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Modernista May Not Be Called Modernista Much Longer

Faced With a Smaller Staff, Client Roster, Agency's co-Founder Looks at Possible Reboot of Boston Ad Indie

By Published on . 12

Nearly three months after Modernista co-founder Lance Jensen suddenly bolted for crosstown Boston shop Hill Holliday, his former partner, Gary Koekpe, is at a crossroads.

Speaking to Ad Age exclusively, Mr. Koepke, the agency's co-founder and executive creative director, said that in the short term he will either shutter the shop he started a decade ago with Mr. Jensen or embark of a massive rebranding of the agency that will include a shedding of the Modernista name.

"Lance left. It changed everything, and something great we made together. I still respect him immensely. He chose to go to Hill Holliday, and I'm choosing to change the vision of what I want to do, and whether it's called Modernista anymore doesn't matter."

Asked whether he plans to forgo the current office space on Kingston Street in Boston, Mr. Koepke said: "I don't know all those answers yet."

Currently, Modernista counts roughly 45 staffers, and clients include Sears, 20th Century Fox and snack company Food Should Taste Good.

That's a far cry from its heyday, when the boutique agency had 150 employees, satellite offices in Amsterdam and Detroit, counted General Motors' Cadillac and Hummer and Palm as clients and was producing talked-about work such as its redesign of Business Week.

"I've been told Modernista has baggage in the industry because of the tough times we went through," said Mr. Koepke. "Rather than me saving what was a great thing that Lance and I had together -- we had a great time, amazing people came through these doors -- it's about starting something new."

What will the next iteration of Modernista look like? The goal, at least, is a kind of cause-marketing-meets-corporate-branding consultancy.

"I want to help corporations change the way they think about marketing to consumers; consumers care far more about the values of a corporation than just a product," said Mr. Koepke. "They really need to consider a new way of talking to people rather than messaging. If a country can be overthrown in a week, they can do the same to corporations, too. With our desire for transparency -- purchases are going to be made differently than they were in the past. People are going to want to know more about these companies."

Mr. Koepke said the new direction for the agency stems from side projects he has been involved with, such as being a member of the Clinton Global Initiative and Project Red work with rock star Bono.

Of course, his hand has been turned to come up with a new plan for the agency, and especially himself, because of a shrinking staff and client list. In recent months, it was not only Mr. Jensen who has left but a slew of executives have quietly departed, including President Matt Howell and Managing Director Alex Hesz.

The latter's departure is a bit surprising, considering his comments in support of the agency's future at the time of Mr. Jensen's defection. He said then: "It's sad personally ... but from a business standpoint doesn't affect us much actually."

Mr. Koepke said several staffers with whom he has shared his plans for a refresh of Modernista are supportive and even "energized." But, he acknowledged, "there are others who probably won't want to go along with this vision."

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