Phil Guarascio, General Motors' vice president in charge of advertising and corporate marketing, retires May 1.
It says a lot about his power and prestige at GM that he's a vice president at a time when the head of Chevrolet isn't. Times have changed.
During his 14 years at GM, Guarascio changed the way advertising is bought and used. Many say he is the Ignacio Lopez of advertising.
Before Guarascio, advertising agencies got a healthy 15 percent commission on the advertising they purchased for GM. Now, compensation includes a much lower commission and a performance factor.
Consumer magazines used to stick by their rate cards, but Guarascio forced the major publishing houses to negotiate ad prices far below those prices. He created tie-ins for the corporation, from Disney to the Olympics, although it was never clear whether GM really should be a brand, as opposed to the divisions that sold vehicles.
But Guarascio made the world know that advertising was important. He was a vice president.
During his time at GM, the company's market share dropped steadily. Creative and massive media buying didn't seem to increase sales or even stop the slide.
There is an old saying in the automobile business: When cars don't sell, it's the advertising, and when they do, it's the product. It's sort of a no-win war for marketing.
Guarascio changed the way people thought about the ad dollars GM spent. Spending climbed steadily during his 14 years. He was able to buy more advertising space and time per GM dollar, but there was less discussion of whether GM was using those billions of dollars as effectively as possible. People talked about the amount and growth of GM's advertising rather than questioning its effectiveness.
And now GM has brand managers. They are responsible for their models. Their real power is in advertising and marketing. But ever since GM abandoned the traditional divisional vice presidents and general managers and replaced them with regional sales offices and national brand managers, GM's market-share erosion has continued.
Guarascio had a wonderful flair at a company that didn't allow anyone to have pizzazz. He was responsible for buying billions of dollars of advertising, and he shined a glamorous spotlight on the entire advertising business.
But no one seemed to worry about the quality of the advertising, only the quantity. Guarascio made GM think about the dollars; now it's time for someone to start thinking about the sense of it.