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

ByBruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
September 11, 2008, 11:53 AM

BOSTON -- 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.

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

When Oakenfold's 2008 World Tour began, the DJ didn't just cart around a lot of high-tech equipment. He also brought along kaleidoscope-like images of colorful landscapes and cosmic people that blend with the music — images created by Modernista.

Modernista is widely known for linking music from often-obscure artists with compelling visuals in its TV spots. That attracted Oakenfold's attention.

Here are some things they've done for key advertisers:


Hummer sales are plummeting — down nearly 60% this year — but nobody's blaming the ad agency.

To the contrary, Modernista's ads arguably made Hummer the envy-mobile back in 2000. It may be best known for a 2006 Super Bowl ad for Hummer with two monsters — a towering robot and a Godzilla-like creature — that happily spawn a red Hummer.

"Lance and Gary have a passion for the car business," says Liz Vanzura, who oversaw marketing at Hummer and then Cadillac, where she hired them.

"What makes Modernista different is that they focus on understanding the real business issues."

The agency founders are realists about potentially losing the Hummer business after GM finally unloads its fast-sinking division that's now openly on the block.

"If it goes away," Jensen says, "we'll have to make a new baby."


All Modernista did for Cadillac was resurrect its image, make its redesigned CTS rollout a hit and get consumers buzzing about the brand.

After the work Modernista had done for Hummer, it's no surprise that Cadillac approached Modernista when Vanzura was named its marketing chief.

Good decision: The new CTS had double-digit sales growth for the first eight months after the launch. "Dealers started to see import-oriented buyers shopping in the Cadillac showroom," says Vanzura, who recently left GM.

Modernista opted to celebrate the word Cadillac. And, of course, it got Walsh to coo for Caddie.

Walsh has a new line in upcoming ads, but Modernista execs won't say boo about it, yet.

Odds are, it'll be a hottie.

Asked what Walsh has done for Cadillac, Jensen — before singing her praises — ponders a moment then turns the question around: "Isn't the real question: What has Cadillac done for Kate Walsh?"

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