The Interpublic media network has acted swiftly to install Duff as its president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa following the departure of Chris Shaw last month.
Universal, hit last year by client losses such as General Motors in the US and L'Oreal in key European markets, has begun a rebuilding process under its new worldwide chief executive, Nick Brien.
Brien said recruiting talent was his top priority and praised Duff's "experience from both agency and media owner sides of the business".
Duff will join Universal on 6 February, five months after leaving ITV Sales. He took the job after meetings with Brien and Mark Rosenthal, IPG Media's chief executive.
Duff said: "I wanted to return to the agency side and, from a strategic point of view, I get to extend my boundaries beyond the UK. The real attraction of Universal McCann is there is so much change - new people and a clear sense of commitment from IPG towards its media agencies."
Duff was the Zenith chief executive until 2001, when he joined Granada Enterprises as its chief executive.
- Comment, page 40.