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.

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?