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In the late 1990s there was a global buy-up frenzy of most of the world's major advertising, public relations, polling, fundraising and campaign management firms. This resulted eventually in the larger and more profitable of the firms being incorporated into three gigantic worldwide 'communications' multinational umbrella conglomerates (Four if you focus on advertising).
Each company in these conglomerates keeps their own management and identity, and they regularly buy smaller firms as subsidiaries. So the effect of this concentration of power and control is rarely obvious in these umbrella organisations. Moreover it is rarely exercised except very quietly among executive groups to service the largest of corporate interests.
In order of size and market power these four top conglomerates are:
The original name was Wire and Plastic Products which was a defunct British manufacturing company when Martin Sorrell bought it to use its corporate shell for his own advertising and PR operations. As WPP it led the way in acquisitions with the help of the Hamish Maxwell who became the CEO after retiring from Philip Morris.
WPP incorporated Hill & Knowlton which had been the world's largest PR company in the 1980s, and it also acquired Burson-Marsteller which had been No.2. Other PR companies quickly followed. It also acquired or assimilated JWT (J Walter Thompson), Ogilvy & Mather (both an advertising agency and PR), Young & Rubicam, Grey Advertising (GCI Group) and many others.
The advertising and PR companies are partnered by global media networks under the GroupM banner: Mindshare, MEC, Mediacom & Maxus, and more than 100 other diversified marketing agencies.
WPP also controls market research, PR, direct marketing, design and consultancy subsidiaries. Some significant recent additions were digital advertising network 24/7 Real Media in 2007; global research group TNS, (2008) and top German marketing group Commarco, bought in 2011. The group's last half-billion dollar acquisition was AKQA in 2012, but globally, it continues to absorb smaller businesses at an average rate of one a week.
WPP overtook long-time rival Omnicom in 2008 to become the world's biggest marketing group, as well as the most profitable, and it has been very much the personal creation of founder Sir Martin Sorrell.
Omnicom is the second largest of the marketing/communications services groups. It controls an extensive range of diverse communications businesses led by the global advertising networks of BBDO, DDB and TBWA, and the media buying network of OMD Worldwide.
The group also controls PR giant Fleishman Hillard and the direct marketing firm of marketer Rapp. It also has the branding agencies Interbrand and Wolff Olins. In 2014 Omnicom tried to merge with Publicis, which is No.3, and this would have made it the conglomerate leader, but the idea was abandoned because of internal disputes between the management teams and monopoly legislation threats.
This was a French conglomerate which bought Saatch & Saatchi and the Leo Burnett advertising groups and then reached the top ranks in corporate communications through a chain of acquisitions. The CEO, Maurice Levy, had a disastrous alliance with FVB in the 1990s, but then acquired Saatchi & Saatchi in 2000 and Leo Burnett in 2002. Later he took control of the creative company Bartle Bogle Hegarty which came under his full control only in 2012, and he then acquired a string of digital specialists including the American Digitas (2006), Razorfish (2009) and Sapient (or $3.7 billion in 2014). Its Starcom MediaVest is the No.1 media planner buyer, partnered by Zenith Optimedia.
Publicis overtook Interpublic in 2009. There were bitter disputes between July 2013 and May 2014 over the planned merger with Omnicom which didn't eventuate.
This has an advertising focus with its leading advertising network being the McCann Worldgroup which was an early pioneer in global marketing. It had financial problems in the early 2000s, but Interpublic remains one of the big four international marketing groups.
It is supported by integrated network FCB, and a diverse collection of other communications companies including creative agencies Mullen Lowe and Deutsch, PR giant Weber Shandwick and digital specialist R/GA. It's media networks include UM and Initiative.