British marketing giant WPP overtook long-time rival Omnicom for the first time in 2008 to become the world's biggest marketing group, as well as the most profitable. It has retained that position ever since, with revenues reaching a record high of $19.4bn in 2016. However, a sharp downturn in performance during 2017 was followed in early 2018 by an allegation that WPP's creator and CEO Sir Martin Sorrell had misused corporate assets, a charge he strenuously denied. With WPP's share price already in freefall, Sorrell stunned the global advertising community by resigning from the group he had assembled almost single-handedly over the space of 33 years to launch a new venture, S4 Capital. His successor Mark Read has since then been struggling to turn around the group's weakening performance. WPP owns four of the world's largest advertising agencies in J Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam and Grey. These are partnered by three global media networks Mindshare, Mediacom and Wavemaker, under the overall banner of GroupM. WPP also controls a substantial portfolio of market research, PR, direct marketing, design and consultancy subsidiaries. Whereas some rivals, like Omnicom and Interpublic, have largely avoided large acquisitions in recent years, WPP continued steadily to expand its portfolio in the 2000s, reinforcing Sorrell's reputation as arguably the industry's most skilled dealmaker. Among the more significant recent additions to the collection were digital advertising network 24/7 Real Media in 2007; global research group TNS, acquired during 2008 after a long and sometimes bitter siege; and top German marketing group Commarco, snapped up in 2011. The group's last $500m-plus acquisition was AKQA in 2012, but it continues to hoover up smaller businesses around the globe at an average rate of one a week during 2015, a year which also marked WPP's 30th anniversary.
Who are the competitors of WPP? See ranking of Leading Global Marketing Groups
Who are the clients of WPP? See individual agency profiles below for more
Subscribers only: Adbrands profile
|Group M||KR Media|
|24/7 Real Media||Kinetic|
|Chime Communications||The Wexler Group|
|Ogilvy PR||Buchanan Communications|
|Cohn & Wolfe||RLM Finsbury|
Design & Branding
|The Brand Union||Scott Stern|
|Coley Porter Bell||Warwicks|
Direct & Relationship Marketing
|Clockwork Capital||Global Sportnet|
|Metro Group||Spafax Airline Network|
|Prism||The Food Group|
Recent stories from Adbrands Weekly Update:
Adbrands Daily Update 28th Jan 2019: In an increasingly acrimonious batle of wills with Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP has been examining past expenses claimed by the group's creator and former CEO. It has already demanded - and received - reimbursement from Sorrell of around £170,000 in historic claims for personal travel and accommodation for Sorrell, his wife and child. WPP is still seeking repayment of other additional sums.
Adbrands Daily Update 18th Dec 2018: WPP was appointed as lead global marketing partner for Newell Brands, the widely diversified conglomerate that owns brands as varied as Papermate and Sharpie pens, Rubbermaid and Calphalon cookware, Graco car seats and Coleman outdoor supplies. J Walter Thompson was already the group's main creative agency, and the newly minted WundermanThompson will retain that responsibility as well as digital and CRM. Mindshare takes over as global media network (from PHD), and other members of a dedicated Team Newell unit will include VMLY&R for social media, and Geometry for shopper marketing. Combined annual marketing spend was around $580m globally in 2017.
Adbrands Daily Update 11th Dec 2018: WPP CEO Mark Read unveiled his long-expected update for the group's medium-term strategy (and also a new company logo). He offered a three-year "radical evolution" of the group, designed to reinforce its creative credentials and simplify its structure to make it more client-centric. He promised "a simpler, improved offer designed to capture the opportunities of a changing marketplace, and a streamlined structure built around the needs of clients" as well as "additional investments in creativity, technology and talent". Rather like the 2016 re-invention of Publicis Groupe, the most significant changes to WPP will be structural. "WPP has become too unwieldy," said Read, "with too much duplication. As a result it is not always as focused or as fleet of foot as it needs to be to satisfy the needs of all our clients around the globe." There will be no further major mergers along the lines of VMLY&R or Wunderman Thompson, but the group will press ahead with lower-level consolidation resulting in "fewer, more integrated companies" and further integration at a country level. This will include the elimination of around 3,500 jobs - or 2.6% of current staffing levels - and restructuring expense of around £300m over a three-year period.
