Geoffrey Frost, Motorola

Despite his job, or maybe because of it, Geoffrey Frost isn’t crazy about the word “phone.” Motorola’s chief marketing officer prefers to use terms like “the device formerly known as the phone,” “ability amplifier” and “intelligence enhancer” to describe the wireless gizmos that do much more than make and receive voice calls.

Frost’s penchant for euphemism extends to engineers at Motorola, whom he refers to as “people from the future who happen to be here now” and he describes upcoming offshoots from Motorola’s Razr and Pebl phones as “genetic mutations.” In short, Frost looks at things a little differently. One former colleague–a fan of Frost’s–went so far as to say that the marketer “cultivates a reputation for being odd,” noting that Frost has been traveling with a teddy bear for the last 20 years.

Frost laughed at the mention of the bear, a gift from his British wife’s vast collection, but wasn’t offended. “Maybe I am a little weird, I don’t know,” he said.

If that’s so, Motorola CEO Ed Zander may want to consider giving teddy bears to the rest of his staff’. Frost, who joined Motorola in 1999, deserves a good portion of the credit for getting Moto’s mojo back. Once known for unfashionable phones and clunky advertising, Motorola now has probably the hottest phone on the market (Razr), a deal with Apple’s iTunes and a hipper image thanks to its catchy “Moto” ads. One might say that Frost has done for Motorola what Quentin Tarantino did for John Travolta with Pulp Fiction.

Consider the numbers: After steadily losing share in the wireless market since 1996, Motorola gained 3-3 points in its most recent quarter, largely on the strength of Razr. As of the fourth quarter of 2004, Moto held a 16.4% share worldwide. Samsung had 10.9%, down 3% from the previous quarter, while LG was at 7.2%, per IDC, Framingham, Mass.

The gains awarded a slight boost to Motorola’s standing among Interbrand’s Top 100 Brands. Last year, Motorola was No. 76 on the list, which is based on projected earnings. This year it was No. 73, though Interbrand estimated its brand equity had jumped about 12%. “They pretty much owned the handset game at one time, but other handset makers tromped them,” said David Martin, president of Interbrand, New York. “But lo and behold, they turned themselves around.”

Making Motorola hip again was quite a feat. Formed in 1928 as Galvin Manufacturing, Motorola is one of those companies, like Hewlett-Packard or Xerox, that was traditionally run by engineers. Engineering breakthroughs determined much of its strategy and direction. Originally, Galvin made a battery eliminator, a device that let battery-powered radios run on a household electric current.

In the 1930s, the company started making car radios and, in the next decade, produced a two-way radio that was widely used by the U.S. forces in World War II. By the early ’80s, the company now known as Motorola was focused on two markets: semiconductors and wireless devices. In 1983, Motorola introduced DynaTAC, the first cellular telephone approved by the FCC. From then on, Motorola ruled the growing market and hit its apex in 1996, when it introduced StarTAC, the first flip phone.

Frost, then a marketer at Nike, recalled the reaction in the room when a colleague whipped out a StarTAC during a meeting: “Everyone in the room looked at each other and said, ‘I’ve gotta have one.'”

What happened next was a textbook case of a fat, complacent company being bested by an upstart competitor. In this case, the whippersnapper was Nokia, a Finnish firm that many thought (and still think) is Japanese. Nokia’s insight was as post-StarTAC phones became more portable, they also became fashion accessories. Nokia spent a lot of time deciding what colors its phones should be and was the first to offer changeable faceplates for those who couldn’t decide. By 2000, Nokia had captured a 27% worldwide market share (and Grand Marketer of the Year honors in this magazine) versus Motorola’s 17% share. Motorola now has 18% versus 33% for Nokia globally.

that was the situation when Frost, now in his 50s, arrived at Motorola. With his preference for sneakers, khakis and T-shirts, Frost was not cut from the same cloth as past Motorola marketers.

“He’s a man on fire, he’s out there throwing ideas at a million miles a second,” said Rich Goldstein, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, San Francisco, who worked on the Nike account. “He was always encouraging us to look at new film and new people. I think he really enjoys the new.

