NEW YORK—The overwhelming majority of mergers and acquisitions in the public relations industry last year were driven by independent PR firms seeking to expand either their geographic footprint or their service offer, according to analysis of industry deal activity by The Holmes Report.

Of 61 industry acquisitions covered by The Holmes Report in 2015, 35 (57%) were made by independent public relations firms. The buyers included a couple of firms that received outside investment in 2015—Spain’s Llorente & Cuenca and the UK’s Four Communications—several American independents, but also midsize firms in markets as diverse as Argentina (Urban Group), India (Adfactors), Italy (SEC), and Sweden (Narva).

By comparison, just 10 (16%) involved publicly-traded holding companies and another 10 (16%) by other marketing services companies. The remainder were made by non-traditional buyers, including a law firm and management consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, or in one case by employees.

The majority of the acquisitions—33 (54%)—appeared to be motivated by the desire to expand the acquiring firm’s capabilities, either into new areas: most frequently digital and social media or content creation (16%) but also into specialist services ranging from corporate and financial to public affairs to lifestyle marketing to brand strategy.

Another 14 (23%) were motivated by the desire to expand geographically, with five of those deals—Llorente & Cuenca’s acquisitions of
EDF Communications and S/A Comunicao, Edelman’s purchase of Colombian firm Position, two WPP acquisitions in Brazil—involving Latin American firms.

The most active acquirers were:

  • Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, which made four acquisitions, including the Position deal above, Middle Eastern firm Dabo & Co.; UK-based corporate and financial specialist Smithfield Consultants; and German corporate and public affairs firm Ergo Kommunikation;
  • Llorente & Cuenca, the Spain-based agency that received outside investment and used it to make four acquisitions, including the two Latin American deals above and two deals in its home market;
  • WPP Group, which made four acquisitions, including the UK’s Chime/Good Relations (in partnership with Providence Equity Partners), India’s Six Degrees (which became part of Cohn & Wolfe) and the two Brazilian firms above;
  • Finn Partners, a US-based independent, which acquired two Tennessee firms in January and added Horn Group later in the year.
  • Teneo Holdings, which made three acquisitions in the UK, including Blue Rubicon and Stockwell and Pendomer Communications.

Among the firms making two acquisitions: marketing services firm Didit, which added US boutiques Bridge and JB Cumberland; Four Communications of the UK (Welsh firm Francis Balsam and financial and professional services firm Broadgate Mainland); US independent French/West/Vaughan (Hispanic specialist RGAA and entertainment firm Big Hassle); and Next Fifteen (UK brand strategy firm IncrediBull and digital/content firm ODD).

But equally notable were some of the absentees from the list: Omnicom agencies did not make a single acquisition in 2015; nor did China's Blue Focus, which has made some of the biggest deals of the past few years, or Japan's Dentsu, which had indicated its enthusiasm for the sector in the wake of acquiring Mitchell Communications Group in 2013, but has yet to follow through.

The 10 biggest deals of the year included five for firms ranked in the Holmes Report's Top 250, as well as several firms large enough for the ranking, but which did not provide financial information. The top 10:

  1. The acquisition of UK-based Chime Communications—with PR holdings including Good Relations and PR fees of around $37 million—by WPP and Proividence.
  2. The acquisition of UK-based Blue Rubicon (number 50 on our Top 250 with fees of $34 million) by Teneo Holdings.
  3. The acquisition of Washington, DC, public affairs firm SKDKnickerbocker, our reigning Global Public Affairs Agency of the Year, by Mark Penn’s investment company Stagwell Group.
  4. The acquisition of Brazil’s 150-person Ideal—now Ideal H+K Strategies—by WPP.
  5. The acquisition of China’s Magic Group—now GolinMagic—by Interpublic.
  6. The acquisition of Germany’s Ergo (number 117 on our list with fees of around $13 million) by Edelman.
  7. The acquisition of Horn Group, number 173 on our ranking, by Finn Partners.
  8. The acquisition of 70-person Indian firm Six Degrees by WPP, for Cohn & Wolfe.
  9. The acquisition of 50-person South African firm Epic Communications by Publicis Groupe for MSLGroup.
  10. The acquisition of UK-based Just:Health (number 214 on our list) by Havas.