Catching Up with…Lance Jensen

By Yash Egami Posted on May 06, 2011

Okay, so Lance Jensen doesn’t exactly fall under the “Where are they now?” files since he’s been very much in the thick of it (he’s even a One Show judge this year). Jensen, who started his career at Hill Holliday, became a creative director at Arnold Worldwide and later opened up his own agency Modernista! with Gary Koepke. He recently came full circle and was named ECD at Hill Holliday. “It is a bit strange going back to the very first agency that hired me,” writes Jensen about his return. “A lot of this business is just very, very difficult for those in the creative department. So much hard work, and disappointment, but every once in while, you are part of a great team that does something great. It’s like catching a wave, or hitting a hole in one. Once you know the feeling, you keep chasing it.”

One of his aces occurred while he was at Arnold Worldwide in the late 1990s. Boy bands and Latin pop dominated the music charts and the Presidency was nearly brought down by a scandal involving a White House intern. There was a lot of noise going on, but a quietly moving spot called “Milky Way” showing a bunch of young college kids driving a VW Cabriolet at night to the tune of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” managed to cut through the clutter. The spot, along with another in the legendary “Drivers Wanted” campaign showing two guys driving around aimlessly called “Sunday Afternoon (Da da da),” perfected the art of integrating music and advertising so seamlessly that to this day, people often think of Volkswagen when they hear the songs.

With all this car talk and the recent success of V-dub at the Super Bowl, we decided to revisit “Milky Way” and “Sunday Afternoon” with Jensen, who helped create the spots that rank as some of the best ever for the brand.

Milky Way and Nick Drake

The commercial was titled “Milky Way” because we originally wanted to use the song of the same name by the band, The Church.

The Cabrio wasn’t the biggest seller in the VW line-up, but we told them this would be more of a brand halo spot, and Steve Wilhite and Liz Vanzura from Volkswagen loved it and told us that we could present it to the dealers. I had a convertible once and I always thought the most magical thing about owning one was driving it at night. It really is a transcendent experience, especially with the right music.

Alan Pafenbach, my partner and I, along with Shane Hutton and Tim Vaccarino pushed the idea around and landed on a group of friends who are driving to a party only to realize that the drive was better than the drunken party. We came up with the backstory about one of the guys having a crush on one of the girls and we sold it. The VW client at the time was just amazing. The dealers loved it. It was a really magical time for all of us.

When we got to the editorial stage, we found out that the song “Milky Way” was oddly a bit slow. I had been listening to a lot of Nick Drake at the time. The CD was in my player and the song just came on as we were trying to think of other options. We just looked at each other. It was like the song picked us. When we put it against the picture the four of us just went, wow. It was like listening to “Dark Side of The Moon” for the first time or something—it just put you someplace else.

We were all very happy that Nick’s music became more well known. I forget the numbers, but a lot of his CDs were sold. GQ wrote an article about it. We put a “as heard on the VW commercial” sticker on the CDs. I think both the label and VW won on that one. Not to mention Nick’s art.

A Spot About Nothing

“Da Da Da” was born out of the desire to create a really honest commercial. So many car spots were/are just so full of shit. What do you really do in a car? A bunch of nothing. Seinfeld had a whole TV show about nothing, why couldn’t we do a car spot like that?

Alan and I just started thinking back to memories of that age. Being in your early twenties, you feel like a loser, but really, it’s the best time. Hanging with your friends who know you so well, you don’t even need to talk, just drive around. We knew we had to have some kind of product demo, so we came up with the idea of cramming a stinky chair into it. The client kept asking us to change the line at the end, “It fits your life, or your complete lack, thereof.” Some thought it was negative. Alan and I refused (ahh, youth!). We said VW was about being honest. And the truth is, at that age, you feel like you don’t have a life. In the end, they trusted us.

It debuted on Ellen. A lot of sponsors had pulled out because she had just come out of the closet, and VW bought the time. That led to rumors that it was a gay spot. Alan and I had no idea what the actors’ sexuality was. We wanted them to be as plain-looking and blah as possible. We shot it all very American Gothic. No tricks.

The song really inspired the spot. It was a college favorite of mine. I always thought it was kind of silly, but so catchy. We were trying to be as uncool as possible.

I remember presenting it to the dealer group. They were all like, WTF? But Steve Wilhite told them they had to let the agency take some chances. VW never tested anything. Ever.

Andre Betz cut the spot in like 20 minutes. He was like, get ready guys, this is going to be a classic. Once we did that spot, we knew we had found the voice of VW. Little bits of real life that had honest product benefits baked into it.


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