Mumbai: Mark Penn, chief executive officer of Penn Schoen Berland, a strategic research firm and the worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations and public affairs agency, has helped to elect over 25 leaders in the United States, Asia, Latin America and Europe, including serving as chief adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election and to Hillary Rodham Clinton through her senate and presidential races. Previously, he was also adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, helping achieve an unprecedented third term win for Labour in the . He talks to Mint about what President Obama should be focusing on in the upcoming re-election, what our government should be doing in the face of the very public protest by activist Anna Hazare, and why political parties should focus on the youth in . Edited excerpts.
Having worked closely with presidential candidates in several countries, how would you rank the ability of Indian leaders in being able to communicate with voters?
I think it is a vibrant democracy in which the leaders are really communicating very strongly with the people. Just in the few days I’ve been here, obviously I have been watching the controversies they are having over the corruption. I think the government is going to have to do more to respond, if you look at how this situation is playing out. All the attention is going towards the hunger strike (by Anna Hazare). The huger strike has seized the communication dynamic. I think the government has primarily been effective, but in this case they have been put on the defensive. And I’m going to be fascinated to see how this resolves itself in the coming week or two. If you are in the government now, you have to be highly responsive and visible. You have to got to create some of the picture yourself and show unambiguously that you are on the side of eliminating corruption and not let it be falsely painted as though you are not for eliminating corruption as strongly as anyone else. Just from the way I see it dominating the news that unless they give an effective response, they are going to see this issue drag down their ratings. And that will not be deservedly so. I think it is a strong government and how they respond to this is a test for them now.
What are going to be your focus areas in India? Is it going to be working with political candidates or with the corporate sector?
Penn Schoen Berland has always tried to do some of both. To really work with the political sector, if there is a market here, there is greater interest in understanding in-depth what voters are like, how are they changing and what messages really affect them. I think we are going to probe the marketplace here. The same thing with companies and brands that are looking to get closer to their customers or looking to branch out here in India or abroad. Those will be equally markets we look at. And third, we’ve taken a lot of political methods and transferred them to corporate and into Hollywood work. Right now we work with all the major Hollywood studios helping to position and market the movies and we are also going to look at the Bollywood market here, and see if they are ready to do that kind of professional marketing work. My sense is that there should be a very good market for the kind of work we do in all three spaces.
In one of your columns you say that President Obama can win re-election if he takes the right road. What does he have to do?
It’s very important to understand that the re-election is very different from a first election. The first election, people want to know who you are. In the second election, they want to know—“We already know who you are, and we want to know what you’ve done and what you’re going to do?” People are looking for him to be a stronger leader as president. I think he’s stepped in now to play a central role in the budget negotiations, which I think really was an important first step in bolstering that kind of domestic strength. He has a lot of points to focus on, he has to deal with the deficit and come to a financial resolution. And he has to continue to deal with unemployment. But as I say in the piece, right now, he should consider himself his opponent. He has to improve his own image, so that it is strong enough to sustain re-election. He has to give people a very clear vision of what he’s going to do if he’s re-elected, that’s new, that’s different and he didn’t do in the first term cause he will ultimately be running against an opponent who will have a different vision. He’s going to have to paint that vision more importantly than anything else he can do.
During President Clinton’s re-election in 1996, the strategy focused on target segments such as soccer moms. Who should Obama focus on?
An interesting segment for him to look at is the new professional. Most Americans consider themselves professionals -- they are not working in factories, they are not professionals in a lawyer-doctor sense, but they have jobs as professional managers, in advertising or public relations and so are making a significantly higher-than-average income and in the past those voters would have gone to the Republican party but those voters tend to be more environmentally friendly, tend to be more socially conscious. They tend to have a lot of attributes that would draw them to Obama. But they are also very concerned about deficit and financial security, so if he doesn’t assure them of financial security or lower taxes, he will quickly find those out of reach, but if he does assure them then the rest of his policies are very much in sympathy with what they believe. So he can actually do very well, as he has done in the past with those people in America making the lowest incomes and he can do well with people in America making the highest incomes. And this new professional voter which has emerged is the new ‘soccer mom’ of the time..
