Guarascio mixes up the NFL plays

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Phil Guarascio speaks.

"I guess what I'm trying to do is take an organization from good to great."

Phil Guarascio speaks.

"I've never seen an organization so aligned and so understanding of what the brand is."

Phil Guarascio speaks.

"I have some very specific things that I want to do, and I'm going to have a role in them."

Phil Guarascio speaks, and it's like E.F. Hutton. People listen. Just as they did when he was the VP-general manager of marketing and advertising at General Motors Corp., and just as they will now in his new role as lead executive in charge of marketing and sales for the National Football League.

From one highly visible, highly competitive marketer to another.

From one company that spends $2 billion a year in advertising, to one that receives $2 billion yearly in ad revenue.

"When I first went to GM, I didn't know anything about the car business," Mr. Guarascio, 63, says with a laugh. "At least here, I know what I'm talking about."

He's joking, of course, about the car part. Mr. Guarascio was a larger-than-life figure in Detroit and in the automotive industry, which made him a larger-than-life figure everywhere else.

Now he's at the larger-than-life NFL, where the aforementioned ad revenue, as well as TV ratings, attendance and, most importantly, corporate sponsorship are second to none in sports marketing.

So how do you improve on that? How do you improve on innovations the league has introduced in the last three years to further brand visibility, including tactics such as "Kickoff Weekend," a four-day fiesta highlighted by a Thursday game to open the season?

"The commissioner [Paul Tagliabue] has a sign behind his desk called `The Top 10 Ways to Go Out of Business,' " Mr. Guarascio says. "No. 1 is `Keep doing things the same way.' "

"Trust me," says a chief marketing executive for one of the NFL's corporate sponsors, "Phil will not keep doing things the same way. He's an innovator."

A New York native who had aspirations of playing professional baseball like his second cousin, New York Yankees Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto, Mr. Guarascio instead answered a blind newspaper ad and ended up at Madison Avenue ad agency Benton & Bowles. From 1964-85 he made quantum leaps at the agency before deciding he needed another challenge, and took over as GM's ad czar at a time when the auto industry was in flux.

During his tenure, Mr. Guarascio developed industry-leading marketing and advertising evaluative techniques, and directed innovative forays into sports and entertainment marketing to reach consumers in new ways. Included in those: one of the first cross-media packages, an $80 million deal with Time Warner in 1989. Mr. Guarascio is also credited, pardon the pun, with being the pioneer of the GM credit card.

steps up NFL role

Since retiring from GM in 2000, he's been a consultant to the NFL. So when the league, reeling from the Janet Jackson breast-baring incident at this year's Super Bowl, quietly let marketing chief John Collins go to the Cleveland Browns as team president earlier this year, Mr. Guarascio stepped in.

"Look, I wasn't parachuted in overnight," he says. "I've been working with the league since late 2000, first a couple of days a week, then three, then four. So I've been ramping up, and when there was a need for someone to step in, I was here."

In his new role, Mr. Guarascio is directing the NFL's advertising, marketing and corporate sales functions.

Mr. Tagliabue says Mr. Guarascio adds "tremendous strength and vision," and will be "delivering value to our business partners."

And the role of those business partners is key to the league's prosperity. The NFL is a marketing juggernaut, and the continued desire of its corporate partners to tap into the league's reach is staggering. In 2004 alone, the NFL secured extensions with Visa International, PepsiCo and Campbell Soup Co. worth $1.56 billion.

Last month, Ameriquest Mortgage Co. became the Super Bowl halftime show sponsor for a cool $15 million, with Exec VP Adam Bass saying the NFL was a terrific partner "because of its broad national audience and deep fan base."

`umbrella strategy'

"It's the power of the brand," Mr. Guarascio says. "Yet, even with that power, there are a couple of issues to address. For years the NFL has implemented tactics aimed at youth, women, Hispanic-Americans ... But I want to take this whole issue of fan development and create an umbrella strategy for the league. I can't get into too much detail, but for the first time we'll be approaching this as a whole and in a strategic fashion."

For now, Mr. Guarascio says he will play into the current fan base and popularity, and build from there-just as he did in the auto industry.

"There are similarities," he says. "One, the stakes are big. Two, [both GM and the NFL] have a distribution system you don't control. In the car business it was dealers; in the NFL, we have team owners. Three, you have passionate people.

"And, yes, people are passionate even about their cars. People don't take pictures of their first Big Mac. But they'll take a picture of their car, and they'll wear their team's jersey."

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