Profile: Mark Penn, global CEO, Burson-Marsteller

Vilified by the media, Mark Penn tells Arun Sudhaman why he is still the best person to lead Burson-Marsteller.

Mark Penn
Mark Penn

Mark Penn is not your average PR professional. This is the man credited with delivering a second term to Bill Clinton. Or, conversely, the strategist who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for Hillary Clinton. He was driven off her campaign when it emerged he helped Colombia lobby for a trade deal she opposed.

Then there is his personal style: as far removed from the usual agency glad-handing as possible. Penn does not give many interviews, and it is not hard to see why. He is an awkward customer, squirming his way through the photoshoot and rarely appearing to be anything other than ill at ease.

But he is ready to talk. Penn took plenty of flak for, among other things, not giving up lobbying while advising Clinton. He quaintly calls these attacks 'criss-cross': the price paid for a life in political circles, not a reflection of his record.

'Politics is pretty rough,' he says, with something approaching a laugh. 'If you are in politics, you have to be prepared for that. We live in highly partisan times.'

More than a year on, it appears the bitterness of the 2008 battle has dwindled. If his brand was tarnished, Penn resists the implication that his tribulations are unique, even though MSNBC host Rachel Maddow attacked him for heading the agency that 'evil has on speed-dial'.

'If you go through the history of most major PR firms, they will get criticised for their clients,' counters Penn. 'We are not responsible for what could turn out to be the misdeeds or even great deeds of the clients we work for.'

All of this media attention begs the question: does Burson-Marsteller (B-M) really benefit from Penn's involvement? Among the many willing to brief against the 55-year-old, there is also a grudging acceptance that his arrival changed the agency. 'Relatively speaking, B-M has performed pretty smoothly since Penn arrived,' says a former senior WPP source. 'Surgery was required, even if Penn may have cut into the bone.'

For the past 20 years, Penn's polling operation, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates (now part of the B-M group), has ploughed a lucrative furrow of corporate work, advising clients such as Microsoft and AT&T: services increasingly integrated into B-M's offering. Penn is keen to point out '90 per cent' of his work is of this nature.

'The net effect has been that the firm has had very strong growth and increased identification from the political model,' he claims. 'People realise it played a big role in one of the biggest campaigns in history, which came within one per cent of winning.'

When Penn talks political strategy, it serves as a timely reminder of an intelligence on display in his controversial book Microtrends. 'He is one of the most thoughtful and analytical observers I've worked with when it comes to comms and ideas,' says B-M vice-chairman Don Baer, who first worked with Penn in the Clinton White House.

This, adds Baer, is allied to an intense work ethic, illustrated by emails at 'hours when you would have imagined he might have been asleep'.

That intensity, says the former WPP source, can manifest itself in a 'less than collegial' work atmosphere. Anyone who meets Penn is aware he is probably more comfortable with numbers than people. If this is a weakness, it could also be a strength - one he hopes will change the relationship-based nature of PR into what he calls 'evidence-based PR'.

'The PR business has become more interested in polling and research,' he says. 'At a recent PR conference, the golf outing used to be a big deal. Now, people need BlackBerry breaks instead.'

'He isn't touchy-feely,' says a senior B-M source. 'Funnily enough, that's why he's successful with CEOs.'

Despite success in the corporate world, Penn remains defined by politics. A pollster is only as good as the last campaign and the ructions of Hillary Clinton's nomination battle still shape perceptions of him.

'It was a wafer-thin margin so there are always a couple of things that could have been done differently,' he muses. 'But look: Obama is an excellent president and Hillary is an excellent secretary of state, so everybody ended up on the same team.'

It is odd that a man with a successful 30-year career still appears to have plenty to prove. Yet Penn is ready with advice he feels could lead Prime Minister Gordon Brown back from the precipice (PRWeek, 31 July). A similar rejuvenation of his own brand would hardly be unwelcome. Penn must understand this better than most - because that could be a comeback of Clintonesque proportions.



What was your biggest career break? When I was asked to make a presentation to President Clinton on how the country regarded his administration in early 1995. It went so well I was invited back to do a series of presentations that resulted in the basic 1996 presidential campaign strategy. From that single opportunity I became lead adviser of that general election campaign and continued for the next term to hold weekly strategy sessions with the President and the entire senior White House staff.

Have you had a notable mentor? I have been very fortunate to work with leading businesspeople and politicians, often at their most difficult moments, and learned an incredible amount from each.

What advice would you give someone climbing the PR career ladder? Do what you enjoy. Be patient and work at your craft long enough to gain the experience and insight you need to succeed. Do what others aren't doing. Aim higher than you expect to achieve.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits? Good academic performance but also a strong ability to deal with the real world to make things happen.



2008: Chief strategist, Hillary Clinton campaign for President of the US

2006: Worldwide CEO, Burson-Marsteller

2000: Pollster and consultant, Senator Hillary Clinton

1995: Pollster, President Bill Clinton

1981: Pollster, Menachem Begin campaign for Prime Minister of Israel

1978: Pollster, Luis Herrera Campins campaign for President of Venezuela

1977: Pollster, Ed Koch campaign for Mayor of New York

1975: President, Penn, Schoen & Berland

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