In a single bound, Mr. Bernardin leapt from his post as CEO at Lowe to the No. 2 executive slot in Burnett's senior-management shuffle, quashing some of the succession questions that have kept the Publicis Groupe agency off balance in recent months. Not only did the move set up an orderly transition for Ms. Wolf-a lingering concern on Wall Street-it also handed instant authority to Mr. Bernardin. Now he'll need to convince agency observers that his background adequately prepares him to lead the second-largest U.S. agency out of its post-acquisition heartburn.
"It was a big leap and I'm proud of it," said the dapper and gentlemanly 50-year-old.
"In my career, I've been totally creative and client focused," said Mr. Bernardin, who prefers a soft-spoken approach that is more Clark Kent than Man of Steel. He has earned a reputation as an unflappable executive who can manage strong personalities, something in abundant supply at the Windy City agency. "I believe passionately that my job is to bring people together and find talent and create an agency where creative can thrive."
To be sure, many observers credit Mr. Bernardin with steering Bozell's creative rebirth when he was president-CEO of the Interpublic agency before it was rolled into Lowe, New York. At Bozell, he hand-picked fiery South African creative director Tony Granger, who in 2001 snared five gold Lions at Cannes for the shop, a feat Burnett desperately wants to achieve.
"He's a creative's CEO," said Brent Bouchez, founder of Bouchez Kent, New York, whom Mr. Bernardin had recruited to Bozell. "Staying out of the way and letting creative people do what they do is one of his biggest strengths."
Some suggest Mr. Bernardin lacks horsepower in new business, strategy and vision. It's an assertion he and his new bosses shrug off and others deny.
"He's very experienced, very driven and very smart," said Leo-Arthur Kelmenson, longtime chairman of Bozell and now chairman of Foote Cone & Belding. "I don't think he's a lightweight. None of us ever had certain jobs until we get promoted to them."
Still, converting Cannes gold into green has been a challenge for Mr. Bernardin. After helping net the Banc of America, Datek and Jergen's accounts for Bozell in 1998 and 1999, new-business wins were relatively insignificant, and Verizon Wireless, the account he was most associated with at Lowe, left the agency."I stand on the new-business record that I'm on," he said.
Over three months he rose up out of a pool of 10 candidates to a shortlist of three to fill the void left in the succession pipeline when Worldwide President Bob Brennan and Chief Operating Officer Steve Gatfield left Burnett late last year.
"Brennan and Gatfield had been considered heirs apparent, but it didn't work," said Maurice Levy, CEO of Burnett parent Publicis Groupe, who said the search was "a bit complicated."
"Burnett has such a strong culture and to find somebody with the business acumen, the right sense for creativity and a personality that is adaptable to the Burnett culture was a real challenge," he said.Indeed, Mr. Brennan was considered a strong leader who nonetheless ran into roadblocks trying to transform Burnett.
A Detroit native with gasoline in his veins, Mr. Bernardin has long been associated with car accounts from Jeep to Chrysler, which should prove useful with General Motors, a client of Burnett's auto agency Chemistri.
Mr. Bernardin's appointment "puts to rest all the open issues, any questions we had about our management going forward," said Clive Sirkin, group managing director in charge of multinational client accounts. "Now we can focus on execution. People now know there's a good depth of management."
contributing: jean halliday, lisa sanders
Name: Tom Bernardin
Now: President-Leo Burnett Worldwide
Who: The first outsider to be named president and heir apparent for CEO of the worldwide agency, Mr. Bernardin leapt to the No. 2 agency brand and the 9th ranked global agency network from Lowe, the 19th ranked domestic agency.
Challenge: Repeat for Burnett the creative turnaround he steered at Bozell and get the U.S. agency back into fighting shape for big, global pitches before succeeding Linda Wolf as CEO.