In 1985, Sorrell privately invested in Wire and Plastic Products, a British wire shopping basket manufacturer, and joined it full-time as Chief Executive in 1986. He began to acquire “below-the-line” advertising-related companies, purchasing 18 in three years, including in 1987 when he stunned the agency world with a $566 million “hostile” takeover of J. Walter Thompson. Sorrell followed this in 1989 with another dramatic hostile $825 million buy of Ogilvy and Mather. Since 2000, WPP has also acquired two more integrated, global agency networks, Young & Rubicam Brands and Grey.
WPP is regarded as the driving force for the period of consolidation which has been going on within the communications industry for the last ten – fifteen years. His WPP group has amassed the largest media buying group in the world, GroupM. Together with the creative agency networks, JWT, Ogilvy and Mather, Young & Rubicam and Grey, WPP is one of the three major players in the global advertising market.
WPP’s stock price soared and although the company then went through difficult times, during which it was on the verge of collapse, Sorrell’s determination and business acumen brought it around.
WPP has become one of the world’s leading communications services and advertising companies valued by the UK stockmarket at £5 billion. With billings of £37 billion and revenues of £7.5 billion, WPP’s operating companies provide national, multi-national and global clients with advertising, media investment management, information and consultancy, public relations and public affairs, branding and identity, healthcare communications, direct, digital, promotion and relationship marketing, and specialist communications services. WPP employs 140,000 people in 2,400 offices in 107 countries. He owns a substantial stake in the company through a series of pay awards and his own purchases of shares. Until recently he had never before sold shares in the company; his shares are worth around £70 million.
Sorrell himself is widely respected throughout the advertising industry, with his words being scrutinised and quoted by many within the marketing sector. Many industry observers credit him with the fact that the UK still has an independent, vibrant communications industry.