Thomas L Bernardin, chief executive for the New York office of Lowe & Partners Worldwide, is to join Leo Burnett Worldwide as chairman and chief executive-in-waiting.

Initially he is appointed president for worldwide operations, also chief executive for US activities, reporting to Burnett group chairwoman and chief executive Linda Wolf.

But Wolf, who is 56, plans to step down from her present role within twelve to eighteen months, handing over to Bernardin. This would make him the first outsider ever to lead the Publicis Groupe-owned agency.

Says Wolfe of the agency's eponymous founder, who died in 1971: "Leo would applaud this. He was about progress, never standing still, doing things in new ways. This is about ensuring that Burnett is successful not only today but tomorrow as our business changes."

Burnett has not had an easy time of it lately. Not only have there been two high level departures (worldwide president Bob Brennan and global chief operating officer Steve Gatfield, but a number of high profile clients -- Delta Air Lines, Philips Electronics, Polaroid, Sara Lee and Starbucks -- have also walked.

Bernardin, himself no stranger to clients riding off into the sunset during his one year at Lowe, said he was aware of the daunting challenges often faced by executives imported to run bigger agencies. "I'm confident of my ability to get into the culture, embrace the culture and move the agency forward," he said.

And as the first outsider likely to helm Burnett, Bernardin added: "I am tremendously honored to have this opportunity because nobody has had it before."

Burnett, which in 2002 had US revenues of $379 million -- more than three times those of Lowe -- still retains an enviable list of clients, among them Altria Group, the US Army, Kellogg, McDonald's and Procter & Gamble.

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff