Attention-grabbing campaigns for the Belize Tourism Board with a "Breaking Bad" theme and a road rally featuring Oscar Mayer's popular Wienermobiles earned the Minneapolis public relations agency Olson Engage top honors in its field this week and renewed the Twin Cities' ticket as a go-to address for PR assignments.
Olson Engage, the PR unit of the ad agency Olson, was named "Agency of the Year" in a New York ceremony Thursday evening by the trade publication PRWeek in an awards contest that featured the best PR agencies in the United States.
It was the second agency-of-the-year award for a Twin Cities PR firm in as many years — Carmichael Lynch Spong was named the top U.S. creative PR agency by the Holmes Report last year — and added to a long list of gold, silver and bronze awards given to Twin Cities agencies in other contests as well.
In addition, Exponent, the 45-employee PR division of the ad agency Colle+McVoy, received an honorable mention in the PRWeek small-agency-of-the-year category.
"This is a really good community for communications," said John Purdy, an advertising and public relations professor at the University of St. Thomas. "There is a good supply of talented and trained people who are drawn to this area."
From the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication to programs in the state university system and in Minnesota private colleges, there is a trained local workforce available for the public relations agencies in the area.
A number of advertising agencies have expanded their services to offer PR work to clients as well.
"Part of what makes the Twin Cities attractive is the integration of public relations and advertising together," said Rose McKinney, a PR executive in the Twin Cities for 26 years and owner of a boutique PR agency called Pineapple Reputation Management. "We also have so many great companies that have allowed PR firms to do groundbreaking work."
The modern era for high-profile PR firms can be traced back more than 50 years to agencies like Padilla Speer Beardsley — now known as PadillaCRT — which once hired infamous Depression-era bank robber Willie Sutton to unveil the first ATM for Northwestern National Bank (now Wells Fargo).
Some Twin Cities agencies became so successful that they were acquired by multinational firms: Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin became part of Weber Shandwick Worldwide.
"PR requires a strong work ethic and in Minnesota we have a strong work ethic," said Teresa McFarland, a Twin Cities PR veteran who runs McFarland Communications. "In PR, you can't unplug, you've got to stay connected. It's a lifestyle, not just a job."
Bryan Specht, the Chicago-based president of Olson Engage, called the PRWeek award "really cool." In addition to overall agency of the year, Olson Engage, which had revenue of $16.5 million in 2013, was named midsize agency of the year.
The two campaigns Olson Engage submitted with its entry included one on behalf of the Belize Tourism Board that was in response to an episode of Breaking Bad where the show's protagonist used the word Belize as a euphemism for murder as in "I'll send you to Belize." Olson Engage jumped on social media with a series of tweets that invited the cast of "Breaking Bad" to visit Belize, which eventually led to a story in the New York Times and increased favorable impressions of the tropical resort area eightfold.
The other campaign focused on a competition among six Oscar Mayer Wienermobiles involving challenges suggested by consumers [highest hot dog dropped into a bun, for instance] on Twitter and a dedicated website. The contest offered prizes and coupons to participants and garnered attention ranging from social media news center Mashable to Bon Appétit magazine.
"We didn't win because we relied on traditional public relations," said Specht. "We won because we put all of those things together — advertising, social media, media relations and events. We want an audience to take a message and drive it themselves."