Ex-Clinton Aide, Mark Penn, has been hired as Microsoft’s new chief strategy officer among some praise but more criticism from within the company. Satya Nadella, who was named Microsoft CEO back in February, is tasked with reigniting growth in the company and is looking to the former political strategist to help spur the turnaround. In an email sent to the company on Monday, Nadella announced the hiring and welcomed Penn’s “blend of data analysis and creativity.”
Most of the criticism over Penn’s hiring stems from his Don’t Get Scroogled ad campaign, a campaign he initiated that ran more like a political attack campaign. After years in Washington, where he last worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Penn joined Microsoft in 2012 as a senior adviser to former CEO Steven Ballmer. From there he moved on to overseeing advertising. His use of data from his political days informed his approach to the new position. Along with data analysis expertise from polling comes his experience in dogfights. Penn conceived the idea for the “3 a.m.” television ad in the 2008 presidential campaign that set out to make voters question whether Barack Obama was ready to be president.
The Scroogled campaign attacked Google in order to highlight concerns over privacy. But at Microsoft, the campaign put Penn at odds with some of the managers, who are now criticizing his hiring as chief strategy officer. Outside of Microsoft, many in the tech world thought the campaign was tacky. Perhaps most importantly, the campaign did not seem to affect Google, who still dominates Microsoft in the search market.
Mark Moerdler, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., speculates that Penn may have been appointed chief strategy officer for his aggressive style, which will serve to counter Nadella, who is more of a deep thinker. Evidence of this is in Nadella’s company-wide email in which he wrote that he is looking forward to applying Penn’s “unique skill set across a broader set of challenges facing the company.”
Some critics at Microsoft contend that as overseer of advertising, Penn lost control of the budget. They also claim that he has worked the numbers on his research to support his own ideas. But those in his corner believe he rubs colleagues the wrong way by providing data that runs counter to their gut. In fact, at a meeting last year of roughly 100 senior leaders at Microsoft, Penn delivered a speech with the message “Don’t trust your gut.”
Ballmer brought the polarizing Penn to Microsoft to shake up marketing and combat the negative attacks from other companies such as Apple. In Apple’s Get a Mac campaign, they portrayed Microsoft as a clumsy nerd and the software being virus-prone. Ballmer thought the company was too passive in the press. But Penn’s ad campaigns have not all been aggressively negative. He developed this year’s Microsoft Super Bowl commercial, which drew acclaim for demonstrating how technology can empower those with disabilities. The commercial featured former NFL player Steve Gleason, who suffers from ALS and cannot speak, but narrates the commercial using Microsoft technology.
Despite the criticism from inside Microsoft, the hiring of Penn as chief strategy officer means that he will be more involved in determining which markets Microsoft enters and where it should be investing. It also means that, as Ballmer did before him, Nadella will count on Penn to be a key adviser.
By David Tulis