Mr. Bernardin, 49, is a survivor.
Printed on the newest card in the bunch is the sky-blue logo of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe, New York, and Mr. Bernardin's new title: chief executive officer. He comes to the agency from Interpublic sibling Bozell, which he also led. The two shops merged in February and for a brief time, Mr. Bernardin took the title of president-chief operating officer. With Lowe CEO Paul Hammersley's decision, made public last month, to leave, Mr. Bernardin ascended.
"I love being in this brand," Mr. Bernardin said. Speaking philosophically as well as from personal experience, he noted that sometimes "in life, it is amazing how things fit together."
Leading the agency started by Frank Lowe has special significance for Mr. Bernardin. In the 1980s, when Mr. Bernardin ran McCann's General Motors' Opel business in Europe, Lowe Howard Spink had Vauxhall, another GM brand, in the U.K. and was perceived as a major threat to McCann's hold on Opel. Both men were attending a screening of new work from Lowe, which greatly impressed Mr. Bernardin. "I was a pipsqueak," he recalled. "Lowe was the ultimate. I was in awe of him and of the agency."
Such respect for creative work, say Mr. Bernardin's current and former colleagues, is one of his hallmarks. "Tom knows what good creative is and he fights for it," said Gary Topolewski, chief creative officer, Publicis Groupe's Chemistri, Detroit, who worked with Mr. Bernardin on Ford's Jeep account when the business was at Bozell, Detroit, and the pair won a Grand Prix at Cannes for their "Snow-covered"spot. "He wants to make sure the best thinking is put forward and he knows ... how to convince the client of the right thing to do for their brand," Mr. Topolewski said.
In 1997, Mr. Bernardin moved from Detroit to New York, where he was named agency president in short order. In a few years, with new creative directors and under Mr. Bernardin's leadership, Bozell experienced a creative renaissance, winning more print Lions at Cannes in 2002 than any other U.S. agency. "Tom's focus on the product raised the Bozell New York creative profile very high," said David Bell, now chairman-CEO of Interpublic. "That made an opportunity to join with Lowe a natural."
But despite their creative strengths, neither Lowe nor Bozell have excelled over the past few years at winning substantial new accounts. Fixing on the positive, Mr. Bernardin points out Lowe's recent successes with Cablevision's Rainbow SAT and Federated Department Stores' Macy's. "We've got to keep that momentum," he said.
Name: Tom Bernardin
Now: CEO, Lowe, New York
Challenge: Build on creative strengths and win new accounts.