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Washington Insider Mark Penn Turns to Private Equity

With backing from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, the onetime Clinton aide is starting an investment firm for the digital age.

U.S. voters MIGHT BE HEADING for a Bush-versus-Clinton presidential showdown, but one Clinton aide has certainly moved on from the ’90s, the era in which the Internet came of age in the form of Matt Drudge. Mark Penn, 61, became a pollster and adviser to then-president Bill Clinton in 1994, after midterm elections that proved disastrous for Clinton’s Democratic Party. Penn kept working for Clinton through the next six years of his presidency — the Harvard University graduate is famous for identifying pollsters’ perennial swing voter, the soccer mom — and advised Hillary Clinton on her successful 2000 senatorial race, during her time in the Senate and on her failed 2008 presidential campaign, when she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama.

Penn, who co-founded his own polling business, now known as Penn Schoen Berland, back in 1975, has significant experience in the private sector from before and after his time with the Clintons, most recently as executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Microsoft Corp. He first worked with the Redmond, Washington–based technology giant back in the mid-1990s. Prior to his most recent role at Microsoft, he was CEO of public relations and communications firm Burson-Marsteller. Now he’s putting all of his know-how — of polling, media, advertising and PR — into new private equity firm Stagwell Group.

Announced, appropriately enough, by a press release in mid-June, Washington-based Stagwell, where Penn is managing member and chief compliance officer, will invest in advertising, data analytics, digital marketing services, public relations and research. The firm has $250 million in assets and expects to make up to $750 million worth of acquisitions. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO from 2000 to 2014, is a core investor. Penn expects to be working full-time for Stagwell by September.

Describing Stagwell as “digital-first,” Penn is seeking to take advantage of investment opportunities in the exploding digital information and communications marketplace — although absent from his list of stated targets is any kind of journalism-based media property, such as BuzzFeed or Huffington Post.

His timing is interesting: He’s launching his firm at the start of what promises to be the costliest U.S. presidential election in history. More than almost anyone else, Penn knows what that means for funds flowing into fields like advertising and polling. He’s also been on the end of a painful lesson — from then-senator Obama’s 2008 presidential primary campaign — on just how effective a digital media and grassroots action effort can be.Tellingly, Stagwell’s offices are on Washington’s K Street, home to many of the think tanks, lobbyists and political advocacy groups that thrive inside the Beltway. Penn’s role at the firm doesn’t prevent him from taking on other assignments.

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