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.”

In 2001, after just a year in business, Modernista! was named Adweek‘s New England Agency of the Year. The honor resulted in part from the duo’s work for one of their first clients, MTV. The marriage of startup agency and music network was a logical blend of sensibilities. Modernista! spun the cable channel as an, um, STD, in ads asking such immortal questions as “Can I get MTV from kissing?” and “I’m itchy. Do I have MTV?” Jensen and Koepke went on to craft equally memorable spots for the Gap, one of which featured a pre-superstar Will Ferrell crooning, painfully, in his best Neil Diamond imitation, “Forever in Blue Jeans.”

If those enjoyable-on-their-own-merits commercials made Modernista! stand out in the tradition-bound Boston ad world, it was what the agency accomplished for Hummer that earned international notice. Modernista! got the job based partially on Jensen’s working relationship with Liz Vanzura, who was with Volkswagen when he did the Golf campaign. Having graduated to global marketing director at Hummer, she hired Modernista! at a moment when the giant SUVs could most generously be described as polarizing, known primarily as a
sworn enemy of the environment, and the vehicular version of a triple-chinned glutton on his 14th trip to the buffet table. Modernista! shifted that perception with disarmingly clever spots. A 2003 ad, dubbed “Big Race,” depicts a young boy—a future Hummer owner, obviously—at a soapbox derby cutting his own trail to the finish while the rest of the pack pathetically races down the path of convention. In another, broadcast only once, during the 2006 Super Bowl, a Godzillian monster mates with a robot to spawn a chunky red Hummer. Vanzura recalls that the Modernista! guys cycled through hundreds of songs for “Big Race,” everything from Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” finally settling on the Who’s “Happy Jack.” Evidence suggests the attention to detail paid off: In 2000, GM sold fewer than 1,000 Hummers; by 2006, after the Modernista! ads had sunk in, that number had jumped to more than 70,000.

Viewed against the backdrop of its corporate ad work, Modernista!’s penchant for dabbling in lower-profile, less-lucrative pursuits calls to mind the Hollywood actor who accepts roles in blockbusters only so he can afford to take on creatively fulfilling indie projects. If you’ve found yourself rubbernecking at the anti-handgun-violence billboard on the Mass. Pike, the one that resembles a ransom note from the NRA and reads, “We have your President & Congress,” you were admiring Modernista!’s handiwork. You can also thank—or blame—the firm for the phrase “be a good-looking Samaritan,” hatched as a tagline for ads promoting Product (Red), the pet project of U2 frontman Bono in which consumers buy products from specially designated companies, with a fraction of each purchase going to help fight AIDS/HIV in Africa. Though it’s drawn some criticism for suggesting that the consumption of T-shirts and hoodies can solve a global health epidemic, the (Red) campaign landed Modernista! another side project: the video for U2’s “Window in the Skies.” It took a small team nearly four months, and about 2,500 hours of work, to create the clip (much of it done by Max Koepke, Gary’s 26-year-old son, who is employed as a video editor), which shows a scrum of diverse musicians—including Frank Zappa, Nat “King” Cole, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra, and Mary J. Blige—digitally stitched together to create a time-and-space-defying jam session.

Last October, the ever flexible agency unveiled its redesign for BusinessWeek. Modernista! got the gig after Koepke heard the weekly was angling to create a supplement, but had run out of pitch money. So Modernista! knocked together a few ideas, gratis, and won the job, naming the supplement In. Their decision to work for free earned them no love among graphic design firms, who depend on such assignments for their livelihood, but it went over so well with the editors at BusinessWeek that they asked Koepke and Jensen to redesign the whole magazine. So far, the look they came up with—a rehabbed logo, streamlined pages that are easier for busy readers to skim—has earned plaudits from the magazine’s brass. But the reviews from change-averse readers have been decidedly mixed. “Congratulations,” sneers one post on the magazine’s website. “Every page looks like an advertisement. You’ve been conned. Talk about being on the cutting edge. You’ve been filleted.”

Though Modernista! originally worked for BusinessWeek on spec, Jensen and Koepke are careful to keep their bottom line in sight. Their fight with Rockport, which became public last June, started when they sued the company over nonpayment, alleging the Canton-based shoemaker neglected to pay them for work they did while negotiating a contract extension. Convinced that the talks would result in a new deal, Modernista! had continued to work on Rockport ads throughout the process, which began at the end of 2006. But on February 27, 2007, reported that Rockport was tapping Hill, Holliday as its new ad shop. The next day, Modernista! was fired. The agency is reportedly seeking $500,000; Rockport has returned the favor by filing countersuit, claiming it was Modernista! that breached the contract (the case is still pending). For the ad firm, getting into such a flap was, to say the least, an unconventional move: In advertising, agencies are more or less expected to kowtow to a company’s whims, and rarely risk alienating future clients. But if the lawsuit scared off any potential business, it also helped counteract any sense that Modernista! was drifting mainstream, preserving the maverick image that is, after all, the agency’s big selling point. Matthew Creamer, an editor at large with AdvertisingAge, applauds Jensen and Koepke’s decision. “I think it’s a stupid ethos,” he says of the prevailing mustn’t-upset-the-client mentality. “I don’t think that it’s a good way to run a business.”

While Modernista! has been tangling with Rockport, some of its initial work for Cadillac (where it was brought in by—who else?—Liz Vanzura, now director of global marketing there) hit a few bumps. A spot for the 2008 Escalade featuring Bob Dylan driving on a desert road and the tagline “Life. Liberty. And the Pursuit.” brought a heap of criticism, the chief complaint being that Dylan distracted from the product; rumors spread that Cadillac dealers were anxious about the spot and its ability to actually help move cars. Another commercial, for Cadillac’s 2008 CTS model—which has been redesigned with sports car looks—stars Kate Walsh, the redheaded actress from Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, purring, “When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?” Which, in turn, prompted bloggers—it sometimes can seem as if there’s a whole subculture of Modernista! watchers out there—to note the similarity to a line Sylvania used in a late-’90s ad: “When you turn on the bedroom light, does it return the favor?”

In general, though, reaction to the Walsh spot has been a lot more positive: AdvertisingAge slobbered that it “sounds like an ad for a $40,000 vibrator,” and in a good way. And the overall popularity of the ads seems likely to convince Cadillac to give Jensen and Koepke time to complete the image jolt for which they were hired. The only question is where that’ll leave Modernista! when they’re done. Back when they launched the agency, Jensen joked with Adweek that they were doing it in part because he didn’t think he had another car commercial in him. Today, with Modernista! having drafted an actress from middlebrow prime-time TV to help hock Caddies, you wonder: Have they sold out—sorry, bought in—or just grown up?