Terrific Two

For about five months, Lance Jensen and Gary Koepke would meet for sandwiches and strategy sessions at an outdoor cafe in downtown Boston. Jen sen, an evp at nearby Arnold, and Koepke, a freelancer at Heater Adver tising, debated the pros and cons of opening their own shop.

“We used to discuss starting a business together and whether or not we should take the risk,” says Koepke. “From the beginning we knew we wanted to build a large agency and become relevant in the advertising community regionally, nationally and internationally. The one thing we didn’t know was how fast things would happen.”

In fact, Modernista! came into its own almost overnight.

Just two years after its launch, the independent shop now claims $60 million in billings and nearly $10 million in revenue. More impressively, Mod ern ista! has supplanted larger, more established players such as Arnold, Mul len and Hill, Holliday, Con nors, Cos mop ulos as New England’s creative standard-bearer. Mem orable efforts for the Gap, MTV, Gen eral Motors’ Hummer and Roxio were among the most talked-about campaigns of the year.

For generating more excitement, conversation, noteworthy campaigns and significant client victories than any other regional agency in 2001, Modern ista! is Adweek’s New England Agency of the Year.

It was January 2000 when Koepke, 43, and Jensen, 38, went ahead with their plans and launched Modernista! in 5,000 square feet of dusty loft space in Bos ton’s China town district. The two friends built up the agency using their reputations as a springboard.

Jensen had been a copywriter at Arnold, helping to craft the award-winning “Drivers wanted” campaign for Volks wagen of America, including such well-remembered ’90s work as the “Da Da Da” spot (with two bored dudes in their Golf picking up and then discarding an old, smelly chair). Art director Koepke had worked as a creative director at Wie den + Kennedy—on campaigns for Coca-Cola, ESPN and Nike—and helped set up the Portland, Ore., agency’s New York office. He later served as a design consultant, with clients including Vibe magazine and rec ord label Rykodisc.

Jensen and Koepke started with a project from sneaker company Airwalk, and The Travel Channel and MTV soon followed. It wasn’t long before Modern ista! was establishing itself as New Eng land’s fastest-growing agency, with high-profile campaigns that generated national attention. Along with cornerstone client the Gap, the shop’s roster also includes Avon, Converse and Ross ignol. Controversial work for MTV won best of show at the Francis W. Hatch Awards, the region’s top creative showcase and the only awards show the agency entered last year.

“Modernista! is an extraordinary creative shop,” says Liz Vanzura, director of advertising and sales promotions at GM’s Hummer. “They have enormous talent, and they work very well with us as partners on brand development.”

The Boston shop’s once-barren office is now bursting with nearly 50 employees. The office’s laid-back appearance mirrors the personality of the staff. It’s packed with funky artwork, lighted candles and potted flowers, and new-age music wafts over the sound system. The people seem more like close friends than co-workers.

“[Modernista!] feels like a big family. It’s got its own energy,” says Koepke. “It’s like a strong immune system.”

Modernista! began 2001 with some modest goals. “We wanted to hang on to [existing clients] GM’s Hummer and the Gap, and sign one significant piece of business,” says Koepke. With Avon and Converse joining late in the year—following reviews in which Modernista! bested undisclosed competitors—the agency ended 2001 with two significant new accounts.

In going after new business, Mod ern ista! isn’t afraid to take on some of the best-known names in the business—and it isn’t afraid to occasionally fail. “Every pitch is an opportunity to see what this place can do,” says Jensen.

The shop defeated Hill, Hol liday, among others, for Rossignol; Pyro Brand Development and McCann-Erick son for GM Hummer; and Cris pin Porter + Bogusky and DiNoto Lee for MTV.

The agency came up short twice in 2001. When the Massachusetts Depart ment of Public Health Tobacco Control Program launched a mandated review last summer, Modernista! decided to challenge the heavily favored incumbent, Arnold.

“I considered that to be [for experience],” says Jensen. “I thought, let’s go through the motions and see if we’re capable of dealing with an RFP that’s complicated.” Arnold kept the business, but Modernista!’s executives say the experience was invaluable.

The agency also lost out to D-Rush of New York for Sauza tequila, but it did earn a final-round berth.

On the creative front, Modernista!’s spring, fall and holiday efforts for San Francisco-based retailer the Gap fused pop music, an intriguing mix of celebrities and arty visual touches to help define the client as a hip purveyor of stylish fashions. The Gap effort—like Jensen’s Volks wagen work a few years ago—has permeated the cultural consciousness, meriting spoofs from David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.

“The Gap has a history of working with the best creative talent in the industry, and Modernista! certainly upholds that standard,” says Peter Hempel, evp of marketing at the Gap. “Together we’re proud of the recognition that Gap adver tising continues to get from the advertising community, the press and our customers.”

One spot showed soulful R&B singer Cherokee performing a version of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Jensen’s fascination with Daft Punk, the French dance-music duo that dresses up like robots, led to the band’s appearance in a spot with actress Juliette Lewis. Holiday spots for the Gap featured rock stars young and old doing their takes on Supertramp’s “Give a Little Bit.” Seal, Alanis Morissette, Dwight Yoa kam, Robbie Robertson, Liz Phair and others appear in the spots wearing Gap sweaters. The tagline: “Give your gift.”

Modernista! is now developing the Gap’s spring campaign, set to debut in mid-March. “Because it’s an international brand, there’s high visibility,” says Koepke, the point man on the Gap account. “There’s always fresh work out there.”

Fresh work in 2001 from Modern ista! also included a multimedia campaign for MTV that compared the music network to a contagious disease. The campaign was tagged, “We’re watching.” It was the agency’s first work for the client and it caused some controversy—one execution, featuring a close-up of tongue-kissing teenagers, was banished from Bos ton’s public-transit system.

“What’s hard now is that the bar is way up,” says Koepke. “You don’t want to be worse than the year before.”

To sustain the momentum, Koepke has a simple plan. “We’ll hire the best people in the business,” he says, “and do everything we can to do great work for our clients.”

STATISTICS

BILLINGS
Up 120 percent to $60 million (est.)

Revenue
Up 120 percent to $10 million (est.)

Win/Loss Pitch Ratio
3 out of 5

Accounts Won/Media Budget*
Avon/$10-20 million
Converse/$5-10 million
Rossignol/$1-2 million

Accounts Lost
None

Highlights
Became the Gap’s lead creative shop for national broadcast, print and outdoor; staff more than quadrupled, from 12 to 50; Will Uronis and Shane Hutton added as second senior creative team.

*Only largest accounts included.
Sources: Adweek, agency reports and CMR