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

Nor did they have any notion that their billings would eventually rocket near today's $900 million. (Agencies with billings over $1 billion have hit the big league.)

All they really wanted was to create ads on their own terms. But with a tiny staff and cramped offices in a onetime garment factory, that seemed quite a stretch.

Clients came anyway. Among them, brands with the hippest or wanna-be hippest of images: Gap. MTV. Napster. Converse.

Each of those clients has moved on — as restless, cool-craving brands do — but Modernista has replaced them with more than GM's fleets of gas-guzzling Hummers and Caddies.

Modernista did the unthinkable: It filed a $500,000 lawsuit last year against its client, shoemaker Rockport, while working for it. The lawsuit claimed Rockport wasn't paying for work. They've since parted ways. Regardless of who wins, the lawsuit is a clear message that few agencies dare to deliver to clients: Don't mess with us.

Still, clients come. Modernista creates ads for the Bono-inspired Product Red campaign, which gives some profits to fight AIDS. It's behind the offbeat financial-services ads for TIAA-Cref — with little-known singers crooning Somewhere from West Side Story.

Modernista's offices are wacko. You take a freight elevator to get in. Employees sit playing chess in the middle of one workroom. An eclectic CD library lines a wall of one floor.

And what about the agency's over-the-top name? "We made it up," says Jensen, "only to find out it was a real word." It means one who subscribes to the tenets of the modernism movement.

Unlike most ad agencies, which — like law firms — tend to be named after their founders, Modernista clearly is not.

"It's by far the best of company names that don't involve names of real people," says Goodby. "Wait," he jests, "is someone there named Modernista?"

Nope. A far better choice the name Modernista was than the one that finished just below it: Groop. (Right: like Group, but spelled in a forced-groovy way.)

Of course, it's not the name that matters, right? It's the stuff. And these guys are becoming as well-known for the gee-whiz stuff they do for clients who aren't coming to them for advertising as those who do.

Here are some things they've done for non-advertisers:

U2 video

Modernista got its hands into a hot rock video.

Bono, who worked with Modernista on the Product Red campaign — and loved the work — tapped them for this, too.

Getting approvals from famous musicians was a feat. But Bono nudged reps for The Beatles, Elvis, and Frank Sinatra to sign on.

A team of Modernista workers spent more than four months on the project. But it landed images of everyone from Nat King Cole to Jimi Hendrix to Frank Zappa in a wild jam-like session.

'BusinessWeek' redesign

The BusinessWeek redesign that Modernista oversaw late last year was a natural for the agency, Koepke says. "A message like BusinessWeek's front cover is their advertisement," he says.

Executives at BusinessWeek were blown away by the redo.

"We don't think of them as an ad agency," says Stephen Adler, editor-in-chief at BusinessWeek. "To us, they have a very interesting design department that happens to be inside an ad agency."

Adler says the results speak for themselves. At a time of steep sales declines for most magazines, it eked out a 1% circulation gain during the first six months of 2008.

DJ computer images

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