SEC Charges World’s Largest Advertising Group with FCPA Violations
Washington D.C., Sept. 24, 2021 —
The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced that London-based WPP plc, the world’s largest advertising group, has agreed to pay more than $19 million to resolve charges that it violated the anti-bribery, books and records, and internal accounting controls provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
According to the SEC’s order, WPP implemented an aggressive business growth strategy that included acquiring majority interests in many localized advertising agencies in high-risk markets. The order finds that WPP failed to ensure that these subsidiaries implemented WPP’s internal accounting controls and compliance policies, instead allowing the founders and CEOs of the acquired entities to exercise wide autonomy and outsized influence. The order also finds that, because of structural deficiencies, WPP failed to promptly or adequately respond to repeated warning signs of corruption or control failures at certain subsidiaries. For example, according to the order, a subsidiary in India continued to bribe Indian government officials in return for advertising contracts even though WPP had received seven anonymous complaints touching on the conduct. The order also documents other schemes and internal accounting control deficiencies related to WPP’s subsidiaries in China, Brazil, and Peru.
“A company cannot allow a focus on profitability or market share to come at the expense of appropriate controls,” said Charles Cain, the SEC’s FCPA Unit Chief. “Further, it is essential for companies to identify the root cause of problems when red flags emerge to prevent a pattern of corrupt behavior from taking hold.”
Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, WPP agreed to cease and desist from committing violations of the anti-bribery, books and records, and internal accounting controls provisions of the FCPA and to pay $10.1 million in disgorgement, $1.1 million in prejudgment interest, and an $8 million penalty.
The SEC’s investigation was conducted by Samantha Martin and Laura Bennett. The investigation was supervised by David Reece and Charles Cain. The SEC appreciates the assistance of the Securities and Exchange Board of India and Brazil’s Comissão de Valores Mobilários.