Greg DiNoto On the Spot

Seven years after leaving Deutsch, DiNoto, 43, is still remembered for the quirky work he did there for clients such as Tanqueray (he helped create the Waspy Mr. Jenkins). With Deutsch alum Esther Lee, DiNoto launched DiNoto Lee, and the Manhattan boutique claimed billings of $100 million during the dot-com boom. Lee has since left, and the agency, soon to be called simply DiNoto, bills about $30 million. But that’s taken in stride by a guy who likes to “tempt fate” on a Ducati.

Q: Do you remember the first time you saw an ad?

A: The first ad I ever saw on television was for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. I was about 7 years old, and I was fascinated by it. There was a disembodied head talking from inside of a box. The lesson to be gleaned from this was that we had to take care of our bodies, and I found the scare tactic incredibly seductive. My dad explained that that was an ad, and I thought, “Hmm.”

What did you learn at Deutsch that sticks with you today?

Aside from some of the Godfather business ethic—no, I shouldn’t say that—I learned that it’s important to assemble a team of great players. And that you can’t teach motivation. You hire motivation and you hire talent because you can teach skills, but you can’t teach that stuff.

What work are you proudest of?

I’m proud of Jenkins. He served the brand well. And he got trashed while doing it. I shouldn’t say trashed—people will misconstrue that. He got loaded. And a campaign I did for MassMutual many years ago—”We help you keep your promises.” It managed to strike a chord of warmth, and that’s something with which I’m not usually associated.

How about at DiNoto Lee? The people’s field-test campaign was a tight campaign and had a lot of potential. Especially in television. The idea of ostensibly real people risking life and limb to test everyday products was an amusing notion. I always wanted to see human pylons as we tested the maneuverability of SUVs.

What would you change about the industry?

The promiscuity of brand managers. If brand managers were encouraged to stay put longer and build, they’d be looking five years out instead of, “How do I get through the next meeting without injury?”

You’ve taught at the Adhouse for four years now. What have you gotten out of it?

Teaching forces you to articulate how you go about your daily business. Whereas normally you might not give it a lot of thought, you act on instinct. If you have to transfer that knowledge to somebody, you have to think it through.

Do you have a dream client?

Like every agency, we’d love to have an automobile client, because the relationship that Americans have with cars is deep, and that allows you to show you understand your target’s head and heart, and your own culture.

As one of the last of the independents in New York, do you feel like a dying breed?

I’d rather think of us as one of the first new independents as opposed to one of the last old independents. There’s always going to be a place for independent agencies. When you’re an independent, you’re not worried about kissing up to the holding company, you’re worried about drawing blood, making noise on behalf of your clients.

Esther left for the chief creative job at Coke in September. What do you miss about her?

I’d have to say her passion for strategic thinking. And her soft sweet tones as she would go over a brief [laughs]. She’s an incredible athlete, a great thinker and one of the best human beings in the business.

What’s the smartest business decision you ever made?

Going out on our own, starting our own thing.

How about the dumbest?

Going out on our own, starting our own thing.

Do you feel ripped off by the dot-coms?

I feel educated by the whole dot-com experience. You can’t always follow the fever. You have to be a little more prudent in taking on new clients. We thought we had strict guidelines for the types of clients we were taking on. But you discovered later on that grown-ups can lie. And that can be a sobering experience for someone as naive as myself.

What inspires you?

Poverty. Smart clients. Good music. The Velvet Underground.

What do you do to unwind?

I run, ride my motorcycle, a Ducati. I take it up to Bear Mountain and try to tempt fate, gravity. I’ve jumped out of airplanes. They were tandem jumps, so you have somebody on your back. But still, you freefall. It’s great to feel your heart in your throat. It’s like opening an agency with no clients. You feel the imminent sound of splat at any moment.

What’s your biggest accomplishment?

Resisting selling all my worldly goods to roam around the world.

When would that have been?

That notion enters my mind probably every two to three weeks [laughs].

So you’re looking forward to retirement?

Oh, yeah. I love what I do, but at the end of the day, there’s a whole life without a strategy brief attached.