NEW YORK: Burson-Marsteller global CEO Mark Penn has stepped down from his role at the WPP Group agency. The firm named former Clinton White House communications director Donald Baer to replace him.
Penn, who had led Burson since 2005, will join Microsoft as corporate VP for strategic and special projects.
“I've decided to take on a new challenge in technology and go to a company I've worked with for over 14 years,” Penn said. “I think [Microsoft] is one of the most exciting places to be, and Steve Ballmer is a great CEO to work with. Our first challenge will be taking on search.”
Baer joined Burson four years ago as worldwide chairman of strategic communications and chairman of research firm Penn Schoen Berland. He was named Burson's chief strategy officer in 2010.
Previously, Baer was senior EVP for strategy and development at Discovery Communications. From 1994 to 1998, Baer was senior adviser to President Clinton, serving as assistant to the president and White House director of strategic planning and communications. Previously, he was chief speechwriter and director of speechwriting and research at the White House. Before crossing over to the political world, Baer was assistant managing editor at US News and World Report.
Baer said the agency will continue to build on its key practice areas of crisis communications and public affairs while expanding in healthcare, technology, and consumer.
“Our job is to ensure that on every front we are there to make sure that the asset of reputation is doing everything it should be for the senior leadership in companies and for the shareholders,” Baer said.
Penn will also step down from his role at polling firm Penn Schoen Berland, but WPP will continue to own and operate the agency. Baer remains Penn Schoen Berland's chairman.
In his new role at Microsoft, Penn will lead a cross-functional team that works on consumer initiatives and report directly to Ballmer. The technology company unveiled the Surface tablet last month.
He will continue to write about consumer, demographic, and social trends, but will not be involved in public policy issues on behalf of the company. Penn will be based in Washington DC, but spend “substantial time” in Microsoft hub Redmond, WA, according to a statement from the tech company.
Penn was a pollster for President Bill Clinton and a key adviser to then-New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during her 2008 run for president, when she lost in the Democratic primaries to then-Sen. Barack Obama. He also wrote the book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes. Penn was ranked No. 19 in the most recent edition of PRWeek's Power List.
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 the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which Clinton opposed. The Colombian government later terminated its contract with Burson and Penn resigned as Clinton's chief adviser.
In 2009, MSNBC personality Rachel Maddow took Penn and his firm to task for its client roster, including insurer AIG and tobacco company Phillip Morris. “When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial,” Maddow said. Penn defended the importance of the agency's services in an internal memo.
Two years later, Burson came under fire again when the agency tried to plant negative stories about Google without disclosing that it had been hired by Facebook. Burson and Facebook ended their relationship following the controversy.
The agency also saw significant global growth during Penn's tenure. Burson opened its fifth office in China in 2011, a third office in Brazil, and it acquired South African firm Arcay Communications Africa. Growth in emerging markets helped the agency achieve global revenues of between $400 million and $450 million in 2011, including double-digit growth in Asia and Latin America.
In 2011, global headcount rose 4% at the agency to 2,288. The firm also promoted Dave DenHerder, former CEO of its grassroots subsidiary Direct Impact, to US CEO and moved former president Pat Ford into a global vice chairman role.
WPP CEO Martin Sorrell said in a statement that Burson "continues to be an industry leader with strategic public relations capabilities and a global footprint that few firms can match." In New York for a company-wide meeting at the agency, Sorrell declined additional comment.
Burson is the third major agency to announce a leadership change in the past month. Porter Novelli said in June that CEO Gary Stockman will leave his post at the Omnicom Group firm on July 31. He will be replaced by global strategy director Michael Ramah on an acting basis. At fellow Omnicom shop Ketchum, president Rob Flaherty succeeded former chief executive Ray Kotcher on July 1 in a long-planned change.
Grayling CEO Michael Murphy said July 5 that he will step down from his role as soon as a successor can be found. Edelman promoted former US CEO Matt Harrington to global COO on July 1, naming former Edelman China CEO and former MS&L chief executive Mark Hass to replace him.