Mark Penn made a name for himself in Washington by bulldozing enemies of the Clintons. Now he spends his days trying to do the same to Google, on behalf of its archrival Microsoft.
Since Penn was put in charge of "strategic and special projects" at Microsoft in August, much of his job has involved efforts to trip up Google, which Microsoft has failed to dislodge from its perch atop the lucrative Internet search market.
Drawing on his background in polling, data crunching and campaigning, Penn created a holiday commercial that has been running during Monday Night Football and other shows, in which Microsoft criticises Google for polluting the quality of its shopping search results with advertisements. "Don't get scroogled," it warns. His other projects include a blind taste test, Coke-versus-Pepsi style, of search results from Google and Microsoft's Bing.
The campaigns by Penn, 58, a longtime political operative known for his brusque personality and scorched-earth tactics, are part of a broader effort at Microsoft to give its marketing the nimbleness of a political campaign, where a candidate can turn an opponent's gaffe into a damaging commercial within hours. They are also a sign of the company's mounting frustration with Google after losing billions of dollars a year on its search efforts, while losing ground to Google in the browser and smartphones markets and other areas.
Microsoft has long attacked Google from the shadows, whispering to regulators, journalists and anyone else who would listen that Google was a privacy-violating, anticompetitive bully. The fruits of its recent work in this area could come next week, when the Federal Trade Commission is expected to announce the results of its antitrust investigation of Google, a case that echoes Microsoft's own antitrust suit in the 1990s. A similar investigation by the European Union is also wrapping up. A bad outcome for Google in either one would be a victory for Microsoft.
But Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, has realised that it cannot rely only on regulators to scrutinise Google - which is where Penn comes in. He is increasing the urgency of Microsoft's efforts and focusing on their more public side.
In an interview, Penn said companies underestimated the importance of policy issues like privacy to consumers, as opposed to politicians and regulators. "It's not about whether they can get them through Washington," he said. "It's whether they can get them through Main Street."
Jill Hazelbaker, a Google spokeswoman, declined to comment on Microsoft's actions specifically, but said that while Google also employed lobbyists and marketers, "our focus is on Google and the positive impact our industry has on society, not the competition."
In Washington, Penn is a lightning rod. He developed a relationship with the Clintons as a pollster during President Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, when he helped identify the value of "soccer moms" and other niche voter groups.
As chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful 2008 campaign for president, he conceived the "3 am" commercial that raised doubts about whether Barack Obama, then a senator, was ready for the Oval Office. Penn argued in an essay he wrote for Time magazine in May that "negative ads are, by and large, good for our democracy."
But his approach has ended up souring many of his professional relationships. He left Hillary Clinton's campaign after an uproar about his consulting work for the government of Colombia, which was seeking the passage of a trade treaty with the United States that Clinton, then a senator, opposed.
"Google should be prepared for everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them," said a former colleague who worked closely with Penn in politics and spoke on condition of anonymity. "Actually, they should be prepared for the kitchen sink to be thrown at them, too."
Hiring Penn demonstrates how seriously Microsoft is taking this fight, said Michael A Cusumano, a business professor at MIT who co-wrote a book about Microsoft's browser war.
"They're pulling out all the stops to do whatever they can to halt Google's advance, just as their competition did to them," Professor Cusumano said. "I suppose that if Microsoft can actually put a doubt in people's mind that Google isn't unbiased and has become some kind of evil empire, they might very well get results."
At Microsoft, Penn has assembled a team of fewer than a dozen people, about two-thirds of whom operate out of offices in Washington, where Penn lives, with the rest in the Seattle area. It includes some of his lieutenants from politics and from Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm where he was chief executive before joining Microsoft, a Burson client.
Josh Gottheimer, a former senior counselor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is a recent addition.
"The concept is to create a SWAT team to work with the product teams on some of their toughest problems," Mr. Penn said.
While typical corporate advertising campaigns can take months to gestate, Penn's team is set up to move much faster. It responded quickly in late October when Google completed a change in how it shows search results on its shopping service, displaying product listings only from merchants that paid to be included.
The team conducted Internet polls that found that most consumers were unaware of the change and bothered by it. In time for the holiday shopping season, it put together a campaign warning people that Google results might not include the best merchants or prices.
Google has said its shopping results improve when retailers pay, because they have an incentive to keep their listings accurate.
Penn has had a long consulting relationship with Microsoft going back to the late 1990s. He is said to be close with both Steven A Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, and Bill Gates; all three attended Harvard together in the mid-1970s.
Frank Shaw, a spokesman for Microsoft, said the company's willingness to go after competitors predated Penn's arrival, pointing to a video criticizing Google for scanning Gmail users' messages so it could deliver related advertising.
Marketing campaigns attacking competitors are common, though many technology companies view them as distasteful. Microsoft itself bore the brunt of one of the more brutal and effective negative campaigns, Apple's "Get a Mac" commercials, which featured John Hodgman as a bumbling PC.
Microsoft executives now concede that they did not effectively challenge the ads. Shaw himself has tangled with Google executives in combative Twitter and blog posts.
"If any of our competitors say things about us that we don't think are true, we're not going to sit on the sidelines," he said. "We're going to pop them."
2012 The New York Times News Service