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GM's Ad Man

In the land of the gray flannel suit, Phil Guarascio is the one wearing Armani.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

It's a couple ticks past nine on a miserable Monday morning. A storm is blowing through Detroit, lashing futilely against the stone pillars of General Motors' world headquarters. But another storm has found its way inside, riding up the elevator and sweeping across the hall into the 10th-floor offices of the corporate advertising staff. Phil Guarascio is on the move, like a whirlwind, trailing papers from two oversized duffel bags. "Weekend work," he explains tersely. He rifles the pile of memos and messages already piling up on his desk, firing off instructions to his secretary and a slew of subordinates who have gathered outside his office door. With an almost off-handed precision, he lays out his week's agenda. It isn't quite Mount Olympus, but his actions often carry as much force as the lightning crackling outside. A simple yes or no can determine the fate of a new network television show, save or sink a magazine, make or break an advertising agency.

Guarascio, the 55-year-old vice president and general manager of marketing and advertising for GM's North American operations, controls the fourth-largest media budget in the United States, $1.5 billion a year in ads and promos. Call it the ultimate leverage. "I can pick up the phone and call any major player in the business," he casually acknowledges. Yet he didn't set out to become one of the most powerful men in the world of advertising. Like his second cousin, legendary New York Yankee Phil "The Scooter" Rizzuto, Guarascio dreamed of playing professional baseball. That was before he quit law school and let a blind ad in The Wall Street Journal set his course. As a young apprentice at the advertising agency Benton & Bowles, he found he had a lawyer's instinct for negotiating the deal, but he also discovered an inborn showman's flair. Phil Guarascio found within himself a natural pitchman, one who innately understood the relationship between smoke and mirrors, style and substance.

"His sense of theatrics and love of life give him that fine distinction," says Sean Fitzpatrick, vice chairman of the McCann-Erickson Worldwide ad agency. "He carries everything off with fine style, whether in the way he works, the cigar he chooses or the way he dresses." It is a style that seems at once both essential and yet equally out of place at GM, an often hide-bound company of boardroom gray, off-the-rack suits and carpet remnant ties. The automaker within the past year has accepted the move to casual clothing in the workplace, perhaps for no other reason than its inability to dress up in the first place. Yet Guarascio continues to wear his hand-tailored Armani and Joseph Abboud suits, bedecked by a closet full of impeccable silk ties. With his dark, Mediterranean looks, he is Julio Iglesias doing James Bond.

It isn't always an easy fit. GM prizes executive anonymity. As in the Japanese corporate culture, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. The very idea of a personality profile is anathema to the corporate overseers. Guarascio hesitates, they say no, then they reverse the decision only reluctantly. Yet Guarascio seems to have found a comfortable fit. "GM lets me be me," he says. "If you have a fierce drive to win, there is room for a personality and operating style out of the traditional path." One thing is certain about Phil Guarascio: his style, like his career path, is anything but traditional.

He was a child of a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and Yankee Stadium was his field of dreams. Guarascio was a solid high school catcher good enough to snag a minor league contract after graduating in 1958. He wanted to be the family's next Rizzuto. But he knew it would take years and a lot of one-night stands in small towns to get a shot at "The Show," the big leagues. So Guarascio reluctantly traded his bat for a three-ring binder, heading off to Marietta College in Ohio. He earned a bachelor's degree in English and planned to parlay it into a law degree at Fordham Law School in New York City. But he discovered one minor problem. He couldn't stand law school.

And so he answered the blind ad. What he found was something that felt as natural as a catcher's mitt. It was 1964, and he was on the fast track at Benton & Bowles. By 1976, Guarascio had made Madison Avenue's big leagues; he wore a vice president's stripes and controlled the powerful media department at Benton & Bowles (now D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles). But nine years later, Guarascio unexpectedly took the job as GM's first executive director of advertising services, at a time when the automaker had serious marketing problems.

"I wanted to see how good I was," Guarascio says in a manner unusually close to self-doubt. But his self-confidence flags only momentarily. "I brought a high order of expertise," he quickly adds, stressing he couldn't resist the challenge.

There was a time, not all that many years ago, when General Motors owned the American auto industry. It set the standards for styling, for technology, for pricing. Though he's typically taken out of context, former GM president "Engine" Charlie Wilson wasn't far off the mark when he declared to Congress in 1953 that "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." In the 1960s, when Dinah Shore told us to "See the USA in our Chevrolet," that one GM division controlled roughly 25 percent of the U.S. marketplace--as much as crosstown rival Ford Motor Co., the nation's number two automaker. GM, on the whole, owned more than half the new car market, and it employed a league of lawyers whose careers were dedicated to fighting off attempts by the Justice Department in the 1960s and early '70s to break the automaker up on antitrust grounds. While the U.S. government was unsuccessful, a greater threat would soon be posed by foreign influences.

If the oil shock of 1973 was a shot across the bow, the Iranian oil crisis of 1979 was a devastating broadside. Big was no longer better with fuel prices tripling in less than a year. The Japanese showed buyers that new cars didn't have to keep breaking down. The import share soared, much of it coming out of GM's hide. GM raced to downsize, but the king had lost touch with his subjects, a message clearly driven home on a 1980s Fortune magazine cover. Lined up side-by-side were four of the automaker's new sedans, identical but for the chrome badges identifying divisional brands.

The chrome was tarnishing fast, despite billions invested in new products and plants. Baby Boomers had, en masse, written off the automaker's products. And GM's five divisions seemed to be spending more time and money competing among themselves than they did with the rest of the industry. That approach was virtually locked in stone, for each division had its own advertising agency and handled its own accounts. There was little corporate direction and no leveraging of GM's potential purchasing power in the ad market. The automaker needed an image fix and a new strategy, and Guarascio was called in to play doctor. The new advertising director realized GM needed to centralize its campaign planning and its decision making to achieve more buying power for all its divisions. But in a balkanized company that prized its power bases and resented outsiders, few were willing to swallow the medicine he prescribed. Guarascio recalls some "rough spots" at first. It's a vast understatement from someone who had to devote much of his first few years to learning the politics of an ancient and closed corporate order.

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