How I got here: Mark Penn

With over 40 years in market-research, advertising, and consulting, Mark Penn has advised world leaders, led companies, and written a bestselling book.

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Contributed by Mark Penn

“What I’m doing now is taking the skills that I’ve built up, in management and leadership, and an understanding of marketing, advertising, and research and applying that to the business world by running a significant marketing and advertising company,” said Penn.

Background

With over 40 years in market-research, advertising, and consulting, Mark Penn has advised world leaders, led companies, and written a bestselling book.

He is currently Managing Partner of The Stagwell Group, an investment fund he founded that is currently invested in over 20 marketing services agencies operating in 15 countries. He previously held senior roles with Microsoft and WPP, and strategic roles on political campaigns for President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Clinton, and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

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This reporter sat down with Mark to learn about his high school experience and how he became a successful leader in marketing and politics. I asked him about his early influences, how he chose his path, and about his personal philosophy. I enjoyed talking to him and learning about his life as a businessman. I learned a lot from this interview and I think our conversation could be very useful in helping students who are thinking about pursuing business as a career path in the future.

Early experiences and influences / choosing his path

SL: When did you first become interested in research? Can you tell me about the first poll that you ran in high school?

MP: When I was in high school, I watched a CBS show on race relations in America and they had a poll about attitudes on race in the country. I thought that it was interesting how they gathered the opinions of people, so I decided to do the same thing at my school. I made a similar questionnaire, gave it out to the faculty at my school, and published the results. I found that the faculty at the school was more liberal overall than the country. So that was my first poll. I thought wow, it’s interesting that you can find out what people think just by handing out a questionnaire.

SL: What clubs were you involved in in high school? Why did you join those?

MP: The two biggest clubs I participated in were the debating society and the newspaper. I found that both clubs gave me incredibly good training in understanding how to gather information, assemble it, put it in order, and explain it to people. I found those kinds of things to be really fun. For the newspaper, we had about 35 people, and I eventually became the editor. And the same thing in the debating society, I eventually became the head of the society. Those 2 activities I highly recommend, as not only were they fun activities with other people, but they were as useful as the school itself.

SL: What skills did you learn in high school that you feel helped in your career?

MP: In high school, I think that I was strong in math in particular and weaker in English. By working on the newspaper and debating society, I was able to bring the English skills together with the Math skills. And then when I got to college, I was really strongest in Economics because it was taking numbers and translating them into words. It was taking the statistics on what people were doing and trying to explain consumer behavior, so that had to me the right combination of understanding how to put things in words what was essentially based on numbers. Those were the primary skills that I learned coming out of high school that I was able to apply in college, and then later on in what I would do.

SL: Can you tell me more about your college experience and your role at the Harvard Crimson newspaper?  

MP: In college, on the Harvard Crimson, I eventually became the city political editor. I wrote about Cambridge stories and I also did polling for the paper. The Crimson was a step up from the high school paper and a lot of the people would become journalists over time, I learned a lot and it was a very social atmosphere. You’d come in at 4 p.m. after school was over and write a story and if you were on the editing crew that evening, stay until around 9 or 10, to try to get the paper done. So it took a lot of time. I covered a lot including the John F Kennedy Memorial library which was supposed to be placed at Harvard, but because of environmental concerns, it didn’t, which I think was a big mistake.

SL: How did you decide to start your research business?

MP: I had always intended to be a lawyer. In fact, I went to law school. But when I was on the Crimson, a fellow editor said “I have a summer job working for a political consultant, and I know you know how to do polls because you’ve done polls for the newspaper. Can you help me do a political poll?” So we sat down and did the first political poll together which was for someone running for Mayor, Ed Koch. And we did the poll ourselves, and then Ed Koch became Mayor of New York, so this became a kind of part-time business just after college and during law school. Then we started to get called upon to work for New Jersey governors, and then Connecticut, and as far away as Venezuela. So this became a hobby at the same time as I was going to law school, and then at the end I said well, this hobby has become more interesting than becoming a lawyer. So I made the rather radical decision to continue the polling, and my partner at the same time Doug Schoen made the same decision, and we opened up shop. 

SL: If a student would like to follow in your footsteps, what should they focus on now? 