Adbrands Weekly Update 29th Nov 2018: WPP was one of the surprise victors in the global Volkswagen brand creative review. The German auto giant confirmed allocation of its global business to three agencies. DDB - currently one of the brand's lead agencies in multiple markets - will retain the European account, while sister network BBDO keeps hold of Latin America through incumbent Brazilian agency Almap BBDO. Omnicom also keeps Australia and adds South Africa (from WPP's Ogilvy). However, WPP has been awarded the three key North American markets of the US, Canada and Mexico. It is forming a new entity to manage the business. The VW Partnership will include staff from creative agencies David and Taxi in the US and Canada respectively, as well as digital shop Possible, activation specialist Geometry Global and production division Hogarth. Cheil retains the brand in China. Major losers include Interpublic's Deutsch in the US and German indie Grabarz & Partner. (Could the latter end up under Omnicom's umbrella?). Publicis goes home empty-handed.
Adbrands Weekly Update 25th Oct 2018: It was another difficult week for WPP's new CEO Mark Read. On Monday, for the first time in more than a decade, the group lost its position as the world's most valuable marketing services group. WPP's declining share price had reduced its valuation to £13.2bn, or around $17bn, down from almost $30bn at its peak four years ago. Meanwhile Omnicom's value had risen to around $17.4bn. WPP's market cap took another steep tumble this morning (to around $14.5bn) following publication of 3Q results that were worse even than expected. Net revenues after pass-through costs were down 1.5% on a like-for-like basis (WPP's version of organic reported by other groups). That represented the group's worst performance for several years. On a reported basis, topline was down 0.8% to £3.8bn. The big problem remains North America, where LFL slumped 5.3%. The UK was also poor at negative 2.0%. The most serious declines are in WPP's advertising & media agencies which suffered a "significant deterioration" in the quarter, down 4.0% LFL. Kantar's research business was also negative at 1.2%. "Turning around WPP requires decisive action and radical thinking," said Read, "and our performance in the third quarter of 2018 reinforces our belief in that approach. As previously stated, our industry is facing structural change, not structural decline, but in the past we have been too slow to adapt, become too complicated and have under-invested in core parts of our business. There is much to do and we have taken a number of critical actions to address these legacy issues and improve our performance."
The first of these was the announcement that WPP's long-serving finance director Paul Richardson will step down during 2019 after 22 years with the company. His successor will be announced in due course. Another restructuring measure had already been announced. WPP said earlier in the week that its specialist health marketing networks Sudler, Ogilvy Commonhealth and GHG will in effect be eliminated in the US, absorbed instead into the existing VMLY&R, Ogilvy and Wunderman networks respectively. International outposts of those three healthcare networks will continue to operate, for the time being at least, under the WPP Health & Wellness banner.
Read also confirmed plans to press ahead with the long-anticipated divestment in part or whole of the struggling Kantar research division. "There is a significant opportunity to develop Kantar into the world's leading data, insights and consulting company," he said. "We believe in the potential for Kantar but given our many priorities, we need to make tough choices and we believe that the best way to unlock this potential is with a strategic or financial partner. The Board has approved a formal process to review the strategic options that will maximise share owner value. It is envisaged that WPP will remain a share owner with strategic links to ensure that the benefits to clients are realised. Preparations are underway, involving Kantar management, and unsolicited expressions of interest have been received."
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Free for all users | see full profile for current activities: British-born Martin Sorrell began his marketing career working for sports rights guru Mark McCormack at IMG, shortly after leaving Harvard Business School. He joined Saatchi & Saatchi in 1976, eventually rising to the role of finance director. In the early 1980s it was Sorrell who arranged the funding that allowed the Saatchi brothers to embark on their big acquisition spree, initially in the UK and then in the US. As a result he gradually replaced Tim Bell, who had previously been the Saatchis' right hand man, as the effective "third brother". However while the Saatchis were putting together their biggest deal of all, the takeover of Ted Bates, Sorrell was setting up his own business on the side.
