourselves. If we don’t do that, outsiders will. When a brand is focused, it has a competitive edge. And Canada needs to be competitive. If we have a couple of big ideas that could galvanize our country and display the kind of talent we have, it would give us a competitive edge. Socially, it would make people want to be a part of and belong to Canada.

The thing that I want to talk about is outing Canada. There are three things: Who should lead the effort? What central themes could we rally around? And how could we bring those themes to life in a tangible way that would really increase our visibility and our sense of identity? There has to be four groups that can actually do something: a leader, a facilitator, a supporter and an accelerator.

The leader should be our marketing community. It would be a great case study for us. It would be a great recruitment tool. And we have the expertise to lead it.

The facilitator should be the government. The prime minister has to buy into it. If that person is not involved, things cannot happen in a big way. The other thing government can do is create policies and conditions to facilitate us around the world. You know, we have storefronts all around the world called embassies.

As a support, I really think we need the education sector. I’ve had a couple of conversations with deans and they’re all for it. They have existing programs that we can benefit from, and we can tap into some of these programs with more research and development.

Finally, we need an accelerator, and that’s really private enterprise. We can be both an accelerator and a leader. I’m working on two specific ideas. One idea: I talked to Magna, and Magna and I are working together on a project. We’re going to make a Canadian bike, and I want the Canadian bike to have snow tires on it. It’s going to be an electric bike.

But the big idea I’d like to suggest is to create a rallying point that is not a tagline from an ad campaign. Something that would fit our national character. With that positioning statement, we can start clustering some projects and then over time things will take off. This positioning statement has to anticipate a domestic or international need. And it has to be inspirational. It has to be inclusive. It has to be a position that pushes us away from our dependency on natural resources. Look at some of the most competitive countries — Germany and Japan — and they don’t have resources. They’re forced to be more competitive, more creative and more innovative. We need something to knock off this complacency we have.

One of my favourite writers is Thomas Friedman. He says that the major industrial nation that gets the greenest the fastest with the smartest technology will be the country that will lead the 21st century. And the ROI is definitely a higher standard of living, and economic and national security. I say he’s right. But I also say why shouldn’t it be Canada? For starters, we’ve got the right logo.

Another idea is to transform our resources into tangible value. One of the reasons people don’t think about Canada is because we don’t do things, we don’t make things, we just have a lot of stuff. There are a few brands that I think have done well — Bombardier, Four Seasons, Cirque du Soleil. They exhibit the country’s traits, and the country’s traits are often attributed to their products. The character of people influence their products, which reinforces their perception of who they are. German attention to detail and efficiency comes to life in automotive and mechanical engineering. Swiss punctuality and precision in its watches.

You can reinvent yourself. When I was a kid, I remember Japan was cheap. But they obviously reinvented themselves. Brands like Sony and Honda and so on have contributed to our new perception of that country. Commerce has the potential to identify a nation to itself and the world. And the private sector can play a bigger role. They have the money and resources to make a difference. If we can cluster around certain industries that are formed by national characteristics, then we could be much more competitive.

I’ll give you an example. We have a lot of trees. Sweden has Ikea. Which has more value? Which can be replicated? Which one will last longer? Which would make a visible, more memorable statement about the country? We have water. France has Evian and Perrier, and they sell it for more than it costs for a gallon of gas. We have iron, nickel, copper and oil. Most countries have their own cars. How come we don’t have our own car? We have a lot of produce in this country. Where’s our Canadian food?

We have brilliant designers, thinkers, innovators, chefs. We’ve got the ingredients, we’ve got the talent, but we haven’t put it together. One of my suspicions is we’re really chicken. We are not the biggest risk takers in the world. We are the most insured nation in the world because we don’t have to take a risk. We’ve got a lot of stuff. Just dig and ship.

There’s the third-generation phenomenon going on here. The first generation is the entrepreneurs, the people who build the company. The second generation in a company is all about trying to hold the damn thing together. I’m talking about Seagram, or Molson. They didn’t invent the product, but they’re just trying to hold things together. With Canada, it’s same thing — how to keep the Americans out, the French in and the railroads running.

When I see companies like Birks or Sears or Seagram or Molson, they struggle at that third-generation stage and mostly fall apart. It’s historically the point when things can seriously go down the tubes, when things get a little too comfortable. I believe we’re there in Canada. We’re the third generation. Life is good. But we definitely have the skill set and talent to make a difference and plan our future. And it’s not time to step back.”