MP: Well, I think that polling and analytics are much bigger now than they were. When I was doing it, it was very new. Also, consulting is very big and related to what we were doing, because we were taking the polls and not just recording them, but trying to explain behavior or give companies advice, or write political ads or speeches off of them. So I think that the activities on the newspaper and debating society were really helpful because not only do you have to do the work, but you also have to explain it to others and stand up to questioning. So getting those skills early will be valuable and be helpful in college. I think that today there is a lot of interest in data analytics which is very related to polling, and today they also teach statistics in high school which back in that day, they didn’t teach it at all. So I certainly would do the statistics over calculus, and would understand human behavior. I think psychology would be interesting, but I think, in general, it’s less about exactly what I did, but it’s about liking what you do. In this case, my hobby became my work. My work became my hobby. If you really like something, and get interested in it, and you do a really good job at it, I think that could become your career. 

SL: Who were influential people in your life growing up? Were there specific teachers or classmates that had a large impact on your development?

MP: I think my mother was the most influential in the sense that she valued education as the critical way to become something. And therefore she was willing to invest in it. I think she set a very good role model. In high school, I had a math teacher who I particularly liked because he required a lot of rigor. It was very interesting because a lot of people didn’t like his style because (he easily took points off), but I found it really helpful because it taught you to do work that was very precise and not sloppy. I thought being challenged by teachers who would get me to do excellent work had a great impact on me. Later on, I would work with President Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, and people who demand the highest level of excellence and responsiveness and I think that they were great preparation for that.

Skills, personality, and personal philosophy

SL: What 3 words best describe your personality?

MP: I’d like to think that usually people say I’m smart. I hope they say that I’m understanding and energetic. I might combine those three things. I spend a lot of time understanding how to lead people in organizations. Now I run a company with about 9,000 people and I really think it’s important in school to learn how to lead people in an activity. You can have a newspaper with 5 people on it. You can have a newspaper with 35 people on it. You’ve got somebody who’s out there really encouraging people, bringing them along, making it interesting, and that’s up to leadership.

SL: How did you develop leadership skills? As a leader, how do you get people to follow you?

MP: I think that over the years, I tried to see what other leaders did right. A lot of the people I worked for, I would look at, and say, what did I think they did right? How did they lead? You have to set an example for the team. You have to be hard working, you have to be considerate, you have to understand that leadership is about teamwork, it’s not about you being a leader, it’s about you motivating a team to do work together that no individual could possibly do. And then it’s also about finding the right person for the right job. If you’ve got someone that doesn’t know anything about sports writing the sports section, you’re not going to have a very good newspaper. But you’ve got to be a planner and help your group see your plan.

SL: Do you have a favorite quote or words you live by? What career advice can you share with students to help them attain success?

MP: I went to Horace Mann School, and Horace Mann had a very good quote – “It would be a shame to die, unless you’ve won some victory for humanity.” It meant that you will be doing a lot of things in your life, but try to make it meaningful, what you’ve done. That doesn’t mean you won’t do a lot of different things. You go through a lot of different stages in your life – you build a family, you build a career. I spent a lot of time working on presidential and other campaigns, and I’d like to think that work was a meaningful contribution to the outcome of the elections and the course of policies, so I found meaning in the work that I was doing.

Career accomplishments / present-day

SL: What would you say are the biggest accomplishments of your career? 

MP I think winning the 1996 presidential campaign. That was really 2 years of work, and very successful, and it was a big job. Starting with a situation in which we were way behind, and then by the end, everyone said, well that was easy. But that was the single biggest accomplishment. And then I wrote two books, Microtrends and Microtrends Squared. Microtrends was a bestseller on all the major lists. That was a significant accomplishment. I also liked doing many international campaigns and I got to learn about other societies and work on campaigns from England working with Tony Blair to a lot of work in Venezuela, Columbia, and Ecuador and just being able to translate those skills to new cultures to me was an accomplishment and very rewarding as work.

SL: How would you describe what you do currently?

MP: What I’m doing now is taking the skills that I’ve built up, in management and leadership, and an understanding of marketing, advertising, and research and applying that to the business world by running a significant marketing and advertising company. At the same time, I continue to have a hand in polling because I am the chairman of the Harvard Harris Poll so I continue to be involved in public opinion and polling.

SL: During this pandemic, what would you say you find most challenging? How do you handle the stress?

MP: The beginning of the pandemic was extremely challenging because our business – which is marketing and advertising – came to a halt. Many of the advertisers stopped their marketing budgets and that means many of the jobs in our company were affected. We had to save the company by taking a lot of measures to bring our costs in line so I would say the first 60 days were incredibly stressful. Work-wise those first 60 days were stressful because we didn’t know how bad the business would be off. I think it’s good that the economy has come back since and it seems to be going in the right direction.