"We're pushing each other for our global ambitions": How Pablo & Flora are gearing for growth
Pablo's CEO Gareth Mercer and his new'ish' client Jorn Socquet, CMO Europe at Flora-owner Upfield, on how taking creative risks together builds healthy agency-client partnerships
02 November 2023
There's a widespread misconception that when it comes to 'good' client-agency partnerships, it's only about what the two have in common. But really it's all about where the differences lie.
It is precisely the need to constantly challenge one another that leads both the client and the agency to do better and build stronger relationships. And that is kind of how it all started for Pablo CEO Gareth Mercer and his new client Jorn Socquet, CMO Europe, at Upfield.
Upfield-owned Flora appointed Pablo to take on its global creative business following a competitive pitch in September. Pablo had previously worked with the brand on a project basis. The account win came after 'Skip the cow', Pablo’s UK work for the brand’s plant-based butter, launched in January. The campaign poked fun at the idea that regular dairy products involve plants working their way through the digestive system of a cow and so with Flora’s plant-based butter, people can simply 'Skip the cow.' An idea that initially met with fierce resistance internally from the business itself.
Taking creative risks
It's a story that Socquet tells with some relish. "When I first arrived at Upfield [in late 2022] the 'Skip The Cow' campaign was in development. On my very first day at Upfield, Pablo was presenting the campaign to me. But what I was hearing from the rest of my business was that Pablo's idea sucks. 'Why the hell are we doing this? It's too provocative and consumers are never going to get it.'
"But this wasn't my first rodeo. I've done a lot of creative ideas that my bosses or my colleagues didn't agree with in the past. And I remember looking at the idea again and thinking that this [the campaign] makes people uncomfortable, but it is backed by great consumer insights and has lots of conviction and is reframing the truth that will make people think."
He wasn't wrong. The campaign has already won golds at the APG Creative Strategy Awards. It's also a testament to Pablo's strategic idea for a plant-based brand that is finding itself in a market that has somewhat fallen from favour. With the likes of Oatly, Nestlé and Innocent Drinks recently pulling plant-based products from shelves, it appears the boom-time for some of these products may now be over. The Flora campaign, according to Socquet, has however encouraged people to stop and think about their dairy habits and has driven record levels of awareness and consideration for Flora, "with more households buying and loving the brand as a result". (The privately-owned Upfield - which also includes Stork, Becel and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, which has been renamed in the UK as I Can’t Believe It’s So Good - does not reveal sales figures).
Mercer explains further the insights and the motivations of the campaign. "We knew from research that people struggled with the concept of plant butter and thought that the product would lack taste.
"And we thought - hang on, the base ingredient in butter has always been plants. It seemed to us the weird thing wasn't that Flora was made from plants but that the dairy butter is made from plants that travel through several meters of a cow's intestine. We wanted to present this truth in the most simple and engaging way to reframe perceptions of butter."
The world of advertising however is an unforgiving place - businesses have to be ready to counterpunch when ads are criticised, brands are less patient for results, and client-agency relationships tend to be more perishable. So why was Socquet taking a gamble on Pablo? After all he had never worked with the agency before.
"It's so important to fall in love with an idea. And I did fall in love with Pablo's idea for Flora. Otherwise, it's the biggest waste of advertising money when every year you change your creative idea. And that same idea, if you can improve it over time, that consistency is what will pay dividends for a brand like Flora which has big ambitions," says Socquet.
Socquet clearly knows what he's talking about. A former AB Inbev marketer - where he worked for almost 15 years, his last role was global VP marketing strategy - he started his career at one of the most venerable brands, Coca Cola. "As a marketer, what I strive for is standout work, backed by real insights and work that creates conversation. