Creative: Downtown Debut

In New York’s SoHo, startup DiNoto Lee finds its way
Outside is a line of young men and women, some dressed in black, each waiting for a chance to enter a trendy club. Inside are an orgy of flashing lights, throbbing music and gyrating dancers, many with Mistic beverages in hand, even a strawberry-shaped hot tub.
At the door is hip-hop diva Foxy Brown, the arbiter of who gets in. A bouncer nearby, she welcomes anyone who can name a Mistic flavor. Two guys pass, but a third clearly shows he doesn’t belong, guessing “Avocado banana” and “Broccoli honeydew.”
Perplexed, he presses, “How come I can’t get in?”
“Because I’m in your way,” Brown says, not missing a beat.
True to form, the latest TV spot from DiNoto Lee, the New York partnership of Greg DiNoto and Esther Lee, uses memorable characters to build an up-and-coming brand. DiNoto made a name for himself doing that at Deutsch in New York, where he was a member of the creative department for close to six years.
Remember Buzz the Bee for the National PromoFlor Council? Mr. Jenkins, the face behind Tanqueray, still appears in print ads today. More importantly, however, Tanqueray was the client that introduced DiNoto to Lee.
“A month into working [at Deutsch], Greg comes into my office, he shuts the door and says, ‘Can we talk?'” recalls Lee, 39, then a group account director. She expected a lecture from the chief of creative, only to get an offer she couldn’t refuse. “And he goes, ‘So what do you think about starting an agency together?'”
DiNoto had found someone with the drive, skills and smarts to be a great partner. And although his plan would take years to hatch, this was an important first step. “I knew right away on a gut level, this person was really good,” says DiNoto, 38. “I’ve seen her present. I’ve seen her stand up for the work. I’ve seen her make unpopular but wise decisions. And she speaks her mind, regardless of the circumstances or the consequences.”
The 14-month-old shop still doesn’t have a permanent sign and has yet to formally celebrate its anniversary. Still, it has amassed seven clients, including Rainforest Nectars, CNN and Footquarters. Total billings approach $22 million.
DiNoto, a jeans kind of guy with a mischievous smile, and Lee, more formal but just as personable, work out of a second-floor office in SoHo. The space is bright, with high ceilings and few doors. One room blends into another until you reach the back of the building, where the partners share an office with a giant square table.
The core staff is small – about a dozen – so DiNoto Lee relies heavily on freelancers, particularly to produce creative ideas but also to pitch new accounts. Many are friends from the old days at Deutsch: copywriters Mark Jensen and Dallas Itzen and art directors Joanne Scannello and Patrick O’Neill. Indeed, the new spots for Mistic display production values that transcend the size of the agency. Also, clients appreciate the partners’ hands-on, collaborative approach.
“They’re smart people. They get it. And it’s not about ego. At the end of the day, they just want to do good work,” says Jon Leafstedt, a senior vp at Woolworth Corp., parent of Footquarters. DiNoto Lee created radio and print ads for the client with the tagline, “Cool brands, unusual deals.” The radio spots use over-the-top accents and quirky copy to reach a teenage target.
Lee and DiNoto certainly expect the agency to grow in year two, but not at the expense of its friendly atmosphere. “Big enough to be a great advertising brand, but not so big that we lose control of the quality of the work,” Lee says.
Finishing the thought – as each often does, sometimes with a flash of humor – DiNoto says: “Not so big that – someday this will come back to haunt me, right? – not so big that we don’t know the name of somebody who works for us.”