Solve, an independent Minneapolis advertising agency, has entered its second decade with a new leadership structure to support continued growth.

"When we started, small independent agencies were in short supply, and there was a desire from a lot of clients to have a much more senior-led, nimble and quick kind of agency," said Corey Johnson, who founded the firm with fellow Carmichael Lynch veteran John Colasanti.

In its first year, Ad Age named the Solve its "Small Agency of the Year." It would win that distinction one more time.

"We've kind of identified that as our North Star, shooting for that again here," Johnson said. "We want to get back on that stage."

Doing that means paying more attention to detail. That meant a third person at the top. So Colasanti, who was CEO, is now chairman. Johnson moved from president to CEO. And the agency has promoted Ryan Murray, previously director of account management and partner, to president.

"We can once again increase our level of involvement from top to bottom on everything," Johnson said.

The leadership moves happened in early October to coincide with the agency's 10th anniversary producing campaigns for, among others, Sunoco, Porsche, Indian Motorcycle and Driscoll's Fresh Berries.

Employees this month also have returned to the office three days a week.

Murray said he is looking forward to helping employees develop while making sure clients get the strategic perspective and creative work they need. He expects to be more active in new business development while continuing to lead many client relationships.

"Having this position allows John, Corey and I to divide and conquer in ways that we haven't been able to date," Murray said of his new role as president.

Strong leadership also will help Solve maintain its independence, said Colasanti, whose 15 years at Carmichael Lynch began just before one of the large holding companies that dominate the ad industry acquired it.

"There's no desire to sell, though we've certainly had opportunities," Colasanti said. "We've attracted some incredible clients. We've done some great work. More than anything, I think we've built a culture that people enjoy working in, where people feel enabled to do the best thinking they can."

Colasanti sees his role as chairman as making sure the agency is "looking at everything the way they should, as they're setting the vision and direction for the company going forward."

Johnson said Solve's strength at developing ideas faster than larger agencies helped during the pandemic.

When client Président Cheese planned to introduce a snack-sized version of its pub cheese, Solve suggested creating a "snack-sized" Irish pub to promote the product. The company, which hadn't planned a launch campaign, loved the pub idea, had it built and uses it to offer samples and coupons outside grocery stores.

In another case, client Raymond James, the financial services company, pulled its new "Live Your Life" campaign when the pandemic hit. In three to four weeks, Johnson said, Solve created an animated "People. Always" campaign that was more appropriate for the time.

Solve still needs to do better work on the diversity and equity front, all three officers said.

Solve's staff is 84% white, and its leadership team has no people of color. Nationally, less than 1% of ad and marketing executives are Black and less than 6% of ad staffers are Black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

After the police killing of George Floyd prompted calls for racial equity and inclusion, Solve partnered with Morgan State University, an historically Black college and university (HCBU) located in Baltimore. Agency staff teach advertising classes via Zoom.

Solve, which brought in three summer interns from Morgan State, hopes to expand the effort to more HBCU campuses, Johnson said.

"Advertising, when it's at its best, has to be on the forefront of where the American psyche is," Johnson said. "Right now, not only in our agency but in many others our perspective is limited because we don't have a full, diverse picture in our staff, so it's important to get that any way we can."

"Even if we're not able to hire any of these students if they just find their way into advertising, that's a huge win," Murray said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is