One-of-a-kind ad man John Olson dies at 56, Kupchella remembers a friend


By Rick Kupchella

There’s a story I want to share with you today of a long-time friend who passed away this morning… after a year-long battle with cancer.

Knowing him for nearly 20 years now… has been – beyond a privilege.

It’s been a joy… a journey… and at times… an insane freaking ride.

My hope here… is that in sharing his story with you… more of you may come to know him as I have…

So that you, too… can find the kind of inspiration – the kind of mind-stretch – that comes from knowing people like John Olson.

The History

John is a guy who – with his wife Cindy – built what is today the largest ad agency in the Twin Cities… and among the top five largest independent ad agencies in America.

They did that in less-than 20 years…. starting out of their small bungalow in Minnetonka.

John had gotten his start as a copywriter for Campbell Mithun years earlier. Applying for the job… while working as a parking lot attendant. No degree.

He became one of two finalists. And the execs at Campbell Mithun said: Well… of all the candidates… we’re down to one guy with his PhD in advertising – and you. Why would we pick you over him?

John’s response was something to the effect of: “I’m sorry… What was it you were looking for? PhD’s? Or Ideas?”

They picked the right guy!

The Campaigns

Talk about ideas! John Olson was full of them.

Even those of you who did not know him – would totally know his ideas.

It was John and his team that came up with such iconic Minnesota “brands” and campaigns as:

> Blue Planet gasoline (Holiday stores)

>Driven to Discover (U of M)

>UV Vodka (Phillips Distilling)

>I [HEART] my Cub (Cub Foods)

>Minnesota Wild’s: State of Hockey

John was a gifted musician as well… he even wrote the lyrics and original score for the Wild’s Anthem.

Among his biggest non-Minnesota campaigns was one built for the Detroit Pistons.

The Pistons were in a terrible place at the time… they’d just built the Palace… they were being dumped-on for everything from the poor performance of Grant Hill to their teal uniforms. They couldn’t fill the lower deck with fans. They’d begun to give away tickets.

As long-time Olson President and CEO, Kevin DiLorenzo tells the story the Olson company came in and explained, effectively, “Stop that… we have to demand more of this team… and we have to demand more of the fans… don’t give these tickets away!”

And so the campaign – literally – showed fans having to AUDITION for tickets… “What are you gonna do for this team?!” “How do you YELL?!” “I CANNOT hear you!” “Dance!”

DiLorenzo says the fans began to show up in droves… they demanded way more of the team. The arena sold out. And the Pistons won a world Championship.

And when the Piston’s won that Championship… they made extra championship rings… for John Olson… and each member of his team.

The Pent-Ultimate Pitch

But my favorite John story… is the one about how he invented UV Vodka. Seriously.

When the Minneapolis-based Phillips Distilling Company asked him to market an old-line flavored vodka…

Johnny thought he should do better than that.

And he challenged the company to build a better vodka.

He drew up a complete campaign for a vodka that did not even exist.

There would be a bright blue bottle – for “blue raspberry” vodka… a bright green for apple… a bright pink for “lemonade”. Johnny’s team called it UV Vodka. Then they asked Dean Phillips if his company could make that.

Today – it’s a significant share of revenue for the Phillips brand.

The Man

It was one thing to learn from… and experience… the growth and creative and business genius of Johnny Olson.

It was another to get to know him more personally.

Honestly, you’d get a good snap shot of the guy if you remember the character “Doc” out of the ‘85 film “Back to the Future”.

Johnny had that same wild hair… the same crazy genius.

Over the last couple decades… he and his wife and other friends of ours would travel the world together. Celebrate the birth and adoption of each others’ children.

Friends (l to r) John Olson, Dan Young, Rick Kupchella, Greg Heinemann, Tim Peters

We threw – enormous – parties together.

I swear to you – he was the real deal.

He walked the walk.

He was deeply religious. Catholic.

His excitement for life was contagious… I remember walking into one home we rented together with our families on the coast of Mexico a few years back… he walked in the front door straight out to the deck and looked at the view & said “I’m SO coming back here!” (he’d barely gotten there at that point).

The Morning of his Death

The stories around the table on the deck at Olson’s home this weekend… in the hours after his death… poured out like water… often with tears…

Beyond the reflection of his genius… there was a great deal of talk about the sweetness… and the sincere craziness of the man we’d all known for so long.

The sweetness:The day Johnny came home from the hospital with his first-born daughter… carrying her straight to the piano… laying her down next to him… and playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”…

His wife said this morning “His gift was that kind of immediacy… his constant ability to look beyond… and above. His life was over the rainbow… a high different place… out of the box. It was so cool. He was interesting… a constant creator.”

John’s love for his family – and his friends – was profound.

His zaniness: If you didn’t really know him… there’s a good chance that meeting him for the first time – or even the third – you might not believe him.

Like Doc – in Back to the Future – he could be just a little too “out there”.

But once you knew him – you knew – it was no act.

The day he gave a presentation to a major account wearing one dress shoe & one tennis shoe. That was real. He was shocked when someone pointed it out.

He once showed up to mass with me… on a Friday morning… wearing spiderman pajama bottoms… and was mortified when I pointed it out. “These are pajamas?!” “Well… Johnny… I guess you could call them Spiderman pants… but why are you wearing Spiderman pants?” I remember he told me it was “almost Halloween.”

And the guy was a true adventurer… on another trip… I can tell you it was not our intent to be hitchhiking through the Sierra Madres… but on a long bike trip… and halfway up a gravel road on a mountain… we did, in fact, jump into the back of someone’s truck to get to the top of this mountain. Ten minutes into it we were saying to each other: “What the hell?! This was probably not a good idea.”

His Faith

John taught me a lot about success… and work ethic… and spontaneity… and passion… and family… and faith.

He is – honestly/singularly – among the most faithful people I’ve ever known.

We’ve had so many talks about faith.

Among our trips – an extraordinary visit to the Vatican…

Among his recent gifts to several friends – a bracelet ‘decant’ version of the rosary.

Among the most extraordinary experiences of my life – a mass this week at his home… as he was coming to terms – finally – with the inevitability of his death.

Even as he stood there, dying...

There was so much energy in that room…

So much – I don’t know what it was.


I believe for much of the last year Johnny believed he could will this cancer away.

He didn’t talk about it.

For many of us… that was frustrating.

And I knew, as his friend, if I prodded him about what was going on… he would shut down.

That was tough, too.

It was like a year in denial…

But I honestly don’t believe it’s accurate to say he was in “denial”… that’s subjective.

He didn’t deny the cancer was there.

He believed he could beat it.

It wasn’t until Tuesday (four days before his death) that he finally came to terms with the reality. “Too many lawyers agree,” he said. And then he joked… “Well, they tell me I have maybe 48 hours… that’s just enough time to cancel all my stuff.”

One year ago… on the day of his diagnosis, he told me through tears that he “got the cancer”. And he wasn’t sure what to do. He said “I honestly don’t know what to pray for here, Rick… I’ve only ever offered prayers of gratitude.”

It’s been hard these last many days… for those of us who have known and loved this man. But I am taking my last cue here from him.

My prayer – now – is in thanksgiving… in gratitude… for a long and extraordinary friendship… with a great and unusual man.

For more on John Olson, check out the company's web site here.

Kupchella's story on Olson's last musical recording venture is here.

And a very telling obituary from the Star Tribune is here.

And the St. Paul Pioneer Press adds some warm color around his "humor and kindness."

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