I found the stories today about Mark Penn getting the boot as Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist very interesting. Actually, previously I had found it more interesting that, as CEO of Burson-Marsteller, long a giant in the world of public relations agencies, he was even trying to do both. I spent a little more than 10 wonderful years at Burson-Marsteller. I got to work with the best minds in the business and was able to work on big-time assignments that I still talk about today.
But there was that ever-present wall of conflicts. Burson-Marsteller, like every agency, worked on controversial business when I was there, but I recall there was always a strict “is this a conflict” analysis that took place before we worked for a new client – this covered both whether there was a competing product or if the new business would affect work we were doing with other clients. I remember that we had to turn down many new business opportunities.
We were taught to be very loyal to the brands we represented (for example, you would never find a can of Pepsi in any of the offices since we represented Coca-Cola – especially if Harold was coming into town). Although I never heard it directly from Harold Burson, founder and still chairman, there was an unwritten rule to stay away from politics (you can see it’s been a while since I worked there). There was, however, a written rule to not take on any business that might have a direct or indirect negative impact on current client business.
My guess is that Harold Burson didn't like this arrangement, and probably saw the trouble that would be coming their way, but it looks like the scent of money and power was too strong for those now making the decisions.