Brendan Ryan, a former and current colleague at Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, recalls the 6-foot-6 Frost in meetings “towering over everyone in the room physically and mentally,” but at the same time being very down to earth. “He very much is not looking at the next mountain, but two or three beyond that.”

For his part, Frost thinks he’s effective because he loves tech. He’s the first to admit his sensibilities wouldn’t necessarily work everywhere. “Design is important and that’s particularly true in tech. I’m not sure how that would translate to the dog food business,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be a terribly good marketer at McDonald’s or Kraft.”

Frost worked his way up the ranks through ad agencies J. Walter Thompson, Grey and FCB before joining Nike in 1996. There, as global director for advertising and brand communications, he was behind ads like “The Fun Police,” which showed NBA star Kevin Garnett reassigning CEOs to the cheap seats and moving the hoi polloi to the floor; and “Frozen Moment,” a 1996 ad that showed Michael Jordan driving to the basket as people across the world watched on their TVs.

Perhaps the biggest influence on his thinking was Ed McCabe, the legendary Madison Avenue copywriter with whom he worked at Scali, McCabe, Sloves. McCabe penned me of the most memorable ads in history, including “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken” for Perdue and “We answer to a higher authority” for Hebrew National. Frost, who seems to have a Bartlett’s Quotations edition lodged in his cortex, likes to quote McCabe’s maxim that the way to learn is “by being crushed.”

If that’s the case, then Motorola was learning quite a bit. In his interview for the job, then-CEO Christopher Galvin asked Frost point blank what he thought of Motorola’s advertising. “I told him any company that would pay a million dollars to the Rolling Stones to say ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ probably hadn’t really nailed it,” Frost said. Galvin, an affable–maybe too affable–chief executive, laughed.

Galvin, son of former CEO Robert Galvin, had his hands full at the time. Iridium, Motorola’s satellite-based wireless venture, flamed out in 1999 after costing the company more than $5 billion. While Galvin, who joined in 1997, couldn’t be blamed for that project, many investors at the time singled out his hands-off style for the company’s woes. The chief executive delegated responsibility to his top managers and was said to ask few questions during his meetings with the wireless group.

At the time of Frost’s arrival, Motorola executives were betting on a peanut-shaped phone called Shark that was designed to take on Nokia. Galvin was skeptical about the phone’s chances, but approved the launch anyway. When Shark hit, his initial instincts proved correct. Shark, which was larger than Nokia’s slim phones, flopped. (Galvin was eventually replaced by Sun Microsystems veteran Zander in 2004.)

With Frost on board, Galvin was ready to take some chances. “You always miss the shot you don’t take,” he said, quoting hockey’s Wayne Gretzky. John Dooner, CEO of McCann Erickson, was a close friend of Galvin’s, but he allowed Frost to assign Motorola’s account to Ogilvy & Mather, New York. Frost had other changes in mind. On his third day on the job, he got a note from a former Nike colleague at Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore., congratulating him on the move: “I understand why you did it. Cell phones are the new trainers.”

Frost was on the same page. He knew, just as Nokia did, that cell phones aren’t phones at all, but little devices that tell people who you are. Frost also recalls getting a note from a Motorola engineer whose son had asked, “Dad, why does Agent Mulder [of the show The X Files] use a Nokia phone?” That prompted Frost to open a product placement office in Los Angeles charged with getting the brand more exposure. His favorite placement so far is an episode of The Sopranos, in which Tony checks out a phone and says, “Motorola’s supposed to be the best.”

Another change came in Motorola’s advertising. Frost has said he found McCann’s “Wings” campaign, which played on the wings in Motorola’s logo, “weird and unmemorable.” Through Ogilvy’s research, he found something better. Kids in Taiwan had been referring to Motorola’s phones as “Motos,” but the term had been gaining currency elsewhere as well.

