Agencies Agency Models Mergers and Acquisitions

Mark Read’s mega-mergers return: why WPP has combined VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

October 17, 2023 | 8 min read

It’s been a while since we’ve reported on a merger at WPP. Now VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson – themselves the products of momentous mergers – are being consolidated as VML. Here’s why WPP is resuming its rationalization of agency brands.

VML's new bosses Jon Cook and Mel Edwards

Jon Cook and Mel Edwards, who will now lead the combined VML business. / VML/WPP

Holding company WPP has merged two of its largest agency networks to create a single entity, VML, which will house over 30,000 employees worldwide.

Wunderman Thompson and VML&R were previously among WPP’s largest creative networks. Both carried a focus on digital expertise, creative and, increasingly, e-commerce.

The new network will be led by Jon Cook as global chief executive officer, previously leader of VMLY&R, and Mel Edwards as global president. The pair were previously CEOs of the respective networks.

“With this new agency we have the chance to shape the future of modern marketing in every key market around the world,” Edwards said in a statement. “The opportunities it affords our people and the growth we can deliver for our clients at a global scale make this a real game-changer for each business and the wider industry.”

Though the merged business has been billed as the “world’s largest creative company” by WPP, Cook emphasized that “the future of building strong brands and businesses requires the interconnectivity of brand experience, commerce and customer experiences.”

“We recognized the immediate opportunity to create what every consultancy and advertising agency aspires to build with the formation of VML. We’re especially excited to present our new offering to the industry as we don’t believe there is another company as creatively awarded with our depth in customer experience and commerce.”

Why has WPP merged two of its largest networks?

Mark Read, the group’s chief executive officer, said that the move would provide the necessary scale for the group’s clientele.

“Scale matters in today’s world as AI and technology transform marketing and global clients look to simplify their relationships,” he said in a statement. “VML will combine world-class creativity with deep expertise in data, marketing technology and platforms to deliver competitive advantage for ambitious brands. It’s another important step forward for WPP as we continue to reshape our offer for the future, simplify our business and unlock further benefits of scale.”

VML, he said, was the “solution” to a “business imperative” in the form of marketers’ expectation of “seamless links between their brand advertising and technology solutions and platforms.”

According to Jay Pattisall, principal analyst at Forrester, the merger highlights the importance of CX and commerce practices to WPP’s business.

“When you look beyond the internal elements of nearly a dozen WPP agencies merging under Jon Cook and VML, the merger holds significance to the marketplace in that it signals the integration of customer experience, brand experience and commerce services – not just under one logo – but as inter-connected disciplines that form business solutions,” he tells The Drum.

“What this merger shows is that CX and commerce are part of the larger brand experience. And the larger brand experience requires creativity and creative problem solving to connect them and make them work as a whole.”

Not the first large agency merger

Both agencies were themselves products of large mergers in the first years of WPP chief executive Mark Read’s leadership.

Consolidation has been a hallmark of Read’s stewardship of the holding company, currently the largest advertising employer in the world. As well as Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R, his time at the top has seen subsidiaries merged into creative network Ogilvy, design shops grouped firstly together as Superunion and later again, as Design Bridge & Partners, and PR shops Sard Verbinnen and Finsbury Glover Herring paired together.

New York-headquartered Wunderman Thompson, originally just Wunderman, was founded in the late 1950s by brothers Lester and Irving Wunderman. It was first acquired by Y&R in 1973 and then WPP, in 2000.

It was merged with J Walter Thompson, one of the oldest ad agencies in the world, in 2018, as part of a plan to consolidate WPP’s sprawling empire of agency businesses. Edwards led the agency as chief executive through that transition, having joined the previous September.

VML, meanwhile was founded in the early 1990s, originally as Valentine McCormick Ligibel, and also later acquired by Y&R. Under WPP’s parentage, the firm was merged with that network in 2018.

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Wunderman has proven a reliable source of top talent for WPP in recent years. Mark Read served as global CEO of the network from 2015, while chief technology officer Stephan Pretorius previously worked as CTO of Wunderman, before moving up to group level in 2018.

At the time, Read said that: “VML and Y&R have distinct and complementary strengths spanning creative, technology and data services that make them a perfect match,” and called the merger “an important step as we build a new, simpler WPP.”

Read returned to that language again today, calling the latest merger “another important step forward for WPP as we continue to reshape our offer for the future, simplify our business and unlock further benefits of scale.”

As well as administrative efficiencies, part of the motivation for WPP’s merger spree has been demand for greater simplicity and speed from marketers – a need that one recent WFA survey suggested that the industry at large was still failing to meet.

“Marketers are tired of managing multiple, duplicative specialists. They must deliver the aligned experiences that consumer demand from brands,” says Pattisall.

Read suggested the newly integrated agency would stand a greater chance of delivering upon that promise, noting that the emergence of generative AI was set to “transform marketing.”

“Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R are two of WPP’s strongest and best-performing agencies. Together, they will deliver an even wider, fully integrated suite of capabilities to our clients in every market,” he said.

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