The company was founded as Wire and Plastic Products plc to manufacture wire shopping baskets in 1971. In 1985 Martin Sorrell, searching for a listed company through which to build a worldwide marketing services company, bought a controlling stake of just under 30% at a cost of $676,000. Sorrell had been the financial director for the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi from 1977 to 1985, managing its takeovers of companies in the US and the UK. The holding company was renamed WPP Group and in 1987 Sorrell became its chief executive.
During 1986 WPP became the parent company of Picquotware, a manufacturer of teapots and jugs, based in Northampton. In November 1987 a fire destroyed the Northampton factory and production was restarted at Burntwood in Staffordshire. On 25 November 2004 WPP closed the Burntwood factory and stopped manufacturing Picquotware: all assets were sold on 14 December 2004.
In 1987 the company acquired J. Walter Thompson (including JWT, Hill & Knowlton and MRB Group) for $566m. The company listed on NASDAQ in 1988. In 1989 it acquired Ogilvy Group for $864m and in 1998 formed an alliance with Asatsu-DK Inc. of Japan.
In May 2000, WPP agreed to acquire the United States-based advertising company Young & Rubicam for $5.7 billion, in what was at the time the largest ever takeover in the advertising sector. The takeover made WPP the largest advertising company in the world measured by billings and revenue, overtaking Omnicom Group and Interpublic. In 2006, WPP took over majority share of China's largest field marketing and brand activation agency, Always Marketing. Always has since been placed under the J. Walter Thompson group to provide breakthrough into the Chinese market and full on field marketing and brand activation support to JWT offices around Asia. In 2007, WPP Digital was created to develop the Group's digital capabilities. In October 2008, WPP acquired market research firm Taylor Nelson Sofres for £1.6 billion.
In June 2012, WPP agreed to acquire the digital advertising agency AKQA for US$540 million. In March 2014 WPP agreed to acquire a minority stake in Swedish broadcaster FlowNetwork. In July 2015 WPP agreed to acquire a majority stake in the digital healthcare agency ABS Creative. Then in November 2015 WPP agreed to acquire a majority stake in Essence, a global digital agency.