Penn could be an inspired choice for Microsoft

The big PR agency news just keeps on coming. This week, Mark Penn stepped down from his global CEO role at Burson-Marsteller to take on a new role at Microsoft reporting directly to CEO Steve Ballmer as corporate VP for strategic and special projects.

The big PR agency news just keeps on coming. This week, Mark Penn surprisingly stepped down from his global CEO role at Burson-Marsteller to take on a new role at Microsoft reporting directly to CEO Steve Ballmer as corporate VP for strategic and special projects.

Penn will not move to the Northwest to be close to Microsoft's Redmond head office, rather he will remain in Washington, DC and travel extensively, including spending “substantial time” in Redmond.

He has been a key adviser to both fellow Harvard alum Ballmer and Bill Gates since 1998, including spending considerable time and effort on rebuilding the tech giant's reputation after its damaging anti-trust scandal.

The new role means he relinquishes any involvement in Penn Shoen Berland, the polling and research firm he founded in 1976 that was instrumental in helping elect Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It is still not completely clear why Penn decided to move on. He might not have been everyone's favorite person within Burson-Marsteller, but he certainly did a good job in fortifying the WPP firm's public affairs and research capabilities and aggressively grew revenues, to the extent that the agency was regularly called out in WPP's financial statements as a star performer across the group.

Perhaps he grew tired of the constant grind of having to produce the 15-20% margins every year on top of testing growth targets that are laid down by holding company CEO Martin Sorrell. There is some talk that Penn wanted a group role overseeing WPP's PR interests similar to the late Howard Paster's position, but that Sorrell turned that suggestion down.

Penn will be replaced by Don Baer, who he recruited in 2007 to be chairman of Penn Schoen Berland and vice-chairman of Burson-Marsteller, so there should be a strong sense of continuity in the handover, which has presumably been planned for some time - even though it came as a complete surprise to most in the industry. Baer will also continue to be based in DC.

Like Penn, he has a strong background in politics, especially working with the Clinton administration. From 1994 to 1997, Baer was a senior adviser to Clinton on domestic and foreign policy as White House director of strategic planning and communications and earlier as director of speechwriting and research. He was also a key member of the Clinton/Gore 1996 reelection team.

After that, Baer made his commercial bones at global media operator Discovery Communications, reporting directly to the Discovery channel owner's CEO and managing strategy and development such as corporate partnerships, new ventures and acquisitions, new media, corporate affairs, communications, research, and public policy.

I expect it to be business as usual at Burson-Marsteller. And, who knows, Ballmer may have made an inspired choice in choosing Penn to lead on strategy, initially concentrating on search and Microsoft's Bing product.

Google has slightly taken its eye of the ball recently regarding search, and maybe Penn's micro-targeting techniques can help propel Microsoft back into the search battle full throttle for the first time since the dying embers of the dotcom boom.

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