Making Human Connections in a Technology-Driven Market

Making Human Connections in a Technology-Driven Market

10 Twin Cities marketing agencies recommend how to break through the communications clutter.

For creative marketing agencies and their clients, technology has been both a boon and a bane. The digital realm has opened up new markets and ways to reach potential customers.

It’s given marketers and clients ever-improving tools for understanding and reaching buyers and consumers. Personalized mail, social media, retargeting, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data are providing new insights into the buying process. 

But the online marketplace also presents challenges. There are so many messages out there that it can give companies the illusion that they know more about their market than they really do. Turmoil in the retail arena is one prominent example. Once-invincible stores are forced to reinvent themselves for the digital consumer or risk bankruptcy.

Talk to local marketing agencies and the main challenge most will bring up is this: How to make human connections in a technology-driven marketplace. Nearly all businesses are looking to connect with new customers or strengthen the connections they have with existing ones.

“Artificial intelligence and data can take you only so far,” says Joe Monnens, executive creative director at ICF Olson. “The human element is what makes marketing relevant to people.” Margaret Murphy, CEO and founder of a new agency called Bold Orange, observes that “technology developments have done away with the personal touch. The next moves will be to add human interactions back into the mix.”

In other words, traditional advertising has become just one of the options creative marketing agencies can use to help clients build business and brand awareness. Events, printed materials, in-store experiences, products and online content are all in the toolbox. TCB asked leaders at 10 Minneapolis-based agencies what strategies they recommend and trends they see for this year. They offered the following insights for businesses.

Margaret Murphy
CEO and Founder
Bold Orange

Murphy, a former president of Minneapolis agency ICF Olson, officially launched Bold Orange early this year. Her goal: “Modernizing the loyalty and customer relationship management (CRM) industry. Brands want more personalized and one-to-one communications, but the industry is anchored in points, programs and transactional emails.” Look to Murphy’s agency to focus on new approaches to customer loyalty programs, her area of creative expertise.


  • Create personalized moments of meaning—blend common sense, insight, creativity and technology to reach people in their fullest context in an engaging way.
  • Make every interaction feel right, easy and welcomed.
  • Create a road map to streamline your infrastructure costs and shift budget dollars into more of what the consumer sees and feels.


  • Augmented reality becomes more mainstream and it becomes social.
  • We’ll see a renewed focus on the planning and designing of triggered communications with more common sense.
  • The renaissance of the personal touch. Recently, technology developments have done away with the personal touch. The next moves will be to add human interactions back into the mix.
  • Nonprofit loyalty will take on new meaning.

Marty Senn
Chief creative officer and managing partner
Carmichael Lynch

“We call ourselves full-service, which really just means ‘we do all of the things,’ ” Senn says. That includes creative, strategy, public relations, social, data and analytics, and all manner of production. Its clients include Subaru, U.S. Bank and Jack Link’s.


There’s no set playbook that we trot out for our partners, and no one-size-fits-all solution. We really rally around what their unique challenges and opportunities are and look to see how we can creatively give them an unfair advantage in the marketplace.


Brands are talking a lot more about purpose and their mission, looking to connect with people on a values level. And while certainly not a new trend, how brands connect with people on their phones will get smarter and smarter and be more relevant than ever.

Christine Fruechte
Colle McVoy

Colle McVoy is best known for its integrated marketing work in the agribusiness, food and beverage, pet care and travel industries, though it also has clients in travel, outdoor lifestyle and health. Its mix of local, national and international clients includes 3M, Land O’Lakes and Hershey.


  • The moment brands stop seeking what’s next, growth or even survival for that matter, they are at risk.
  • Don’t think “path to purchase.” Think “ease to purchase.” It’s all about making things simple, fast and intuitive.
  • Mix things up. In a sea of tried-and-true strategies and tactics, creativity can be a true differentiator.
  • Bring your brand to life in the total consumer experience—everything you make, do and say.


Issues regarding digital transformation, transparency, AI, data and automation will continue to vex brand marketers. Based on this, marketers should:

  • Create differentiating customer experiences.
  • Harness the power of empowered machines and partner with digital platforms to influence consumer behavior.
  • Make brands more human-like.

Doug deGrood
Creative director
Gabriel deGrood Bendt (GdB)

GdB doesn’t specialize in a particular industry. Summit Brewing, Park Dental and Anytime Fitness are in its client portfolio, which is roughly two-thirds in Minnesota, one-third out of state. GdB is now part of Clear Night, a group of Minneapolis marketing agencies that includes Ackmann & Dickenson and Modern Climate.


Today there might be a need for native advertising or event marketing or a virtual reality (VR) strategy. Tomorrow, who knows? We’re holistic, idea-first marketers. It’s still about brands engaging people—not consumers, people—with the right message or content at the right time. There’s so much “me too” content and noise out there that people are going ad-blind.


