The 69-year-old, U.K.-born executive is expected to succeed Gordon Stevens, 70, as WPP's non-executive chairman. Mr. Stevens, former chairman of Unilever North America, has been chairman since `92 and probably will step down later this year or next.
The move marks the second time in a year a London-based agency holding company has tapped an executive with decades of U.S. multinational advertiser experience to fill a top-level post. Last summer, Cordiant hired longtime General Foods executive Bob Seelert as chief executive.
The idea in both cases was to bring in a client perspective-and connections. While Mr. Stevens has focused on financial matters such as debt reduction and investor relations for WPP, Mr. Maxwell is expected to have more client contact.
That should help Chief Executive Martin Sorrell fulfill his vision of turning WPP from a holding company into a parent that plays a role in its operating companies' work with clients.
WPP outlined such a strategy in its 1995 annual report, adding: "There can be little doubt that, with imagination, a sense of adventure and extreme vigilance, the value of the group to client companies can be a great deal more than the sum of its parts."
That vision is in part a product of two of advertising's most visible trends: account globalization and agency consolidation.
WPP ONE OF FIRST
WPP was one of the first to win a global account consolidation, in 1994, when IBM Corp. selected Ogilvy & Mather to handle all advertising worldwide. Within that assignment, O&M units such as O&M Direct and O&M Interactive have offered services to IBM.
More recently, an ambitious London-based telecommunications startup, ICO Global Communications, selected WPP to handle all its worldwide communications needs.
Mr. Maxwell couldn't be reached to discuss his role at WPP, but with him on the board, Mr. Sorrell will have a resource with plenty of experience in remaking a company. During a long career at Philip Morris, including seven years as chairman-CEO, Mr. Maxwell turned a tobacco company into the largest U.S. package-goods marketer. He oversaw numerous acquisitions, including the 1988 purchase of Kraft Foods.
Before becoming chairman-CEO in 1984, Mr. Maxwell worked in marketing.
"WPP needs a world-class marketing man on the board. Marlboro is one of the leading brands in the world, and [Mr. Maxwell] was instrumental in creating it," noted one U.K. analyst.
Joining the board with Mr. Maxwell will be Eric Salama, who has been strategy director for WPP since 1994.
Contributing: Laurel Wentz.