Looking out the window of her 20th-floor office toward the North Loop neighborhood, Margaret Murphy ’02 M.B.A., the president and chief operating officer of brand connection agency OLSON, eagerly points out the Ford Center next to Target Field. In early 2012, the top five floors of the former automobile plant will become the new Minneapolis home of OLSON and complete the final stage in the acquisition of Denali Marketing (now known as OLSONdenali) by combining more than 320 employees into one physical space. But Murphy has already been blending the teams, talents and cultures of the two firms, including a recent “hard hat happy hour” mixer in the historic warehouse building before the build out of their future office space began. “It was important to us not to have our ‘first date’ when we moved into the same building,” she remarks.

OLSON was founded in 1992 by now chairman John Olson as a “new media” agency, recognizing the shift of marketing power from the advertiser to the consumer. People were beginning to more actively control when and how they engaged with advertising messages on the television, Internet and eventually their cell phones and mobile devices.

The agency believes this empowerment requires brands to build creative messages and unique campaigns that connect with consumers, cause a reaction and drive them to want to engage with a brand – not just to make a purchase.

OLSON expanded through both the dot-com bust and the Great Recession while winning numerous creative awards and honors, including being named to Advertising Age magazine’s “10 Agencies to Watch” list in 2010. With the Denali merger and two other recent acquisitions, OLSON now sits among the top ten largest independent ad shops in the country.

Denali Marketing was a fast-rising firm founded in 2006 by loyalty marketing veterans Mark Lacek ’98 M.B.A., and Peter Brennan, friends and colleagues since the 1980s when they branded the frequent flyer program of Northwest Airlines as “WorldPerks,” and introduced many innovations to the airline loyalty arena. Murphy, then a senior vice president and 16-year veteran at Carlson Marketing, joined the firm soon after its launch and helped it grow in three years from five to about 80 employees while assembling an impressive client roster that included Best Buy, Sun Country and Toys ‘R’ Us.

The courtship between OLSON and Denali was first announced in June 2010. While each firm was certainly successful on its own, each was looking for strategic opportunities to expand its expertise and key competencies.

“It is a great story that we each found what we were looking for in our own backyard,” says Murphy. She describes the new resulting firm as “a unique marriage of art and science,” acknowledging the exceptional creative record of OLSON and the execution and analytical expertise of Denali. This left brain/right-brain combination excites Murphy.

“I get a lot of energy from ‘solutioning’ around our clients in a creative way,” remarks Murphy, “whether that’s actual design or just how we creatively solve a client’s problem.” Great creative design and clever messaging will always be a core part of advertising and marketing, but to strategically build and execute a campaign across several channels and platforms simultaneously (print, PR, online, mobile, etc.) requires a “line-blurring agency” according to Murphy. In pursuit of this model, OLSON has also recently acquired a lauded public relations firm in Chicago and leading mobile-technology company in Toronto, further expanding their capabilities.

“Our objective is to build and activate brand communities from the masses down to the one-to-one level for our clients,” states Murphy, reinforcing the OLSON mantra “Connection is all that counts.” And while OLSON has always focused on connection with the consumer, Denali brought tremendous expertise in recording and analyzing that connection at the individual level, and then customizing engagement with the brand to enhance the relationship. Denali developed its own proprietary software system called “Tally” to count, track and analyze those connections – including buying behavior, preferences, reactions to promotions and engagement with different interactive and digital assets. The goal is then to tailor the interactions and communications to benefit the consumer, such as offering timely information and special offers most relevant and valued by each individual, which in turn drives business for the client. The software analytics also provide more precise measurement of marketing ROI to clients, a critical requirement with today’s challenging economy and tightened marketing budgets.

The pairing has been well received. “Our clients have said ‘Hey, what you’ve brought together here is quite interesting to us, and we certainly would like to engage … ’” Murphy affirms. Everyone in their aggregated top 10 client list has been supported in new ways, evolving their OLSON or Denali relationship to include more of the new firm’s expanded capabilities.

The merger also is another highlight in the strong history of advertising and marketing agencies in Minneapolis who have managed  to compete successfully against firms in flashier locations on the coasts. Murphy feels the quality of local creative talent, the strong Midwest work ethic and entrepreneurial drive demonstrated by Pat Fallon, Leland Lynch and others are key reasons for this success. But she is also quick to mention the many “amazing brands” we have based here such as Target, Best Buy, General Mills and Medtronic who appreciate and support local talent, providing opportunities to showcase their talents for nationally and internationally recognized companies.

The drive to build something also is a factor that motivated Murphy to leave her success and security at Carlson Marketing and jump into Denali in 2007. “My dad thought I was an idiot,” she laughs, “but I wanted to prove that I could start something with a really strong group of people.” Perhaps her dad forgot the early leadership ability and business savvy she revealed at age 16 when she operated a drive-in diner for two summers in her hometown of Madelia, Minn. When she learned that the owners did not plan to reopen the restaurant one year, she approached them about leasing it. “I thought it was good for the town that it stayed open,” she reflects. And her dad liked that it gave Margaret and her five brothers summer jobs.

But Murphy was inspired by two more important reasons to take her career in a new direction, and those reasons continue to drive her today in her role as president/COO of OLSON. “First, I thought that clients deserved a higher level of service,” explains Murphy, feeling that many marketing companies were too internally focused and not looking externally enough at what they were actually bringing their clients in a tough marketplace. “As with any service business, if you commit to good service, it takes sacrifice,” Murphy said, acknowledging the grind that comes at times in the ad agency realm. “But if you’re going to do it, then serve well.”

Secondly, Murphy wanted the chance to shape a company culture and talent base from scratch, recalling that “if we create an agency of ‘A-players,’ look what we could do, and have fun doing it…” She asserts that ‘A-players’ focus on client satisfaction and results but also collectively foster an environment of mutual respect, complementary strengths, accountability and commitment to each individual’s and the organization’s growth.

Jodie Youngquist, a project manager for OLSONdenali for nearly three years, finds this culture empowering and rewarding. Her OLSON colleagues must agree, as their survey responses lead to OLSON being named a Top Minnesota Workplace by the Star Tribune in June 2011. Management and execution were touted as OLSON’s key employer strengths. “Margaret really shows that she trusts everyone, and values their contribution. Expectations are high, but you also feel safe and supported to do your best work, so people thrive,” says Youngquist. She also appreciates the “no egos allowed” approach fostered by Murphy. “Nobody is too big or too small for a job.”

Murphy understands OLSON’s client satisfaction is built on the day-to-day efforts of the staff, and if they are not able or energized to provide those efforts in an effective way, everyone suffers. “My philosophy is that I work for the employees, and I’m privileged to do so,” she says. “If I’m not driving value for them as well – whether it’s personal growth, financial stability for their families, or providing a smart operation with a clear vision and accountabilities – then I’m not doing my job.”

Murphy is clearly an authentic, determined leader that OLSON clients and employees alike want to work with. “Margaret emerged as the natural leader to ensure we’re delivering great work for clients at all points,” said Kevin DiLorenzo, Olson CEO, in his statement announcing Murphy’s February 2011 promotion to president/COO. “Margaret’s success with OLSONdenali has shown she understands perfectly  what it takes to propel client business upward and grow our organization. She is the perfect answer for our agency of the future.”

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