Had HBO's "Sex and the City" been a `90s phenomenon, Phil Guarascio could have given the publishing talk-of-the-party Ron Galotti a run for his Italian suits as the inspiration for high-profile wheeler-dealer "Mr. Big."
During his 15-year tenure at General Motors Corp. that ended in 2000, Guarascio took big risks, closed big deals and spent big money-some $3 billion annually and more than any other marketer in the country.
He was known as much for his style-including penchants for fancy cigars, fine wine and designer clothes-as his watershed tie-ins with Walt Disney Co. and a $1 billion deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee. As GM's VP-corporate advertising and marketing, he also helped jumpstart a trend of companies changing agency relationships by reducing commissions and paying for performance.
Like "Mr. Big," Guarascio also has some mystery around him, particularly regarding his departure from GM in May 2000-voluntarily, he says, after an unexpected triple by-pass prompted him to re-evaluate life. His exit came under the shadow of an audit of his department following the felony conviction of a senior executive he had promoted twice in one year. Guarascio, however, was not linked to any misconduct.
Nearly two years after GM, the 60-year-old Guarascio says he's turned down countless offers from traditional media companies and high-profile ad agencies in favor of jobs in what he calls the "coming-attraction space"-where companies are searching for the next big thing.
"I was a risk-taker and a deal-maker at GM, but part of being successful at that is to spot good ideas and get in at the early stage," he says.
Guarascio's current gigs include seats on the boards of AdSpace Networks, a digital out-of-home company that offers ads featuring streaming video and audio that can constantly be updated, and Intermedia Advertising Group, the TV ad-effectiveness measurement company. At AdSpace, Guarascio helped expand the company's vision from placements of its CoolSign brand in casinos and retail areas to backing up the ads' effectiveness in any public space with research validation. He went from a company with a $3 billion marketing budget to companies that still get excited about a few million dollars of funding.
"Phil is his own brand, and that will last forever," says AdSpace President-CEO Karen Katz. "He thinks big and makes big things happen."
Guarascio also sits on the boards of Arbitron and HotJobs (being acquired by Yahoo!) and serves as consultant to the National Football League, the William Morris Agency and ad agencies and private-equity companies.
"As a very young company, to have a guy who bought more TV than anybody in the `90s advising you ... we couldn't have gotten any luckier,"says Alan Gould, co-CEO of Intermedia.
With AdSpace and Intermedia-two private start-ups-Guarascio says he gets a welcome departure from GM's large-scale bureaucracy and corporate culture. "If I'd known it was going to be this good, I would've done it a year or two earlier," he says. He says he does miss some of the perks, like the private planes that used to jet him around the country. (He still likes good food, good wine and good cigars.)
In his role as a consultant for the NFL, William Morris and others, he seems to be following the path of Sergio Zyman, the storied Coca-Cola marketer who traded on that fame to try to build his own niche as an adviser/thinker/strategist after leaving Coke. But Guarascio says he's not resting on his reputation.
"I was a very high-profile guy in a very high-profile job, but you need to keep working at maintaining your contacts, making sure your Rolodex is never for sale," he says.
Name: Phil Guarascio
Homes: Detroit; Scottsdale, Ariz; Vermont; and Manhattan's Sutton Place
Favorite sport: Golf
Number of cigars smoked a day: 1
Favorite cars: Cadillac Deville, Yukon and a Corvette (weather permitting)