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When four senior creative industry leaders came together to form Solve, an independent advertising and branding firm in Minneapolis, launching "the purposeful agency" wasn't necessarily their goal.
Yet Solve often finds itself in that role. Since it opened in mid-2011, said CEO John Colasanti, Solve has attracted a number of clients who believe they are on a mission as much as they are in business to sell a product or service.
Examples include Wisconsin-based Organic Valley, a farmer-owned co-op working to support small family dairy farms and not just sell milk, and Medifast, which is seeking to reduce obesity and not simply promote its weight-loss program.
"We didn't set out to only look for companies that are going to make the world a better place," Colasanti said. "But the chess pieces ... are moving them in our direction."
While Solve doesn't work exclusively with purpose-driven clients, its appeal to them may be summed up in this statement on its website: "Enlightened companies realize there's more to success than making money. They're driven by a purpose that's bigger than their profit goals."
In that spirit, Solve focuses on understanding client challenges and developing solutions in whatever form works best. "We're slaves to what the client needs," Colasanti said.
That runs counter to the model at some large, corporate-owned agencies, which might push what the agency wants to sell rather than what the client wants or needs, Colasanti said.
That doesn't mean Solve is simply an order taker. Instead, Solve has sought to build a "hub of expertise" in brand strategy, customer insights and target definition and creative development and expression, among other disciplines. The agency finished 2012 with $2.4 million in revenue and 14 employees and is searching for two more. Keeping a low profile, Solve expects to grow primarily through referrals.
Before founding Solve, Colasanti was CEO at Minneapolis ad agency Carmichael Lynch, where he had spent 15 years. Colasanti, who also worked at agencies in Boston, Chicago and Detroit, joined Carmichael Lynch shortly before its acquisition by the Interpublic Group, one of the giant holding companies that dominate the advertising industry.
"It became more about a business and less about how good is the work and the relationships with the clients and pitching new accounts," Colasanti said of his post-acquisition role.
He was eager to try a new approach to advertising. "I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't still find a way to love it," Colasanti said. "But I needed to find a new flavor to love it again."
Solve's other founders, who had worked with Colasanti at Carmichael Lynch, shared that sentiment. Creative Director Hans Hansen, former group creative director at Carmichael Lynch, worked there and at Minneapolis agency Fallon Worldwide for a combined 12 years. President Corey Johnson, former director of consumer engagement and senior partner at Carmichael Lynch, had been there 10 years. Creative Director Eric Sorensen was group creative director at Carmichael Lynch, working there and at Fallon for 16 years. "I don't think anybody on the planet is more qualified than this group," Colasanti said.
Solve's founders previously have worked on such brands as Porsche, Ikea, Harley-Davidson, Coca-Cola and Subaru. Today, Solve clients include Orbea Bicycles, AutoWeek, GiveBack.org, OptumHealth, Pro Cycling and Best Buy.
Solve's consolidated branding campaign for Medifast launched nationally this month. The campaign includes Solve's "Become Yourself" commercials, featuring non-actor Medifast dieters conversing with each other about their weight loss as the thinner consumer interacts with the heavier version filmed months earlier. Web traffic and call center contacts already are up 40 percent, said Michael Decker, Medifast's vice president of brand marketing and creative services.
"Weight loss is this emotional journey that people go through, and [Solve] latched onto that and was able to bring it to life in a way that is so compelling," said Decker. "It's an amazing little shop. They've got heavy hitters there."
In Solve, Organic Valley found an agency that's "very eager and hungry and committed to the mission of Organic Valley to keep family farmers on the farm and support transitioning our society towards organic food," said Lewis Goldstein, executive marketing director, adding that the company expects to reach $1 billion in meat and dairy sales this year. "They have been very strong in helping us define who we are and what we want to communicate to the consumer."
The expert says: Mike Porter, director of the master of business communication program at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said he sees Solve delivering value on many levels, in part because it offers a team with strategy and branding expertise in addition to creative talents.
"They're not beholden to anyone but themselves," Porter said of Solve's founders. "You've got principals who have decades of combined experience at two of the best agencies in this market ... and suddenly that expertise is available to a broader range of clients who may have hoped that they could get the attention of Carmichael Lynch but couldn't afford them."