Mark Penn's questionable road to Microsoft's Chief of Strategy

The PR-pro's got a mixed record -- and it's not so clear his past clients would give him rave reviews.

What do Disney, military contractor Blackwater, the Clinton impeachment hearings and the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections have in common?

All have been associated with Microsoft’s new head of strategy, Mark Penn.

As part of his first management shakeup as Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella named political bruiser and PR pro Penn as the company’s Chief of Strategy on Monday. In a statement, Nadella said Penn would help guide the company’s product development and investments going forward. This is a shift from his previous position, running ad and media strategy with marketing chief Tami Reller.

Among the steady tech backgrounds of most Microsoft brass, Penn’s resume stands out like an orange shirt in a boardroom. Nadella, for example, has been with the company for over 20 years, and once led R&D for the Online Services Division. Penn’s been around less than two years, and once arguably cost Hillary Clinton the 2008 Democratic nomination.

There’s been debate about whether this move represents a promotion or demotion for Penn (more on that later), but there’s no argument that in coming years Microsoft’s challenges are strategic ones. Rather than maintain a steady course, the company must find new categories to dominate, make bigger incursions into existing markets and fend off threats to its core products to thrive in the long-term.

The official driver of these efforts is now Penn, whose background and data-driven, aggressive approach have made him the subject of a lot of conversation at Microsoft. As the freshly minted strategic leader of one of the world’s largest companies, interest in Penn now encompasses a wider audience, and many people are newly curious about his background and record of strategic success to date.

For these questions and more, a Mark Penn primer is in order. Starting with the most important question of all…

What does this mean for you?

If there’s one immediate effect this move will have, it’s on every TV viewer: Microsoft’s commercials will be changing direction. The people in charge of them for the past few years – Penn and marketing chief Reller – have been relieved of duty.

In political circles, Penn is famous for two things: helping patch Bill Clinton’s public image during impeachment proceedings, and his negative approach to campaigning. As Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist in 2008, he advised her to attack Obama’s lack of “American roots,” and his most famous ad is the “3 A.M. Call” spot, which evoked a middle-of-the-night crisis to convince people to vote Hillary.

Penn’s relationship with Microsoft stretches back to the 90s, and reflects both these calling cards. He helped patch the company’s image after the 2000 anti-trust ruling by the U.S. Justice Department and, since joining Microsoft officially in July 2012, he’s established himself with campaign-style attack ads on Google and Apple.

Penn’s “Scroogled” campaign took aim at everything from Google’s privacy policies to the functionality of their Chrome netbooks. Recent ads for the Surface tablet pit it against the iPad, with a Siri-like voice moping about the Surface’s superiority.

Whether the ads moved the business needle for Microsoft is subject to debate, though the Scoogled campaign has its share of critics both inside Microsoft and out. Tech blog Valleywag argued it “did nothing but embarrass Microsoft employees and provide easy jokes.” As Penn and Reller move to new pastures, the ad strategy of the past few years will likely be jettisoned.

If his first initiative at Microsoft didn’t take, why is he now the Chief of Strategy?

For starters, some argue the campaigns were effective. Penn reportedly made this case to Microsoft leadership using poll data, saying “Scroogled” raised awareness of Google’s privacy issues. He’s used such data to justify decisions throughout his career, though it’s been in dispute at times. As a critic at Microsoft recently told the New York Times, “I wouldn’t say they’re cooked numbers [Penn presented], but they’ve certainly been spiced.“


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 6:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, who knows. The spin business is about results, and can be sleazy.

Having a shower handy so you can take several a day, as well as some holy water, is mandatory

Geezer

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 7:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Fill your boots with MSFT puts.

crossrip

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »