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This Minneapolis ad agency welcomes the unexpected

Chief branding officer Tom Fugleberg: "We're a brand connection agency. That's always been in our DNA."
Chief branding officer Tom Fugleberg: “We’re a brand connection agency. That’s always been in our DNA.”

When Tom Fugleberg joined the fledgling Minneapolis ad agency Olson + Co. in 1997, he was among the first employees who didn’t share a surname with the husband-and-wife founders.

In the years since, that small shop has grown into a 400-person behemoth called OLSON, the largest marketing agency in the Twin Cities by headcount and one of the top 10 independent agencies in the nation. And Fugleberg, who had a big hand in that growth as executive creative director, has a new job as the agency’s chief branding officer.

His mission: Preserve the agency’s irreverent, experimental culture while making sure everyone shares the same vision for the future. Meanwhile, boost OLSON’s visibility beyond the Midwest in places like New York, Toronto and the West Coast.

OLSON’s creative culture has always lent the agency a quirky appeal. From dodgeball games in the alley behind its Loring Park digs to late-night mixology experiments on behalf of its liquor clients, OLSON has been the kind of place that welcomed the unexpected.

But can quirk, even in the service of creativity, exist in a giant agency? Hanging onto culture and connections has always been a challenge for fast-growing companies, and OLSON has grown faster than most. Fugleberg said he’s got an advantage — because the agency has always been an advocate of just the kind of connections he’s now being asked to nurture internally.

“We’re a brand connection agency,” he said. “That’s always been in our DNA, and that’s how we’ve built brands for our clients. So if that’s your North Star, you have to live it.”

As an example of the OLSON approach, the agency employs more than a half-dozen cultural anthropologists who explore the deep meanings of our connections to brands, products and the communities of interest that we form around them. Think of the culture of Minnesota hockey and how a brand like Bauer can tap into it.

Fugleberg said he’ll be investing that same care in examining what makes his own people tick — what brings meaning to their work and contributes to the agency’s identity.

“We are this bigger version of what we have all been attracted to,” he said. “We want all the different flavors and sensibilities. We want to allow people to be who they are.”

OLSON’s growth has spread change all the way to the top ranks. The agency’s new president and chief operating officer is Margaret Murphy, who came aboard when OLSON acquired loyalty agency Denali Marketing last year. Dennis Ryan, the new chief creative officer, joined a couple of months ago from the Chicago agency Element 79.

Both bring their own views on agency culture, forged in the organizations they’ve been with. Not a problem, said Fugleberg; it’s all part of developing an identity together.

“Their creation stories are different from ours,” he said. “But we’re bound by a belief in connection.”

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