I see a return to breakthrough, memorable campaign ideas. Data and retargeting have consumed much of our industry’s attention over the past several years. That work is important and will obviously continue. But I think we forgot that we’re talking to unpredictable, emotionally driven human beings. People are inspired by brands that tell insightful, cool stories. Facts aren’t enough.

Joe Monnens
Executive creative director
ICF Olson

From its founding as a tiny shop a quarter-century ago, ICF Olson is now Minnesota’s largest agency, with 800 employees in 14 offices in the U.S., Canada and India. Its services include advertising and public relations, loyalty programs, customer relationship marketing (CRM) and social media. Its regional and national clients have included Amtrak, Target and Bauer hockey equipment.


We talk to our partners about how their brand needs to create impact, while making experiences that are engaging, helpful and memorable. It’s not about the impressions—it’s about making an impression. Our goal is to help our clients immerse themselves in the day-to-day needs of their core audience so that we can drive cultural moments that matter, big and small.


As cause marketing and transparency become more important, brands need to show that they’re here for the greater good. Voice will give a more emotional mindset to narrative this year, and we’ll continue to home in on how we utilize it in ways that are genuinely helpful.

Joe Cecere
President and chief creative officer
Little & Co.

Little is an independent design and branding agency specializing in brand strategy, identity and naming, communications campaigns, employee engagement and experience design. Clients include Target, U.S. Bank, Gap and Habitat for Humanity International.


When people are watching more than ever, your brand has an opportunity to share a story that is uniquely yours. Discover the heart and soul of your organization and share it in a way that authentically engages your employees and customers. Try something new. Just make sure it’s right for your brand and bring it to life at every touch point.


People are going to make buying decisions based on what a company stands for, now more than ever. That kind of attitude creates a big opportunity for brands looking to shift their customer perceptions for the better. The positive twist you take on what’s happening in our culture is key to standing out.

Jim Scott
Co-founder and managing partner

This Uptown Minneapolis shop, whose capabilities include advertising, social media, digital content and design, is growing beyond its original “boutique” moniker thanks to a recently opened second office in San Francisco. Clients include Google, Walmart and Krave snacks.


Traditional marketing objectives of awareness and preference are no longer enough to drive growth. We’re placing our emphasis on utilizing data analysis and strategic rigor to truly understand consumer behavior to inform our creative development. We marry this with the right balance of emotionally resonant creative delivered to the right people at the right time in order to build preference and drive action.


There will be a continuation of the rapid pace of change within the media landscape, led by the growing power of social media and shift to mobile devices. We believe this complexity will only increase the pressure on brands to focus on a singular, simple message that can translate across any medium.

Matt Kucharski

Once solely a public relations shop, Padilla now includes advertising, marketing strategy and social/digital marketing in its mix. It currently has seven offices across the U.S., serving clients in food, health, agribusiness, manufacturing, technology, financial services and other industries. These include Bayer, Xcel Energy and Mayo Clinic.


Business strategy drives marketing strategy, and marketing strategy drives creative strategy; it can’t be the other way around. We’re advising our clients to be “strategically creative” by making sure that creative ideas and approaches are based on research and insights. That might sound a little bit boring, but truly great marketing strategies don’t just grab attention; they transform the business.


There are real opportunities around continued sophistication in influencer marketing—the idea that we as consumers are more likely to seek advice from people we trust vs. the brands themselves. Ironically that’s the foundation of public relations. I also see increased momentum for stakeholder mapping—understanding which people are truly important to your success and determining the best way to build a network around them.

Liz Ross
President and CEO

Ross describes Periscope as “a creative agency that can help brands reach connected consumers and make sure that the messaging feels consistent at every touch point.” It has offices in Minneapolis, Chicago, Delhi, Toronto and Hong Kong, and a client portfolio that includes the Minnesota Twins, Great Clips and DreamWorks.


We are focusing our clients on doing things, not just ads, that actual people love. This means a focus on utility and content that is engaging and unique. We are busy reinventing retail, turning packaging into a digital experience and connecting with people in new and different ways. We always advise our clients to push harder and fail faster.


The most interesting marketing trends will be the evolution of voice as a user interface, the focus on the in-store retail experience and the evolution beyond the app. All three of these are different but interconnected and speak to our increased desire as people to connect. Technology is becoming more human, and humans are more accepting of technology.

Marcia Miller

StoneArch specializes in health marketing for clients in pharmaceuticals, medical technology and health insurance, among others. Services include brand strategy, creative, content development and digital for local and national clients including Medtronic and ProVation.


We wouldn’t begin to assume that one marketing strategy fits for all of our clients. We work hard to make sure that the work we do is personal, authentic and aligned to the uniqueness of each client and each business challenge. The focused work we do within the health industry helps us to uncover trends in marketing strategies and pass those insights along to our clients.


The one that we’re most passionate about is the continued trend around content creation and distribution—especially inside of the health space. Consumers and providers will continue to turn to digital channels for content. But they have very different needs from both a practical and emotional perspective that must be considered when creating that content.

Gene Rebeck is a Duluth-based freelance journalist who writes monthly for Twin Cities Business.