Unchained Melody

Give a little bit of your love to me/I’ll give a little bit of my love to you …”

Ultimately, Supertramp’s ’70s anthem “Give a Little Bit” seems a fitting elegy for the relationship between Modernista! and the Gap.

After a year of disappointing sales, it came as scant surprise when the Gap made some changes as the month began. The San Francisco retailer eliminated its chief marketing officer position, sending Amy Schoening—who first hired Modernista! in late 2000 for a series of national holiday campaigns—back to her role as head of Banana Republic’s marketing department.

Now, Lisa Prisco, the creative director behind many pre-Modern ista! Gap campaigns, including the high-stepping “Khaki Swings,” is back overseeing Gap ads. The Boston agency doesn’t appear to be in her plans. The work is likely to be done in-house, at least in the near term.

But neither agency nor client should feel too broken up. Each got a little something from the relationship.

Modernista! was less than a year old when the Gap came aboard as its flagship client. The company was willing to take chances and gave Modernista! virtual free rein. Modernista! leaves the marriage with a portfolio of high-profile work for one of America’s premier retailers. Some ads rank among the most memorable spots of the past few years and will serve Modernista! well as it pursues new accounts. Among the highlights: Alanis, Shaggy and other pop stars snug in their Gap sweaters while crooning “Give a Little Bit”; blue-jean-clad Will Farrell’s dead-on Neil Diamond impersonation; and a holiday party rocking inside a seasonal lightbulb.

From the Gap’s perspective, Mod ern ista! helped generate publicity, including pop-culture parodies and discussion of the retailer’s “hip ads” on late-night TV. Its cool quotient ramped up, and its name stood out, for a time, among the marketing elite.

Sure, sales slumped. But industry analysts agree that the ads weren’t entirely to blame. The sagging economy and the Gap’s general inability—beyond advertising—to properly define its niche in a fast-changing market were also factors.

The ads’ principal failing was their lack of an overall brand positioning, a problem that bedeviled agency and client throughout the relationship. Though frequently entertaining and often inspired, Gap advertising lacked the singularity of purpose that defines, say, Volkswagen’s “Drivers wanted” campaign—an effort crafted, in part, by Lance Jensen before he co-founded Modernista!

Put another way, the Gap and Modernista! never got beyond the heady rush of infatuation, never laid the deeper foundation necessary for a lasting relationship. (“First love” was, ironically, one of many themes the agency tried for the Gap.)

Therein lies a lesson for both sides: Don’t be seduced by creativity for its own sake or change styles on a whim. Choose an approach that accurately defines the brand and stick with it. A simple maxim, but one easily forgotten in the bloom of young love.

As agency and client prepare to go their separate ways, another Supertramp lyric springs to mind: “Goodbye stranger, it’s been nice/ Hope you find your paradise.”