Once again, Burson-Marsteller has managed to surprise nearly everyone with its latest CEO appointment.
This time, however, its choice is not an "outsider," but rather a Washington and WPP insider. And the reaction this time was not so much the "Who?" that accompanied the naming of Tom Nides, but rather, "Him?"
Mark Penn, according to both those who like him and those who don't, is a brilliant strategist. He's the pollster who can, according to one DC regular, "go from data to substance," crafting messages and developing ideas from a quantitative foundation with unique insight. He is one of Sen. Hillary Clinton's top advisors, a real-life operative who has managed to leverage the skills of the political world to corporate research and positioning at Penn Schoen & Berland (PSB), for such clients as Microsoft and Ford. (He also attended Harvard University with Richard Edelman and worked with him at The Crimson, but that's another story.)
On the face of it, Penn seems less of a dark horse than Nides. But there are several questions that his appointment raises. First, does Penn have the experience necessary to lead a global agency? PSB has four offices in the US, compared to Burson's 44 wholly owned global outlets. While some PSB business clearly has an international element, deploying a worldwide workforce is quite a different challenge, one that even those brought up in the PR ranks are still assimilating.
It is not simply a question of global experience, however. Penn has been described by some as having an aggressive personality, which might not be an easy cultural fit for Burson. Some colleagues who work with him within WPP say that he is great at developing talent, but that reputation has not penetrated externally.
If Penn's primary directive is to be a rainmaker, someone with his level of CEO access and political clout will no doubt deliver. If that is the case, however, then the long-term strategy for Burson remains somewhat unclear. Howard Paster is taking on the part-time role of chairman to help guide operations, but will not remain in that role indefinitely. He surrendered his job as Hill & Knowlton CEO in 2002 to take on his current holding company role, and remaining unaligned to any of WPP's PR brands has clearly been an important part of Paster's approach.
But if another senior management level is needed at Burson, to hire, develop, and retain talent, and handle the turgid details of a global business in the era of Sarbanes-Oxley, we may look to more changes at the top sooner rather than later.
Finally, there is the question pertaining to Penn's political role. If Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2008, Penn will find it difficult, probably impossible, to remain a CEO and senior strategist at the same time.
Nearly six months have passed since Burson began searching for a replacement for Nides, who himself had not been in the job for a full year before he was wooed back to Morgan Stanley. Penn brings obvious assets to the role - including smarts and access. But in the greater context of agency management, his appointment has only stirred up more speculation about the long-term strategy of this venerable, though transitioning brand.