In 1986, Sorrell acquired a large stake in Wire & Plastic Products, a small publicly quoted manufacturer of shopfittings and supermarket baskets, and resigned from Saatchis to begin assembling his own group. Wary of this potential rival, the Saatchi brothers attempted to keep a controlling hand on the new enterprise by offering to provide 20% of its capital. Sorrell declined, but did agree to sell the brothers a reduced 10% shareholding. He then set out to use WPP as his vehicle for growth, picking up a handful of small marketing services businesses. By 1987, Saatchi's was facing serious repercussions from its Bates takeover as clients deserted the US agency. Meanwhile Sorrell was secretly buying shares in another US agency, J Walter Thompson. In June 1987, Sorrell made an unprecedented hostile bid for JWT. Though rebuffed by the US giant, Sorrell refused to take no for an answer, eventually raising his offer to £352m. At this level, JWT's board was forced to concede defeat. It was a staggeringly audacious deal. JWT's sales at the time were over £400m, while WPP's were a paltry £24m. But the business community was amazed by Sorrell's skill and nerve, agreeing to support the highly leveraged purchase. WPP's share price soared. The Saatchi brothers quickly took the opportunity to sell their 10% stake, convinced that Sorrell's huge ambition would come crashing down to earth.
In fact the crunch came sooner than anyone had expected. Only three months later, the world's financial markets were devastated by the stockmarket crash which became known as "Black Monday". Share prices for all companies fell dramatically, but WPP was particularly hard hit, virtually halving. Nevertheless the company continued spending, funding payments on its increasing borrowings out of the cash flow of other newly acquired companies. Conquest was set up in 1988 to service international clients, and this was followed by the purchase of Ogilvy & Mather in 1989 for a cool $862m in cash. The capture of O&M made WPP the world's biggest marketing group (overtaking Saatchi & Saatchi) but it left a huge £650m debt. A year later the Gulf war crisis sparked off another near-recession. This time WPP's financial position was far worse than it had been four years earlier. For much of 1991, the group was very close indeed to collapse. The only thing that persuaded WPP's bankers to hold their nerve was the fact that Sorrell himself agreed to invest £2m of his own money as a gesture of his absolute confidence in the company's credit-worthiness. Meanwhile, as WPP struggled to keep its head above water, it was overtaken by the growth of Omnicom and IPG, who pushed the British group into 3rd position.
In return for his personal investment, Sorrell put in place an instalment incentive package designed to reward him and his management team handsomely if WPP returned to full financial strength. He set about this with great energy, acquiring or investing in a huge number of additional companies, mostly in the marketing services sector. WPP was an early investor in digital media, building up a strong portfolio of new media content and consultancy businesses. By mid-1999, Sorrell's efforts had lifted WPP into the FTSE ranking of the UK's top 100 companies. At the same time, his personal incentive package matured, netting him almost £38m in WPP shares and cash.
Later the same year Sorrell unveiled a new incentive package for WPP's senior management. In return for reinvesting $20m in bonuses and cash back into WPP, the new scheme promised to pay out another $100m in bonuses to senior managers, including $30m to Sorrell, if WPP's total shareholder return by 2004 was among the top two in a ranking of 15 similar marketing services companies. Capping a great year, Sorrell was knighted for his services to the marketing industry. According to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sorrell was one of several figures (among them Richard Branson) honoured because they had "left a mark on the century and will be beacons for the next century".
