Olson hopes new Yoplait campaign propels ad agency into big leagues

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 2:00 PM

The Minneapolis agency sees its work to promote General Mills’ line of Greek yogurt as a key test as it seeks to become a national player.

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Olson CEO John Partilla, left, and Chief Creative Officer Dennis Ryan in the agency’s North Loop offices. Olson has been growing for the past few years.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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The Minneapolis ad agency Olson is schmoozing and swinging for the fences these days.

From a daylong client seminar highlighted by a rooftop cocktail reception overlooking Target Field last week to the imminent launch of a new campaign for a major client, this could be a banner summer for the single-name agency founded 21 years ago.

Known mainly for its stable of regional and local clients, Olson is making efforts to move into the big time as a national player with nationally recognized work.

With a book of business that ranges from the Belize Tourism Board to the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, Olson is now eagerly awaiting the launch of its campaign for General Mills and its highly visible but struggling Yoplait line of Greek yogurt.

“It’s a huge, huge opportunity,” Denny Haley, retired president and chief creative officer of the Minneapolis office of BBDO Proximity, said of the Yoplait campaign. “It’s a fast-growing category with a history of high spending across all advertising platforms.”

The pending rollout of the Yoplait campaign follows a daylong event hosted by Olson just last week for some 200 clients designed to help put the 450-employee agency on the national map.

Speakers included the Skyped-in presence of Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post; national network correspondent Soledad O’Brien, and Bob Pittman, the chairman of Clear Channel Communications and founder of MTV. Entertainment was provided by British rap star Estelle.

It was designed to be a feel-good session for Olson as it attempts to morph from a successful regional agency with a few name accounts into a big-league player fighting for a greater national presence.

“I’m really pleased with the progress we’ve made so far,” Olson CEO John Partilla said in a recent interview. “There’s still a lot of wood to chop, but if you want to punch above your weight class, it takes serious commitment and dedication.”

With its first full-fledged integrated work on behalf of Yoplait on the launchpad, the stakes are considerable for both Olson and General Mills.

“It’s expensive to produce TV and even more expensive to purchase TV. This is not like putting something on the Web,” said Jennifer Johnson, an advertising professor specializing in brand strategy at the University of Minnesota. “You have to have a great client to understand what it takes to get the message to consumers and a great agency team to hear what the client wants.”

In the end, said Johnson, it’s the bottom line that matters.

“CEOs look at numbers, not the work,” she said.

The assignment

General Mills’ Yoplait brand has watched its overall market share decline from 40 percent in 2010 to less than 30 percent earlier this year, according to analysts. And while a push into the Greek segment with Yoplait’s Greek 100 product has made inroads, Yoplait’s share of Greek yogurt sales remains in the high single digits.

Into that breach stepped Olson, a growing agency with plenty of ambition eager to establish itself on a national platform. Olson was selected for the Yoplait Greek assignment last spring over incumbent Yoplait agency Saatchi & Saatchi, which will remain the agency for Yoplait’s regular yogurt brands.

“Many here thought we couldn’t pull it off. My feeling was we have the goods to deliver,” said Partilla, Olson’s CEO since January and an advertising veteran with previous stints heading divisions of Clear Channel and Time Warner. “One of the strengths and the Achilles’ heel of Olson is the girl-next-door effect.”

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