Ad agency Modernista relies on out-of-the-box thinking

This story was originally published on Aug. 11, 2008.

The two guys whose quirky ad agency creates ads for Hummer and Cadillac don't figure their future is in advertising.

The future is in ideas, say Gary Koepke and Lance Jensen, co-founders of Modernista. (More on that off-the-wall name later.)

At Modernista, those wacky ideas are remolding the agency from a place to go for ads to a place to seek out a magazine revamp, an instant infusion of online creativity or even a jammin' rock video. With most of Madison Avenue tanking in the Internet age, and Modernista's biggest client, GM, squeezing for cost cuts, perhaps it's time everyone took notice.

"This business is no longer about just creating things," says Koepke, the co-founder widely known for his artistic eye. "It's about conceptualizing ideas — kind of like a think tank."

These ideas have begun to decouple from ads that appear on TV screens or in magazines.

When U2 went scouting for someone to create its Window in the Skies video, it didn't pluck some sunglasses-wearing Hollywood director. It knocked on Modernista's door. The video is a collection of music greats apparently singing as one from Elvis to Frank Sinatra to The Beatles.

Earlier this year, Modernista oversaw the redesign of BusinessWeek magazine that resulted in an unexpected sales uptick.

Should you ever attend a concert where super-cool British trance DJ Paul Oakenfold is spinning tunes, it's a good bet that those cosmic computer visuals on the big screen are Modernista's.

And Modernista just won a key Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gig. Executives say it's not an advertising assignment. Yes, it's for the organization's global health initiative. But it won't be ads, says agency President Clift Jones.

Such non-traditional stuff is 25% of the firm's business, and it could be 50% within five years, Koepke says. Modernista sees the future, and it ain't 30-second TV spots.

Its wild website — a virtual window of how the social-networking world views the agency — is turning heads in Ad Land.

Go to its website and you don't see a site, but a transparent vision of what everyone else out there has to say about Modernista. Instead of an agency site rich with hype, it takes you directly to what social sites Wikipedia and YouTube have to say about Modernista.

"It may be meant to scare away clients we don't want to work with," Jensen says with a smile.

Its ads are as brash as its site.

These are the guys who — before global warming was a household world — made Hummer a must-have for the ego-obsessed. "They took a limited-production military weapon and made it fun without losing all of its naughtiness in the process," says admirer Jeff Goodby, co-founder of rival agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

Hummer has since become the poster child for global warming's evil. (More on that, later, too.)

This also is the agency that got actress Kate Walsh, star of ABC's Grey's Anatomy, to sit in a Cadillac and utter in her sexiest voice, "When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?"

Ad historians may some day point to that moment as the very nanosecond when Cadillac's image popped a cultural wheelie.

Modernista never dreamed of having clients like Cadillac or Hummer — or of helping to lead the ad world's evolution away from conventional media — when Koepke and Jensen started the agency eight years ago on one floor of a warehouse that borders Boston's Chinatown district.

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