WASHINGTON, DC — The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has fined marketing giant WPP more than $19m over multiple allegations of bribery and for failing to meet anti-corruption and accounting standards at some of the holding group's acquired subsidiaries.

According to the SEC, the holding company had “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.”

It continues: “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.”

Charles Cain, the SEC's Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) unit chief, said: “A company cannot allow a focus on profitability or market share to come at the expense of appropriate controls. 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.”

WPP did not admit or deny the findings of the SEC, which said in its statement that the holding group had “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.

A WPP spokeperson said in a statement that the issues predated the leadership of current CEO Mark Read: “The Commission’s findings relate to control issues as well as the acquisition and integration of companies in high-risk markets until 2018. As the Commission’s Order recognizes, WPP’s new leadership has put in place robust new compliance measures and controls, fundamentally changed its approach to acquisitions, cooperated fully with the Commission and terminated those involved in misconduct.”

The SEC has not revealed which WPP companies were involved in the investigation. None of its PR networks, which include Ogilvy, BCW, H+K Strategies and Finsbury Glover Hering, were named in the SEC's statement.