Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn Leaves for Microsoft

Will Transition to a Strategy Post at Tech Giant, Rather Than PR

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Former Hillary Clinton adviser Mark Penn is stepping down from his post as global CEO of Burson-Marsteller to join Microsoft -- a long-standing client -- in a top strategy role. He'd been leading the WPP agency since 2005.

Mark Penn
Mark Penn

Mr. Penn's official title at Microsoft will be corporate VP-strategic and special projects, reporting to the tech giant's chief, Steve Ballmer. Replacing Mr. Penn at Burson-Marsteller will be its vice chairman, Donald Baer.

Mr. Baer joined Burson-Marsteller four years ago in the role of chief strategy officer. He had served as chairman of Burson-Marsteller's sibling research firm, Penn Schoen Berland, and will continue in that role. Prior to joining the public-affairs giant, he served as senior exec VP for strategy and development at Discovery Communications.

Like his predecessor, Mr. Baer spent time earlier in his career in Washington, where he was a White House communications director and adviser under President Bill Clinton. Mr. Baer had worked with Mr. Penn on Clinton's reelection campaign in the mid-1990s.

The firm's global revenue was $452.4 million in 2011, up 4% from $435 in 2010, and U.S. revenue of $200 million was flat year-over-year, according to the Ad Age DataCenter. The Burson-Marsteller network includes B/W/R, Dewey Square Group, Direct Impact, Penn Schoen Berland, Prime Policy Group and Quinn Gillespie & Associates.

The change at the top comes as Burson-Marsteller is stepping out of its traditional mold. Typically known for public affairs and crisis, it has become much more aggressive in the consumer brand space over the past year, and the company vows to continue on this trajectory.

"We tried to lay a foundation for expanded consumer and digital," Mr. Penn told Ad Age . "Burson had been known as well for crisis and corporate communications, and this [path] is critical to keep growth going."

So why, after clocking so much time as a top political advisor and crisis comms expert, is Mr. Penn leaving? By the sounds of it, it's to try something new at a company he's been incredibly close to for years.

Mr. Penn has been working with Microsoft for 14 years, with the relationship beginning in 1998, when he was brought on as a consultant on Microsoft's Department of Justice crisis. At the time, he was running his research shop, Penn Schoen Berland, which is now part of the Burson-Marsteller.

Regarding this Microsoft relationship, Mr. Penn said: "As a result of the work we started, [Penn Shoen Berland] has 20 people in Seattle that continue to do PR work today in all various disciplines."

He stressed that his new role is not a communications job. "I'll be forming a SWAT team that reports to [Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer to work on interesting opportunities for growth. I'll be focused on specific [technology] products starting with search," he added. The teams will work on projects that "go right to the core marketing initiatives."

Mr. Penn's hire comes as Microsoft has initiated a slew of marketing cuts and has been restructuring its operations.

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