Boston boutique Modernista!, which created edgy campaigns for the better part of a decade, officially signs off Friday, victim to what executive creative director Gary Koepke calls "a perfect storm" of broad economic factors and business missteps.
The shop has been winding down in the wake of co-founder Lance Jensen’s departure for Hill, Holiday, Connors, Cosmopulos late last year. "To be honest, the decision [to close] was made a couple of months ago," said Koepke, who acknowledged in March he was considering shutting its doors but also suggested he might rebrand it instead.
The rise and fall of the shop reads something like a lesson in the dangers of over-reliance on one core client.
Modernista! work, much of it for GM accounts, fueled the agency's growth from just Jensen and Koepke at its founding in 2000 to about 180 staffers in 2008. But the shop suffered crippling blows in 2009 and 2010 when GM sold Hummer as the auto industry collapsed, then moved its Cadillac business to Bartle Bogle Hegarty. According to Koepke, Modernista! failed to cut staff quickly enough or aggressively pursue new business to remain profitable. "I think we kept believing that we'd bounce back," he said.
Jensen jumped ship in December, and other departures followed. "I didn't have any advance notice of him leaving," said Koepke, who called the move a "bit of a jolt," but said he doesn't fault his former partner in the least. "I knew that he wasn't happy, but it wasn't like we sat around and planned" the exit.
Modernista’s portfolio also included projects for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, BusinessWeek, and Sears. Even less successful campaigns had a tendency to draw attention. In 2009, tech blogs branded spots for Palm "creepy." The agency lost the account in 2010.
Koepke said only about 10 employees remain and that he would wrap up the last of its client work in mid-May, calling the 11-year ride "a great time" and praising the talent he oversaw throughout.
As for his future plans, he wouldn't rule out joining a big shop, but emphasized he'd take some time off before making any moves. But he added, "I'll be back."