History Lesson: A Timeline of Ad Agency Consolidation

Flurry of Deals in the '80s Carved Out the Current Landscape

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A flurry of agency deals and moves in the mid-to-late '80s put players in place -- WPP and Martin Sorrell, now 68; Publicis and Maurice Levy, 71; Omnicom and John Wren, 60 -- who would go on to lead the advertising business through decades of consolidation. We combed the Ad Age archives to provide an overview that helps put the megamerger of Publicis Groupe and Omnicom into context.


Martin Sorrell, finance director at Saatchi & Saatchi Co., took a stake in Wire & Plastic Products, a publicly traded U.K. wire-shopping-basket manufacturer. In 1986, Mr. Sorrell renamed the basket company WPP Group, using it as a platform to acquire marketing-services ventures. WPP still owns the wire-products business, which goes to market as Delfinware.

World's largest agency companies in 1985

1. Interpublic

2. Saatchi & Saatchi

3. JWT

4. Young & Rubicam


Omnicom Group exploded on the scene in April in what Ad Age dubbed the "Big Bang," the merger of BBDO, Doyle Dane Bernbach and Needham Harper into a new holding company. Former Arthur Andersen management consultant John Wren had joined Needham Harper in 1984; he became Omnicom CEO in 1997. He and Maurice Levy will be co-CEOs of Publicis Omnicom Group.

Saatchi & Saatchi Co. countered the Omnicom rollup by acquiring Ted Bates Worldwide, a major U.S.-based agency. This came on the heels of the Saatchi brothers' early 1986 acquisitions of U.S. agencies Backer & Spielvogel and Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. The Bates deal made London-based Saatchi & Saatchi the world's largest agency company. Saatchi & Saatchi Co. changed its name to Cordiant in 1995. Cordiant in 1997 split into two companies, Saatchi & Saatchi and Cordiant Communications Group (parent of Bates). Publicis bought Saatchi & Saatchi in 2000. WPP acquired Cordiant in 2003.

World's largest agency companies in 1986

1. Saatchi & Saatchi

2. Interpublic

3. Omnicom

4. JWT


Upstart WPP bought powerhouse JWT Group for $566 million. The deal included venerable ad agency J. Walter Thompson, PR firm Hill & Knowlton and a market-research business.

Paris-based Publicis reorganized its corporate structure, naming Mr. Levy chairman-CEO of the management board and Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet chairman of the supervisory board. Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet founded Publicis in 1926 at age 20; the name came from "Publi" (for publicité, which means advertising in French) and "six" (for his favorite number and a hint to the six in "1926"). Mr. Levy joined Publicis in 1971 as head of its information-technology department.

World's largest agency companies in 1987

1. Saatchi & Saatchi

2. Interpublic

3. Omnicom

4. WPP


Publicis and U.S. agency FCB entered a global alliance. But the partnership foundered in the 1990s, Ad Age wrote, "in a power struggle when both parties started making separate international moves rather than pursuing a common global vision."

After bitter negotiations, Publicis and FCB dissolved the venture in 1997. Mr. Levy made it clear he would seek new international partners. Publicis bought Saatchi & Saatchi in 2000 (as noted above) and Bcom3 Group (including Leo Burnett and Starcom MediaVest) in 2002.

Interpublic Group in 2001 bought True North Communications, the parent of FCB. Publicis as of year-end 2012 owned 1.1% of Interpublic, a holdover from Publicis' earlier relationship with FCB.

World's largest agency companies in 1988

1. Saatchi & Saatchi

2. Interpublic

3. WPP

4. Omnicom


WPP bought Ogilvy Group for $864 million. Ogilvy & Mather founder David Ogilvy, appalled by the buyout, called Martin Sorrell an "odious little shit." Mr. Sorrell invited Mr. Ogilvy to dinner to smooth things over. Mr. Ogilvy came around and accepted the deal.

World's largest agency companies in 1989

1. WPP

2. Saatchi & Saatchi

3. Interpublic

4. Omnicom


World's largest agency companies in 2012

1. WPP

2. Omnicom

3. Publicis

4. Interpublic

World's largest agency companies in 2012 (assuming Publicis Omnicom merger is approved)

1. Publicis Omnicom

2. WPP

3. Interpublic

4. Dentsu

Source: Ad Age DataCenter research.

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