WPP has grown into the world’s largest communications service company by gobbling up a slew of advertising and PR firms the world over. Under CEO Martin Sorrell’s leadership, WPP grew famous (more often infamous) for staging some of the largest takeovers the advertising and communications industry has ever seen—notably JWT in 1987 and Ogilvy in 1989, both of which were hostile raids and helped earn Sorrell the moniker, “the Ogre of Madison Avenue.” WPP’s 2000 acquisition of Young & Rubicam was the biggest takeover in advertising history.
But while WPP is best known for its large acquisitions, the sheer volume of them is equally impressive. In 2000 and 2001, WPP bought over 35 and 25 companies, respectively. In 2013, WPP closed an astonishing 54 deals.
Owing to the sheer number of companies it has acquired, WPP was—and sometimes still is—referred to as a holding company. But, as Sorrell told the Harvard Business Review in 2016, he was never interested in running WPP in the hands-off fashion of a Berkshire Hathaway.
“Making acquisitions and trying to grow into a very large company was pointless without a cohesive strategy,” he said. “We needed to find a way to make one plus one equal more than two—to leverage our size for competitive advantage.”
In more recent years, Sorrell boosted that competitive advantage by buying up firms in the digital and specialty communications fields, explaining to Adweek in 2013 that he was focusing as much on “math men” as “mad men.”
“If you look at the last five, 10 years, the industry looks remarkably different,” he said. “We now sit with 35 percent of our business in digital and 30 to 31 percent in fast-growth markets. If you went back 15 years ago, digital didn’t really have any profile, and I think there will still be more disruptive technologies.”
Indeed, the only disruption Sorrell didn’t seem to anticipate was the one that just nudged him into retirement.
Below, a look back at some of the acquisitions—the major takeovers and some of the smaller buyouts, too—that turned Sorrell’s WPP into the behemoth it is today.
1975: Martin Stuart Sorrell joins Saatchi & Saatchi.
1985: Seeking out an existing company to build an empire around, Sorrell acquires a 30 percent stake in Wire and Plastic Products, plc, a U.K. shopping basket manufacturer.
1986: Sorrell renames the company WPP Group and starts putting ad agencies into his wire basket. WPP makes 11 acquisitions this year alone.
1987: Acquires J. Walter Thompson Group for $566 million, which also gives Sorrell control of research firm MRB Group and Hill & Knowlton, the largest PR firm in the world.
1989: Sorrell masterminds the $864 million takeover of the Ogilvy Group, which includes Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and Ogilvy Direct. WPP also gets control of Millward Brown and Research International.
1990: WPP acquires healthcare advertising firm Thomas G. Ferguson Associates.
1995: WPP begins shifting focus to acquiring companies in the digital-marketing arena.
1997: WPP buys a stake in online shopping company Peapod, London digital media firm Syzygy and data-mining company HyperParallel.
1998: WPP acquires retail consultants Management Ventures, Inc., and over 30 other firms.
1999: WPP buys Prism Group, a sports-marketing company, and corporate consultancy Lambie-Nairn.
2000: WPP acquires Young & Rubicam Group, giving WPP control of Y&R Advertising, PR giant Burson-Marsteller, corporate branding giant Landor, Wunderman, Sudler & Hennessey, and Cohn & Wolfe. Other companies in the year’s spree of over 35 acquisitions include in-flight media company Spafax and sports-marketing company Premiere Group.