Sorrell Backs Burson Boss in Political Conflict of Interest

10 April 2008

LONDON: The ceo of political lobbying and PR firm Burson-Marsteller, Mark Penn, has held onto his job despite his recent impalement on the horns of a diplomatic dilemma that resulted in the loss of a major client – the controversial rightist government of Colombia.

Penn, who strove to bestride two bipolar political clients – the Colombian government and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign – fell foul of the latter after it emerged he had met with the Colombian ambassador to discuss the passage of a proposed US free trade agreement, which is vehemently opposed by the steely senator.

Penn, who served as chief strategist to the Clinton campaign, was on the receiving end of a stinging rebuke from the Democrat contender and he promptly issued a public apology to Mrs C for his indiscretion.

This did not go down at all well with the Colombian government which promptly pulled its account from Burson.

And despite Penn's apology to Clinton, his wrist was slapped for wanting to keep his cake and eat it too – resulting in his demotion from the campaign's chief strategist to a lower profile role.

But Sir Martin Sorrell, ceo of Burson's owner WPP Group, was in philosophic mood over the imbroglio. In an interview with the Financial Times he said: "We see clients that can cause controversy in all arenas. Clearly, as Mark indicated, he made an error in judgment and it was the wrong thing to do."

Penn, he told the FT, was not about to be despatched to WPP's departure lounge. "Burson-Marsteller is doing extremely well at the moment and Mark will continue as ceo and develop the business further,” Sorrrell said.

"The dividing lines in those sorts of situations, I can imagine, being quite difficult to establish – you have to look at every decision on its merits.

Remaining in Zen mode, he continued: "Both commercial and political clients today can present unique challenges and potential clashes and conflicts which were difficult to imagine a few years ago." 

As for firing the Burson boss for his costly "error of judgement", the supportive Sir Martin would not wish to rile some of Penn's other loyal clients – such as former British premier Tony Blair and the multibillionaire mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg.

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff