Outgoing Burson-Marsteller global CEO Mark Penn's legacy will be making research an important part of PR work, agency leaders told PRWeek.
Penn, who is joining Microsoft as corporate VP for strategic and special projects, expanded Burson's research and analytics capabilities. He also cofounded Burson's polling and research firm Penn Schoen Berland, which helped to elect former President Bill Clinton and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“He made a major contribution by placing an emphasis on research as part of the PR offering. He was one of the people who really brought it to the forefront,” said Jack Martin, global chairman and CEO of fellow WPP Group agency Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “That was a huge benefit to the industry.”
Penn was a key pollster for President Clinton and a key adviser to then-New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during her 2008 run for president. When he was appointed Burson's global CEO in 2005, Penn told PRWeek that he focused on "taking aggressive political methods and applying them to commercial situations."
“As more rigor gets applied to evaluating the success of campaigns, and as the content of politics gets applied to business in the sense of targeting messages to different stakeholder audiences, he was one of the major pioneers in that kind of work,” said APCO Worldwide CEO Margery Kraus.
Burson said Thursday that Penn is stepping down from his role at the WPP agency, naming fellow Clinton White House veteran Donald Baer as his replacement. Penn is also exiting Penn Schoen Berland, but Baer is continuing as the firm's chairman.
During his tenure, Penn counseled Burson's client Microsoft, and he helped strengthen the agency's practices in public affairs and crisis communications, agency leaders noted. Revenue also increased under Penn's leadership, including significant global growth in emerging markets such as Asia and Latin America.
“He did a really good job of getting the company to a first-class position in public affairs, and he also got them into some quite substantial client relationships like Microsoft,” said Edelman president and CEO Richard Edelman. “In short, he'll be remembered as having turned the ship around.”
But to some, Penn was also a controversial leader, known for his demanding style.
“He was a tough manager for certain people,” said one agency leader. “This change is very welcomed.”
As an adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, Penn faced criticism for a perceived conflict of interest after he met with officials from Colombia, then a client of the firm, to discuss Burson's work on a fair trade agreement that Clinton opposed. The Colombian government later terminated its contract with Burson and Penn resigned as Clinton's chief adviser.
“There's Mark Penn the head of Burson-Marsteller, and Mark Penn the political person,” Edelman said about split public perception of Penn's legacy.
Two years later, the agency came under fire again when it tried to plant negative stories about Google without disclosing that it had been hired by Facebook, which led to Burson and Facebook ending their relationship.
Agency leaders said they don't expect Burson's direction to change significantly under Baer's leadership.
“I think [Penn and Baer] are really quite similar,” Edelman said. “At one point Edelman tried to persuade him to come to our agency, but he was too close to Penn.”
Baer joined the agency four years ago as worldwide chairman of strategic communications and chairman of Penn Schoen Berland, and he became Burson's chief strategy officer in 2010. Several agency leaders said that Baer is “well-regarded” in the industry.
“He's also regarded as somebody who is really part of the future,” Martin added.