Arun Sudhaman

Working the angles around media, comms and marketing.

Mark Penn part 1 – The repair job begins

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PennIt has taken a while to track Mark Penn down. Especially if you want to talk about the remarkable way that Hillary Clinton’s presidential run self-combusted last year. Penn has kept a reasonably low profile – limiting big interviews to his Microtrends books, and – you imagine – nursing a few grievances about the fallout.

There’s no other way to put it, but Penn has been absolutely excoriated for his efforts last year. There was plenty of pent-up emotion waiting to be unleashed, with several stories gleefully recounting his reported missteps and revelling in the personality clashes that lit up Hillary’s team.

I make no apologies for any of that. But I have always wanted to interview Penn because – for better or worse – he has played a pivotal role in defining political communication over the past 30 years. Luckily he agreed to sit down, and  no subject was off-limits. This story examines his claim that it is far too early to write Gordon Brown off. Meanwhile, a fuller Profile will run in PRWeek’s next issue, investigating where it all went wrong, and what he plans to do next.

Even with all of that coverage, there was still plenty of stuff that was left unpublished, which I am running after the jump. He hits back at the charge that the microtrend era is over and aggressively defends his record. The repositioning, perhaps, is in full swing.

A common charge that is now levelled at Penn is that the 2008 election illustrates that his vaunted microtrend strategy no longer applies in a landscape that has been dominated by big themes like the economy and the environment. His response:

It’s always been a world of both, whether it was the kind of strength of experience that Hillary was offering, or whether it was Obama’s message – there always has to be a global message. But you should never underestimate that Obama’s critical path to success was his microtargeting of core, particularly youth, constituencies in caucus states. On the mass message front, in the primaries, Hillary wound up with more delegates out of the primary battles and won those battles. Obama had a director of microtargeting – so this is a classic false choice between the two.

I wrote about microtrends because there are so many books at present about the bigger trends, people were seeing a lot forest but not seeing the trees. Teaching people to get down to the next layer of information is increasingly important in an internet world, because you can bring together marketplaces and people that were previously too small to bring together in a single community. Now you can organize them across communities – you can sell to them across communities. The power of one per cent has never been greater – and it would be a mistake to underestimate that.

If you take a look at the financial crisis, sub-prime mortgages defaulting were a mere 1.7 per cent of all mortgages. Look at the power of the microtrend and the failure to really understand what was developing because it would have been perceived as too small to be important. It was the most important thing in the world.

Penn pushed the line last year that Obama owed his success to caucus state wins, which were less significant than Hillary’s success in bigger primary states. It’s a dubious argument and attracted a lot of flak. I asked him whether he thought Obama’s success ‘vindicated’ his microtrend strategy, but – unsurprisingly – he stopped short at that point. Either way, I’m not sure that his Obama argument holds much water in terms of justifying microtrends. He’s on safer ground with the rest of his response.

Next up, how can his background in polling really move communication forward? Penn liked this question. It wasn’t about 2008.

The Penn Schoen polling can be really predictive but it also includes a really complete scan now of all of the information on the web. It means creating certain indexes – we can look at words that appear next to your company’s name multiple times. Let’s say the word monopolist appears within +/-10: that’s a problem. We can also create both objectives in terms of image and also measure progress in that fashion.

In terms of the marketplace generally there’s a lot more openness to polling than there was 5-10 years ago. Part of that is polls have become somewhat less expensive because of the ability to poll on the internet. Second, I think that oftentimes they are driving multimedia campaigns that are combined with advertising so those larger budgets also support the messaging.

There are many people who would question just how predictive Penn’s polling is after last year, but I feel that he makes a strong argument for better use of numbers in comms. It is always a major issue in the industry and anything that can improve quantification is welcome.I also like the idea that it can drive larger campaigns than purely PR.

Part 2 will follow soon, with, among other things, Penn pointing to Karl Rove to prove that things aren’t so bad for him after all.

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Written by Arun Sudhaman

July 30, 2009 at 1:23 pm

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