When Lance Jensen and Gary Koepke, the co-founders of Boston startup Modernista!, were preparing to make final presentations this spring to MTV Networks in a bid to win its $8 million branding assignment, they chose an unusual "focus group" to test their creative ideas.
They showed their work to Koepke's school-aged son and daughter, who gave it a thumbs-up. The result?
Modernista! prevailed over the more established DiNoto Lee, New York, and Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami.
"They're our creative directors," Jensen says of the younger generation. Koepke begged to differ, insisting that his kids and Jensen's--a boy and girl each under 2-years-old--are the agency's "majority owners," since every dollar it makes is spent on them.
Copywriter Jensen, 36, left Arnold Communications at the beginning of the year. There he helped create the famed "Drivers wanted" campaign for Volkswagen.
Citing a need to try something "fun and risky" and joking he didn't have another car ad in him after five years on VW, he joined Koepke, 42, former Wieden+Kennedy executive and longtime friend.
Once they joined forces, an agency name was essential. Modernista "really is a word," Jensen insists. Roughly translated from the Latin, it means: "one who subscribes to the tenets of modernism" and best describes the 12-person startup's creative approach and philosophy. The exclamation point provides a "revolutionary" feel, Jensen adds. (In fact, the Sandinistas were a left-wing Nicaraguan rebel group whose name inspired a 1980 album by the Clash: Sandinista!)
But how do these two define modern, revolutionary advertising? Terms like "fresh," "new" and "fluid" quickly came to mind--with the "Drivers wanted" campaign a prime example. Jensen points out: "If you have to ask," you're probably not on his wavelength.
Work from Modernista! has yet to appear. MTV and The Travel Channel--acquired in a pitch against undisclosed contenders--are the agency's only publicly announced clients. Brand-building efforts for both clients are due this summer.
Ads are being developed through a seven-step approach called "brand enlightenment." This means Jensen and Koepke view companies as individuals with specific needs, desires and problems, then fashion specific solutions to help firms achieve their goals. A comparison can be drawn to Arnold's much-ballyhooed "brand essence" method of distilling the true identity of a client through focus groups and in-depth research.
Jensen's claim to fame, of course, is his hip distillation of Volkswagen's brand essence in campaigns which won virtually every creative award around, from Addys to Cannes to Clio to Hatch, a New England regional show, much prized for bragging rights in Boston's close-knit
Concocted by Jensen, Arnold chief creative officer Ron Lawner and evp/art director Alan Pafenbach, "Drivers wanted" generated some of the most notable ad recognition in recent memory: the "Da Da Da" slacker spot, a Jetta entry showing a young couple's syncopated drive down a rain-drenched New Orleans alley, the New Beetle executions with redesigned cars spinning and flying against white backgrounds. These offbeat images have already become part of our collective pop-consciousness, symbolic of America in the 1990s: Sleek. Prosperous. Fluid. Modern.
"Lance is incredibly talented and a great person to work with," says Liz Vanzura, director of marketing for Volkswagen of America. "We were sorry to lose him...but [understood that] he had to follow his dream. I think he is going to be very successful" with Modernista.
After graduating from Boston College with an English degree, Jensen worked briefly in the late 1980s as an art director at Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, before switching to copywriting at small Hub shop Emerson Lane Fortuna, which Arnold bought in 1991. Jensen initially worked on McDonald's regional co-ops and several other accounts, but his assignment to Volkswagen, which Arnold won in 1995, shot him into a new orbit.
"He has great insight into the human condition," says Lawner, and the ability to turn that insight into successful ads. Lawner adds he "wasn't surprised" Jensen left Arnold after nearly a decade.
"I thought Lance would want to branch out" and form his own company. "Lance can do anything he chooses to do," Lawner says. "Creative people help build businesses. You have to be smart enough to understand business to advertise it."
Noting the appeal of Jensen's Volkswagen ads to young consumers, Pafenbach says his former partner has the knack for working with universal themes of youth and freedom in a "silly, fun, not too heavy" way.
Though less well-known than Jensen, Koepke brings more than 20 years of big-brand know-how and business acumen to the mix.
He helped set up Wieden's New York office and contributed to campaigns for Coca-Cola, ESPN and Nike. Though he enjoyed his tenure at Wieden, Koepke says he's an entrepreneur at heart. For 10 years in the 1980s and '90s, he ran his own design business in Boston, overseeing art direction for Vibe magazine, Soho Journal and record label Ryko Disc.
Koepke and Jensen first worked together more than a decade ago on catalogs for Cookin', an audio retailer in New Hampshire. They decided over lunch late last year to team up for Modernista!
Their dream is to eventually parlay the now-small agency into a full-service, integrated shop, complete with account planning, a media department and all the other bells and whistles.
Modernista! will consider any and all clients committed to great advertising, but claim a special affinity for media companies and content producers. In short, MTV and Travel Channel, their initial clients, may be harbingers of things to come.
When Christina Norman, svp of on-air promotion and marketing at MTV, hired the pair earlier this month, she noted Jensen and Koepke are "untested, but not unproven."