John Olson, ad agency founder, dies after battle with cancer

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2013 - 6:56 PM

Remembered as a giant of the industry, he had battled cancer.

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John Olson

Photo: Judah Dueck, Olson

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John Olson, the founder of the prominent Olson ad agency in Minneapolis, was more than just an entrepreneurial ad man. He was a musician, city leader, mentor, poet and prankster.

“I do a lot of things,” he told the Star Tribune in 2003, “because I want to have a really good obituary.”

But the 56-year-old won’t escape being remembered as a giant in the ad industry, growing the agency he started in 1992 to the nationally renowned company it is now. He died Saturday in his Excelsior home after a 13-month battle with cancer.

“He was a real Renaissance man,” longtime friend Howard Liszt said. “He made things he touched better, whether it was his company, his community or his family.”

Liszt first hired Olson in 1984 for an internship at Campbell Mithun, one of the Twin Cities’ oldest and largest agencies, even though the Washburn High School and University of Minnesota grad had no ad experience. He rose quickly to creative director, went on to found Kruskopf Olson in 1988 and then, in 1992, create his own agency.

It succeeded, Liszt said, because Olson was at the forefront of embracing digital media and attracted an energetic, talented team. He also lived by the “work hard, play hard,” mentality, hosting elaborate parties that even included llamas.

Liszt said he admonished friends: “Never throw a small party!” And he once wrote a tongue-in-cheek book on self-empowerment for dogs that was illustrated by his wife.

“He didn’t think conventionally,” Liszt said. “John’s passing leaves a huge hole in the community. He would have wanted to be remembered for how he impacted people.”

And he did so at Olson, said CEO John Partilla, who now heads the company that’s one the five largest independent agencies in North America and the largest in Minneapolis.

“He was very inspiring,” Partilla said. “He didn’t just want to do great work, but really surprise the marketplace and clients.”

Olson also founded BrandLab, which introduces low-income high school students to the ad industry, and he served on the Excelsior City Council.

In the last year, though, Olson semiretired, shifting to his music career with his “soulful pop” band, and recently recorded an album in Nashville.

“I think he still thought his most creative years were ahead of him,” said his brother, Tom Olson, of St. Louis Park. “[Cancer] probably incentivized him to work even harder; he knew in the back of his mind he wouldn’t have much time.”

Olson is survived by his wife, Cindy, and their three young children.

A public memorial service will take place at the ad agency this week; funeral services are Tuesday.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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