By  on March 30, 2012

NEW YORK — “I think we’re frustrated Fellinis.”

So says Charles DeCaro, partner with Rocco Laspata, reflecting on the DNA of their advertising agency Laspata DeCaro. For 25 years, the pair has been creating glamorous — sometimes traffic-stopping — campaigns, often in the form of mini-movies.

They’ve enlisted some of the biggest models of the day in campaigns for clients ranging from Kenar Enterprises Ltd. and Blackglama to the Americana Manhasset, Harry Winston, Maidenform and Revlon.

“They created the atmosphere,” said Kenneth Zimmerman, Kenar’s founder and chief executive officer in the Nineties. “They were selling the image, not just a pretty girl in a pair of jeans.”

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“They have such creative ideas. They seem to really have their fingers on the pulse of the upcoming season,” said Andrea Sanders, senior vice president, creative director of the Americana Manhasset luxury shopping center, a client for nine years. “Charles and Rocco have really helped to define the Americana Manhasset as a brand. They take their work so seriously — but they don’t take themselves so seriously.”

The duo’s campaigns blend humor and sophistication and, over the years, they have discovered their fair share of talent. And ruffled a few feathers.

“We’re celebrating our 25th year, but we don’t look a day over 24,” grinned DeCaro, who art directs and styles the shoots, while Laspata does all the photography. “We’re very inspired by film. Whenever we plan something we think cinematically.”

The Early Years

Now personal as well as business partners, Laspata and DeCaro launched their ad agency in 1987 with a third partner, Robert White, who helped them develop their business model. White realized there was a group of potential fashion advertisers who didn’t have the resources and would get lost in the shuffle of the mega ad agencies in the late Eighties. “There was a niche for boutique agencies,” said DeCaro.

White had a business background and was “incredibly charming, and very, very smart. He had a conviction that we could do it all,” DeCaro said. At the time, Laspata and DeCaro were doing photography and styling “and kind of finding our way, and ultimately he [White] decided we had something to offer.”

When Laspata and DeCaro first got together, they would talk incessantly about photographs and ad campaigns that were in European and American fashion magazines. They would discuss who did the hair, what they were wearing and the angles of their bodies in the shoots. “We’d go back and forth and know these photographs and ad campaigns by heart. There was this incredible interest,” said Laspata.

At the time, DeCaro and White owned a restaurant called Luxe at Christopher and Gay Streets in New York City, and Laspata was a waiter.

“It had nothing to do with being on Christopher or being gay. We had parties for Andy Warhol.…It was an amazing place, but we ultimately came to the startling revelation that we were never meant to be restaurateurs by any means,” said DeCaro.

“There were these models who lived in the building and were under contract to Revlon, and we started expressing our interest in fashion and finding out how it was working with Avedon and Helmut Newton. All these girls literally worked with these people so we became friends, and that’s how it started.”

He said they began doing test shoots and taking photographs. “Robert saw this niche for us and said we should take all this creative energy, creativity and passion and turn it into a boutique agency that really wasn’t out there at that point. There’s so many now, but there really weren’t any back then,” said DeCaro.

They started winning accounts such as Capezio Bags and then Revillon. “Robert was pounding the pavement, and just as things started taking hold, he passed away in 1989. It was not only a monumental loss for our business, but a profound and life-changing personal loss,” said DeCaro. Rather than take on someone new, Laspata and DeCaro divvied up White’s responsibilities.

They met Zimmerman, one of their earliest clients, through White. Unquestionably, the Kenar account — and the often-controversial and edgy campaigns they created for it — catapulted the agency.

Zimmerman said he gave Laspata and DeCaro free rein to create “exotic, great advertising” for Kenar. He had previously been working with different agencies, with very little effect.

“I met them, and instinctively I could tell they were serious and passionate,” said Zimmerman. “I said, ‘I don’t want to know anything. I just want to pay you. You don’t need permission from anyone in my company.’”

Zimmerman said he didn’t want to compete with Ralph Lauren’s 50 pages, and wanted bang for his buck.

“If I spent $1, I got $5 [worth],” said Zimmerman, who today is ceo of Only Hearts. “I got them at the right time. They’re so talented. The way they work, they speak without speaking to each other. When I would walk into a [Kenar] shoot, I knew I better not interfere.

“The campaigns cost me a fortune, but I had to create a brand in five years.”

Zimmerman has since sold the Kenar brand to The TJX Cos Inc. With Laspata DeCaro behind the ads between 1991 and 1996, “I tripled my sales [to around $80 million],” said Zimmerman. “Everywhere I went after the second year, everybody knew the Kenar name. The famous models were wearing it.

“I was able to hit higher margins, sell my product to better stores and open overseas business. It was that momentum that they built for me. I got my money’s worth,” said Zimmerman.

The Kenar campaigns helped the agency establish its narrative approach.

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