Arnold's Jensen shifts gear to start up his own agency

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On the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers. Lance Jensen has decided to take the wheel.

The 36-year-old copywriter lauded for his Volkswagen of America's "Drivers Wanted" effort has left his high-profile post as exec VP-group creative director at Boston's Arnold Communications to launch his own shop, Modernista!

"I really needed a change in my life," said Mr. Jensen, who spent a decade at Arnold, half of that time dedicated to the VW account.

Boston-based Modernista!, co-founded with former Wieden & Kennedy executive Gary Koepke, has held discussions with potential clients but hasn't yet announced any deals. Speculation is that Mr. Jensen's past experience with footwear marketers Puma and Tretorn may give him an entree into the Rockport review.

The role of the underdog in an account pitch is one Mr. Jensen has played before. In 1995, he and partner Alan Pafenbach hunkered down to create a positioning for Arnold's VW pitch. Mr. Jensen conceived the landmark "on the road of life" approach.

100% EFFORT

"Nobody expected Arnold to get the account, but we threw ourselves behind it 100%," he said. In a David vs. Goliath-type scenario, Arnold-then known as Arnold Fortuna Lawner & Cabot-beat out three more established shops to win the $100 million account.

Messrs. Jensen and Pafenbach received some positive press after the win, but it was instead nothing that propelled them into national notoriety. An ad about nothing, that is.

The team's 1997 "Sunday Afternoon" spot featuring two young guys on an aimless midday drive was the perfect spot for the "Seinfeld" generation: two men in a VW Golf pick up a foul-smelling chair, set against the music "Da Da Da" from the German group Trio.

INSTANT HIT

An instant hit, it prompted spoofs by the likes of Jay Leno and Michael J. Fox. It not only got the industry buzzing with Mr. Jensen's name, but set a more creative tone for future VW advertising.

The team was granted additional creative freedom on the account, but with it came more responsibility. When VW turned to the duo for the new Beetle campaign in 1998, it expected breakthrough work.

"There was a lot of pressure, both from ourselves and externally," Mr. Jensen said. "So we just said, `Let's swing for the fence and see where we go.' "

They hit it out of the park. Their ads for the new Beetle, backed with offbeat music that Mr. Jensen was instrumental in selecting, swept up national and international creative awards including the Cannes Grand Prix and top Andy prize. The ads-bold images of the Beetle against a white background-also fueled Beetle sales.

"It's great to see a cause and effect," he said. "It beats [winning] a Clio." Of course, he did that too.

While music often shaped Mr. Jensen's VW ads, it also helped to mold his life. His early career goal was to design album covers, and he took an interest in art while he was a teen-ager.

The guitar-playing Mr. Jensen likes to listen to music for inspiration while he works. He played in a band ("poorly," he said), for a while, but now with two kids and a new agency, he said, "I'll have to hang up my rock 'n' roll."

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