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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

(continued from page 1)

Guarascio made a tempting target. There was the Queens accent and the fancy clothing, cut to a size 41 short. He was, the cynics declared, just a New York Napoleon trying to show the hicks in Detroit how to do things. "I've heard all the short jokes," Guarascio admits. And he's learned a few good ones of his own to disarm his critics. Of course, a good share of the carping revealed that Guarascio really was doing his job, which was to get into the face of the established order. "Some people didn't like the change," recalls McCann's Fitzpatrick. "He destroyed the rate card and shook things up. But Phil is responsible for Detroit becoming a modern advertising market, which it wasn't when he came."

Guarascio has done a lot more than just demand a discount on ad space and time. He also helped create the marketing megadeal. One of the first, an $80 million, cross-media package with Time Warner in 1989, gave GM the ability to present a coordinated campaign simultaneously in films, cable, magazines and books. The previous year--for $750 million--Guarascio made sure that no one could watch NBC without being inundated by GM's increasingly thematic corporate message. He pioneered the use of alternate media, from cable to videotapes. And many consider him the father of the GM credit card. Also known as an "affinity card," it gives its user credit on every purchase. But it's credit that can be applied only toward the purchase of a new GM vehicle--loyalty by default. "It's a matter of getting close to the consumer," notes Lou Schultz of the Lintas: Worldwide agency. "Its down-your-throat marketing." Guarascio prefers to call it "holistic marketing."

Holistic isn't a word one might expect to find in the Queens vocabulary, yet it does have a way of covering Guarascio's entire oeuvre, an aggressive be-the-best-in-everything style of life. Maybe it's a New York kind of thing. He's been known to dress down a subordinate for not dressing up. He's an in-your-face kind of guy, whether at work or on the golf course, where he is a highly competitive player. "Can I get in people's faces? Absolutely," he says. "But hopefully, it's done in an engaging fashion."

Constant travel is a part of the business, and Guarascio's endlessly searching for great new restaurants, especially cigar friendly places. He began smoking cigars after "an incredible dinner at '21'" in 1980, and it quickly became a regular part of his life. "It's a hobby, more than a habit," Guarascio says, but like everything else he does, it's a hobby in which he's determined to excel. "Like most neophytes, I tried lots of brands and learned what I liked to smoke and when. I moved to another level."

Even today, Guarascio remains on the lookout. "Whenever I travel, I'll try to find the top one or two local cigar stores and try to find something new. The process of discovery is what makes it a hobby." Guarascio smokes at least 10 cigars a week, and half of them are new finds. But he also has a broad list of regular favorites, including the Davidoff Special "T," the Ashton Cabinet and a big Butera. He'll go for a Davidoff Grand Cru or a Paul Garmarian Bon Bon for a quick smoke, an Avo Belicoso or a Davidoff No. 2 over lunch. At night, he prefers a big cigar, "the bigger the dinner, the bigger the cigar," such as a double corona of 48 to 50 ring gauge.

While Guarascio confesses "the best Cubans are as good as anything in the world when you're looking for something rich, powerful and robust," he has to confine that pleasure to the occasional dinner trip across the border to Windsor, Ontario. Guarascio has three small humidors at home, but he keeps a bigger stock at a New York tobacconist. "Call it an experiment, like aging fine wine," he says.

Guarascio will usually light up during his morning commute, and again after a good meal. It's one of the pleasures that helps him get through his heavy workload, particularly on Sunday "when I need four or five hours to attack the work I didn't get to during the week. The whole ceremony of getting out the cigar gets me into the right state of mind." He typically carries two cigar cases with him wherever he goes, one a leather and silver screw-top, the other handmade by Ashton from goatskin.

Now that he has gotten a vice president's title, there's only one big disappointment in his decade at GM: corporate headquarters has been converted into a smoke-free building. But it's a disappointment that certainly doesn't overcome the benefits of the job. Guarascio has shown a surprising stick-to-itiveness that has confounded skeptics who didn't believe he'd last in Detroit more than a few years. Many thought he would bail out in late 1994, when GM brought in former Bausch & Lomb executive Ronald Zarrella to serve as its new director of brand management. With the power to oversee the image and marketing direction of each GM product line, Zarrella gained near veto power over Guarascio's decisions. But the two men have formed an easy and increasingly effective coalition.

 

It wasn't the first time the conventional wisdom was wrong. Guarascio had already demonstrated his loyalty to GM by rejecting a multimillion-dollar job offer personally packaged by media mogul Ted Turner. "I wanted to see it through," Guarascio says about turning GM around. "When the cheering starts, and it will, I want to hear it." Perhaps more surprising is the confession that "I didn't want to return to an East Coast lifestyle." His daily 3.5-hour round-trip commute from the suburbs has been cut to an hour. It's time he can devote to plenty of other things, including a long list of charities. "And he's not just lending his name," says one longtime associate. "If he's involved, he's active."


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