The next few months were comparatively quiet for WPP, although it continued to add a string of small marketing shops to its portfolio. The next big move came in Spring 2000, on the back of strong financial results for the previous year. In April WPP made a friendly approach to Young & Rubicam, offering the US agency's shareholders a one-third stake in a merged group, which would once again overtake Omnicom and Interpublic to become the #1 global marketing conglomerate. However Y&R's management team was not immediately receptive, and instead put in place a secret "white knight" deal with smaller rival Publicis, before tentatively agreeing to negotiations with WPP. The implication was that Y&R would talk to WPP, but on its own terms. If WPP's takeover bid went hostile, Y&R would merge with Publicis instead. By early May it looked as if Y&R had slipped off WPP's hook, and the company finally unveiled its plan to merge with Publicis. But shareholders were very unhappy with the new development, citing the very unsuccessful previous alliance between Publicis and FCB. At the same time Ford, a key client of Y&R, refused to back a deal with the French agency because of its affiliations with rival Renault. However Ford did already work with WPP's O&M network... Y&R was forced back to WPP's negotiating table and the deal was finally completed mid-month.
Meanwhile, WPP announced plans to launch a fourth global advertising network, rolling out the hitherto low-key Conquest brand globally. Singapore's Batey Ads and US-based Cole & Weber joined Conquest's 14 existing European offices to target medium-spend advertisers looking for global representation. The network was rebranded as Red Cell in early 2001. The group continued to complete a series of smaller deals that year, adding to its portfolio of marketing services companies, but it wasn't long before Sorrell was tempted to launch another big takeover. In summer 2001, WPP intervened in Havas Advertising's agreed merger with media group Tempus, launching a hostile counterbid. (See Tempus profile for more). Despite later attempts to pull out of the bid, WPP was confirmed as the new owner of Tempus by year's end.
In 2003, WPP snapped up failing British marketing group Cordiant Communications for a rock bottom price of £10m, a far cry from the £1.5bn at which it was once valued. WPP also took on Cordiant's £256m of debts. The acquisition was confirmed in late June 2003 after a brief skirmish with rival bidder Publicis. After initially attempting to force Cordiant into administration, Publicis withdrew from the fight, possibly because of indications that BAT and Pfizer, Bates Worldwide's last major clients, might not transfer their accounts to the French company. In September 2004, WPP was named the winning bidder in a contest to acquire Grey Global Group. The final bid was worth around $1.3bn net, split between cash and shares. A year later WPP was also linked to a possible bid for media service and research group Aegis. WPP was said to be interested primarily in Aegis's market research division, Synovate. The Carat and Vizeum networks would have been sold on to private equity group Hellman & Friedman. Any such speculation proved purely academic however. WPP eventually pulled out of any deal as a result of a fine display of brinksmanship by rival Aegis investor Vincent Bolloré.
Also in Autumn 2005, WPP generated some less welcome headlines after global creative director Neil French, already renowned for his outspoken opinions, made some ill-advised and apparently sexist comments about women in advertising at a marketing conference. As part of a speech criticizing women in advertising for spending too much time on childbearing and too little on hard work, he was reported to have said "Women don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to. They're crap." After a resulting barrage of negative media comment, he offered his resignation to Martin Sorrell in October 2005. Martin Sorrell himself made headlines that year after the terms of his divorce a few years earlier became public. The £30m payout to his former wife set a new UK record for a divorce settlement.
Another set of headlines followed in January 2006 after WPP instituted an investigation into possible fraud at its Italian operating business. Local manager Marco Benatti was fired at the beginning of the year. This led to further unwelcome attention on Sorrell's private life. A series of anonymous emails were circulated to media publications and WPP clients publicising the personal relationship between Sorrell and another WPP Italy employee, Daniela Weber, and also alleging financial impropriety. The emails appeared to originate from Fullsix, a digital agency founded by Marco Benatti and in which WPP was a minority shareholder. Sorrell and Weber later issued a lawsuit against Benatti and the managing director of Fullsix for libel and invasion of privacy. The case came to court in London in March 2007. Benatti offered compensatory damages without admitting his guilt. A subsequent lawsuit over his dismissal was settled privately out of court. See full profile for current activities
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