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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.

KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

Olson hopes new Yoplait campaign propels ad agency into big leagues

  • Article by: David Phelps
  • Star Tribune
  • August 3, 2013 - 2:00 PM

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.”

Olson has done work for General Mills in the past but the Greek launch is by far its biggest job for the Golden Valley-based food giant. General Mills declined to discuss its selection of Olson for the Greek segment of the business because of the newness of the assignment.

“Our focus is pretty consistently on our brands, not on our agencies,” said spokeswoman Maerenn Jepsen.

Until recently, Olson’s previous national players have been niche accounts such as the Bauer line of hockey and skating equipment and Sun Country Airlines. The agency also has done work for Twin Cities-based companies Target, Best Buy and Ecolab.

But over the last three years, Olson has been in a growth mode, with the addition of the loyalty marketing firm Denali, Dig Communications in Chicago and the mobile agency My Thum in Toronto.

In 2011, the agency snagged Dennis Ryan as its chief creative officer. Ryan’s previous book of business included Kraft cheese, Budweiser, Frito-Lay and Discover Card. In January, Partilla was named CEO.

The growth has paid off. Olson has been engaged by Oscar Mayer to promote its iconic brand of packaged hot dogs and other meats, Saucony athletic footwear as well as TiVo, the onetime TV-recording industry leader that is attempting a comeback against cable on-demand and DVR competitors with a new line of products. The agency is also doing work for gum-and-candy giant Wrigley, including a Skittles campaign.

Not everything has come up roses, though. In June, Olson took a run at the prestigious Porsche luxury automobile account and came in second. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Partilla said.

In growth mode

Olson is on pace for a double-digit increase in 2013 over its $90 million in revenue last year. Its head count stands at 450, with 330 of those occupying the agency’s relatively new digs in the Ford Center building in the North Loop of Minneapolis.

A lot is riding on the Yoplait Greek campaign. Partilla declined to say how much the project means to the agency financially other than to note General Mills will be one of Olson’s top 10 clients in terms of revenue.

“This is proof of what we want to accomplish here,” Partilla said. “We want to attract new clients and compete on a larger stage.”

But food trends and consumers are fickle.

“This is a whole new arena for Olson,” said Haley. “Packaged goods is a much more disciplined business. What Olson is doing is really difficult. Can they handle the Yoplait business? It is demanding.”

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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