20 Agencies to Watch

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The website for upstart boutique Modernista (modernista.com) isn't like an agency site at all. The in-house designed site is more like a dadaist videogame, an obscure obstacle course that, to the naked eye, is a detailed tract on acupuncture. "The people who call up and say, `I looked at your website but it wasn't your website,' we know not to work with them," co-founder Gary Koepke says wryly.

Plenty of self-selecting clients still click around for the work, however, and they apparently like what they see. The Boston-based shop, launched little more than a year ago by Wieden & Kennedy alum Koepke and Arnold star Lance Jensen, already boasts a promising client list: the Travel Channel; GM's forthcoming Hummer H2; a branding assignment for MTV, and a holiday push for the Gap as sublime as the marketing koan etched in the shop's mini-book: "Reach brand enlightenment."

This from a pair who only somewhat jokingly credit their early success to the Feng Shui master who organized their loft space. Koepke, 43, and Jensen, 37, worked together on and off for 10 years on various freelance projects before finally forging out on their own last year in a launch that almost immediately produced both buzz and clients. "We started this thing for highly personal reasons," Jensen says. "And it's to express ourselves creatively. Obviously we want to find the voice of the brands that we work for. But how that's done is really important to us."

Thus far, Modernista has expressed itself creatively with TV work for the Gap and the Travel Channel, all of which exhibits both a cinematic sensibility and a certain understated wit. The Gap spots feature haunting music - tracks from almost-famous bands like Low, Red House Painters and Badly Drawn Boy - and lush photography of hipsters falling from the sky like snowflakes and striking poses inside Christmas tree lights. The campaign for the Travel Channel, meanwhile, spotlights quirky, verite scenes - a tomato fight in Spain, a row of entertainers at a bus stop in Las Vegas - from points across the globe. There is wit here, but no punchlines. "I don't think we're going to be the funny guys," Jensen says.

Art for art's sake

Instead, the pair say they approach advertising as a way of mixing medium and message into art, the way Jensen did as copywriter and CD at Arnold with his best work for Volkswagen, like the watershed "Sunday Afternoon" - the slacker odyssey featuring two guys and a chair - and "Milky Way," a Nick Drake-enhanced, moonlit tableau produced for the VW Cabrio. Or as Koepke did with his design work at Vibe and Colors, and on campaigns for Nike and ESPN at Wieden. "We're definitely into aesthetics," Jensen says. "We care about the concept, but we're operating in the details and the way things look and sound. It's really about the emotion that you get when you're done looking at it. It just has to be art."

Koepke concurs. "I think artists are realizing there's a big canvas out there to be shown on," he says. "Given the right client and agency relationship, there's a way to use those people to communicate ideas."

Modernista's staff now numbers 20, but if the buzz holds and the wins keep coming, the principals hope their shop will become a place like-minded creatives will be drawn to. "We've both been lucky in the past," Jensen says. "We've been able to do great work in the industry. We wanted to create a place where other people could come and satisfy their creative desires. We've already had our 15 minutes. Now we want this place to have its turn."

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