“‘Moto’ means something in just about every language,” said Frost, who speaks French, Russian and Italian. It means “hot” in Swahili, for instance, and “fat person” in Japanese.

Ogilvy’s ads, which launched in 2002, played on the concept with shots of young and hip-looking consumers and headlines like “HelloMoto” and “DivaMoto.” TV ads included music from cutting-edge deejays like Paul Van Dyk and Felix Da House-cat. In a 2003 TV spot, cars bounce and pool water undulates to the music, which stops as the phone rings and a German-accented voice answers “Hello, Moto.”

While important, though, advertising was icing on the cake–often a truism in tech. Apple’s iPod silhouette ads, for instance, may be brilliant, but there’s little doubt that iPods wouldn’t sell if they were poorly designed. “I think a lot of marketing is design,” said Frost. “The ultimate marketing medium is the product itself. Nike knew that.”

In a bid to make Motorola’s phones cool again, the company hired Tim Parsey from Apple in 2000. Now at Mattel, Parsey was behind well-received models like the V70, which looked a bit like a magnifying glass and included a cover that swiveled 360 degrees.

moto’s greatest success this decade was the Razr phone. Introduced in July 2004, Motorola has sold more than five million of the $499 metal-clad flip phones. Razr, the brainchild of designer Chris Arnholdt, was a direct swipe at Samsung, which had made its name in the category with sleek, high-end metal models. Only a half-inch thick and made of anodized aluminum–the same material as Apple’s G4 laptop–the super slick Razr (as in “razor thin”) indeed looks like it could have come from Steve Jobs.

Frost can take some personal satisfaction from that. Peter Planner, head designer at Motorola’s North American design studio, said Frost becomes heavily involved in product development. “I spent an hour with him this morning and he was actually sketching things,” said Planner last month. “He’s got a very good eye and a good sense of what works in the market.”

Planner also credited Frost, along with Zander, for coming up with the name “Razr,” whose vowel-truncated four-letter formula (Pebl, Rokr, etc.) lends an extra bit of hipness to the brand.

Pfanner said he knew right away that Razr would be a hit, but Frost acknowledged that he was taken aback by Razr’s success. “Frankly, it surprised even me, the way the thing took off,” he said.

Razr’s just the beginning, though. This fall, Motorola’s planning to roll out Pebl, a rounder, curvier successor that surfs the Web. In Frost’s view, Razr will be the father, and Pebl the mother, of the new family of Motorola phone “mutations.” Frost was mum about those products, but the company has trademarked other anti-establishment sounding terms including “Mjik,” “Mgik” and “Twst.”

Such rebelliousness has its incubator. Two years ago, Motorola built an engineering and design center in downtown Chicago to help the company brainstorm new products. The center allows proximity to urban trends (Chicago is deep into design) and is intended to lure those who consider themselves too young and hip to work in Schaumburg, Ill., the firm’s Chicagoland headquarters. Its designers work in an open-air setting, no land lines allowed.

Will the center churn out more Razrs? Iain Gillott, principal of Gillott Research, Austin, Texas, is skeptical.

“Motorola has a wonderful track record of brilliance followed by mediocrity,” he said, recalling StarTAC. “Razr is so successful they may become too reliant on that single design, which, by the way, is Nokia’s problem right now.”

Gillott wasn’t very impressed by Pebl, but did like Q a device that in his view, “looks like the Razr and [Research in Motion’s] BlackBerry had a baby.”

To combat fears of being a one-hit wonder (again), Motorola also struck a partnership with Apple that gives it and wireless carrier Cingular exclusive access to Apple’s iTunes technology. The first fruit of the deal was the Rokr phone, a much hyped stand-in to the iPod (it can hold 100 songs) that launched last month with supporting campaigns from Cingular and Motorola, both via new agency BBDO, New York.

Frost believes Nokia stumbled by betting too much on camera phones. The future, he believes, belongs to music.

Of course, Frost is just guessing, but as he pointed out, unearthing another Bartlett’s quote: “Science is what you do after you guess well.”

Photograph by Chris Casaburi