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Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Political Brawler, Now Battling for Microsoft

A Political Brawler, Now Battling for Microsoft

Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times

Mark Penn, who is charge of “strategic and special projects” at Microsoft, has been criticized for his negative advertising tactics.

SEATTLE - Mark Penn made a name for himself in Washington by bulldozing enemies of the Clintons. Now he spends his days trying to do the same to Google, on behalf of its archrival Microsoft.

Since Mr. Penn was put in charge of “strategic and special projects” at Microsoft in August, much of his job has involved efforts to trip up Google, which Microsoft has failed to dislodge from its perch atop the lucrative Internet search market.

Drawing on his background in polling, data crunching and campaigning, Mr. Penn created a holiday commercial that has been running during Monday Night Football and other shows, in which Microsoft criticizes Google for polluting the quality of its shopping search results with advertisements. “Don't get scroogled,” it warns. His other projects include a blind taste test, Coke-versus-Pepsi style, of search results from Google and Microsoft's Bing.

The campaigns by Mr. Penn, 58, a longtime political operative known for his brusque personality and scorched-earth tactics, are part of a broader effort at Microsoft to give its marketing the nimbleness of a political campaign, where a candidate can turn an opponent's gaffe into a damaging commercial within hours. They are also a sign of the company's mounting frustration with Google after losing billions of dollars a year on its search efforts, while losing ground to Google in the browser and smartphones markets and other areas.

Microsoft has long attacked Google from the shadows, whispering to regulators, journalists and anyone else who would listen that Google was a privacy-violating, anticompetitive bully. The fruits of its recent work in this area could come next week, when the Federal Trade Commission is expected to announce the results of its antitrust investigation of Google, a case that echoes Microsoft's own antitrust suit in the 1990s. A similar investigation by the European Union is also wrapping up. A bad outcome for Google in either one would be a victory for Microsoft.

But Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., has realized that it cannot rely only on regulators to scrutinize Google - which is where Mr. Penn comes in. He is increasing the urgency of Microsoft's efforts and focusing on their more public side.

In an interview, Mr. Penn said companies underestimated the importance of policy issues like privacy to consumers, as opposed to politicians and regulators. “It's not about whether they can get them through Washington,” he said. “It's whether they can get them through Main Street.”

Jill Hazelbaker, a Google spokeswoman, declined to comment on Microsoft's actions specifically, but said that while Google also employed lobbyists and marketers, “our focus is on Google and the positive impact our industry has on society, not the competition.”

In Washington, Mr. Penn is a lightning rod. He developed a relationship with the Clintons as a pollster during President Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, when he helped identify the value of “soccer moms” and other niche voter groups.

As chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful 2008 campaign for president, he conceived the “3 a.m.” commercial that raised doubts about whether Barack Obama, then a senator, was ready for the Oval Office. Mr. Penn argued in an essay he wrote for Time magazine in May that “negative ads are, by and large, good for our democracy.”

But his approach has ended up souring many of his professional relationships. He left Mrs. Clinton's campaign after an uproar about his consulting work for the government of Colombia, which was seeking the passage of a trade treaty with the United States that Mrs. Clinton, then a senator, opposed.

“Google should be prepared for everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them,” said a former colleague who worked closely with Mr. Penn in politics and spoke on condition of anonymity. “Actually, they should be prepared for the kitchen sink to be thrown at them, too.”

Hiring Mr. Penn demonstrates how seriously Microsoft is taking this fight, said Michael A. Cusumano, a business professor at M.I.T. who co-wrote a book about Microsoft's browser war.

“They're pulling out all the stops to do whatever they can to halt Google's advance, just as their competition did to them,” Professor Cusumano said. “I suppose that if Microsoft can actually put a doubt in people's mind that Google isn't unbiased and has become some kind of evil empire, they might very well get results.”

Nick Wingfield reported from Seattle and Claire Cain Miller from San Francisco.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 15, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Political Brawler, Now Battling for Microsoft.