The Coolest Sellouts in Town
Edgy ads! Side projects with U2! A court fight with ex-clients! Gratuitous punctuation! It’s all part of the business plan for maverick ad firm Modernista!, whose founders are about to find out if the mainstream will line up to buy what they’re selling.
There has long been a perception that ad men, no matter how cocky or well compensated, are dogged by a sense of shame. At the end of the day, they use their artistic talents to sell rather than to create, and being able to pay the heating bills is cold comfort if it fails to secure the kind of respect afforded painters and novelists. Lance Jensen and Gary Koepke, cofounders of the boutique Boston advertising agency Modernista!, have heard this notion many times. And frankly, they find it boring. “There’s no selling out,” says Jensen. “It’s buying in, man.”
In the eight years since they launched Modernista!—yes, the exclamation point is officially part of the agency’s name—Jensen and Koepke have operated under the belief that art and commerce can not only coexist, but enrich each other: Dream up ads that people want to look at—clever, hip, visually arresting, aesthetically uncompromising—and the products will sell themselves. That belief serves as the company’s cornerstone, laid out in the mission statement on its website (a beautifully bizarre concoction featuring a two-headed owl, a floating brain, and a rusty clock nestled amid a garden of menacing-looking plants). “We believe that advertising is more an art than a science and that truly great creative work is priceless in today’s cluttered market of parity products,” it proclaims. “Our goal is to work with a select group of clients who love and appreciate great advertising as much as we do and who truly want our help building their brand.” Lest the message be missed, the pronouncement carries this heading: “Modernista! Is Not for Everyone.”
Despite the unwelcoming—if not downright pompous—tone, the company has in its short life attracted an impressive roster of A-list clients, including MTV, the Gap, the Travel Channel, Napster, and Avon. In 2003, the Wall Street Journal named one of Modernista!’s commercials for Hummer among the best of the year. The cheeky campaign later played a role in convincing the car company’s parent, General Motors, to ditch Leo Burnett, the agency that essentially had been handling Cadillac since 1935, and hand its $240 million account to Modernista!, helping to spike the agency’s 2006 billing ($700 million) and revenue ($70 million) by 56 percent.
As if to play up the idea that they are more cerebral art collective than shilling station, Jensen and Koepke also tackle a range of eclectic extracurricular projects. In 2006, they produced a widely praised video for U2; in 2007, they were the surprising choice to oversee the redesign of BusinessWeek (they’d never done anything like that before). This year, they’re putting together a package of visuals for the British trance DJ Paul Oakenfold.
To handle all the work, the exclamatory agency has ballooned from 25 to 164 employees, some of whom toil in an office opened in the Netherlands to help feed Hummer’s European campaign. Not bad for a little shop parked about 200 miles north of Madison Avenue, but it does raise a question: Just how far can you “buy in” without dulling your edge?
If Jensen, 45, and Koepke, 52, are overwhelmed by the volume of work and the ferocious pace, they are good at masking it. Koepke is unrelentingly calm and polite, and Jensen’s gruffness (he answers most questions by aggressively doodling on a magazine and issuing grunted replies) seems more about posturing than early-stage burnout. At the agency’s headquarters on Kingston Street in Chinatown—open loft workspace, worn hardwood floors, gargantuan windows—the two, along with president Clift Jones (he handles the business side of things), preside over a dorm-room atmosphere replete with a beer tap, which was dispensing Stella Artois during my visit last October. Though at least 20 years older than many of their employees, the Modernista! cofounders easily blend in with their staff, Jensen sporting a zippered pullover sweater and patchy facial stubble, Koepke wearing a hooded blue sweatshirt and arty square-framed glasses. They riff with each other in an effortless, well-worn patter.
Still, there is no denying the pressures of the business. On a broad scale, the realities of TiVo, the Internet, infomercials, and the gnatlike attention span of the average American viewer have made it a challenge for ad agencies to influence consumers, and to convince clients to fork over wads of cash for their services. When Jensen and Koepke felt they were not fairly compensated for work they had done for the shoe company Rockport, they decided to take the matter to court, leading to a virtually unprecedented suit/countersuit (but more on that later). Closer to home, Jensen and Koepke are confronted with quality-control issues stemming from the agency’s growing staff and client portfolio. “We don’t do everything,” says Jensen, “but we watch everything to make sure it doesn’t get screwed up. ‘Cause it gets screwed up pretty quickly.” Later, discussing the difficulties of getting the right team in place, Koepke sums things up with a copywriter’s efficiency. “We’re not a teaching hospital,” he says. “We’re an emergency room.”
Like any image-conscious hipster, Modernista! built its reputation partly through its taste in music. In their spots, Jensen and Koepke have used songs by Badly Drawn Boy, Lush, and LFO. For the indisputably fusty client TIAA-CREF, they employed an obscure Bob Mould song from 1989. Some of their current Cadillac commercials feature a tune from a band called Hum. “Yeah, like, who heard of Hum? Eighteen people,” brags Jensen.
Koepke, a musician himself, spent time in the 1990s as a designer for magazines including Musician and Spin, and was the original creative director for Vibe. In the late 1990s, he worked as a creative director for Oregon-based Wieden + Kennedy, and helped the firm open its New York office. Jensen, meanwhile, was a creative director at Boston titan Arnold Worldwide, where he dreamed up the legendary “Sunday Afternoon” spot for the Volkswagen Golf. (You remember it: Two slackers drive around, picking up discarded furniture from the street as they go, to the tune of German band Trio’s “Da Da Da.”) Jensen and Koepke, who had first met a decade earlier, decided to strike out on their own, telling Adweek they were dedicated to nothing less than establishing “the first ad agency of the new millennium.”