In you book “Microtrends”, you say that because of niching there is no one America anymore, but hundreds of Americas. What is your sense of India?
I think India is a wonderful country for microtrends. And one of the things we will do at Penn Schoen Berland is to isolate Indian microtrends. This is a young country with fresh, new and developing consumers with new members of the middle class. It’s interesting, if you looked at America, a lot of microtrends focused on old people, because older people were the ignored demographic and as a country America has never been older. So if you look at India, a culture which I think has never been younger, you will be driven by all these fresh, vibrant, microtrends. In the book of course I have this trend of Indian women rising, with the chief executive of Pespi (Indra Nooyi) and others which is all about the remarkable, global success of smart, commanding Indian women that has got to be a coming out of the culture. So we are looking to start identifying Indian microtrends as this is a great country for it.
You referred to the soccer mom target group in America. Any Indian target segments that have caught your attention?
I’m really fascinated by the political involvement of the culture and so I would try and look at, you can see unfolding here this whole new political movement. So, I think you’re going to see a lot of change politically. I think people in India have a vibrant democracy, nevertheless, they are saying: “Well, I see how everyone reorganized in the (Middle East) and it’s been a while since we did that.” And I suspect you will also see the emergence of a lot of political groups as there is a general call for reform. That should be interesting to watch, as there will be a renewed political consciousness. People are sensing that “we’ve come a long way in our economic sphere and now we got to also make progress in the political sphere so that we can march ahead.” So I’m going to be looking particularly at the younger voters and how they emerge and look at the political segment.
How have you prepared yourself, to work in a developing economy?
The truth is that I have worked a lot with developing countries, mostly in the 80s in preparation for my work with President Clinton. I worked all throughout Latin America, Thailand, I’ve worked with 25 different races and worked with 25 different leaders and I lately got the privilege of working in the UK and the US. I’ve had a lot of my training in developing democracies, developing economies, developing societies and understanding cross-culturally how the survey research we do gets to the bottom of what people are thinking. We used to work for companies such as Texaco and Caltex ??? surveying their consumers across 45 countries and I started out leveraging on the early political work that I had done for overseas leaders. And almost every overseas leader has the same thing to say: That “the press doesn’t understand me and no one knows what I have accomplished.” And later when I got to work with the American president, they would pretty much say the same thing (laughs).
Who are the two-three Indian CEOs who have done well in aligning their personal brand with that of their organization. What are the lessons for other CEOs?
I won’t go into specific names. What we are seeing here is that you have a number of founding chief executive officers. The chairman of Tata really scored number one above the rest. But because the economic revolution started only in 1991, there are only so many years that the few bigger companies have really developed. They have primarily developed on the basis of family CEOs or founder CEOs, who typically do a very strong job moulding the company. Then those CEOs have the challenge of institutionalizing the company and passing it over to CEOs who did not found the company or own the company or most of it but are really, in effect, professional CEOs. We’re beginning to see some transition on that. As you can see in the PSB survey, there were 10 CEOs who we highlighted, all of which in India are doing an extremely strong job on behalf of their companies. As you saw, Indian CEOs have a long way to go to get the full recognition I think they would like to see globally. I think there is a healthy and positive attitude towards Indian companies and CEO. They are beginning to make an impression at Davos and the very elite gatherings.
From a perception point of view, what do Indian companies have going for them and what do they need to improve as they cross home borders and enter foreign markets?
What they have going for them is that India is looked at generally in a favourable light. They see Indian companies as generally having good governance, producing good quality products, seen as a country that generally is moving in the right direction. So in that sense India is a very good platform for going global. As we saw in the survey, respondents felt that that the competitive advantage is not from creativity and innovation but from lower cost so I think that India has to do more to highlight its innovation.
What’s interesting is that the leading Indian sector is seen as IT and technology. In order for that to be the case, it really takes a vibrant group of very smart, software engineers who can produce things, not just at the lowest cost but also at the highest quality and level of innovation. India has to do more to project itself as a hotbed of entrepreneurship and innovation as opposed to just a place where costs are low.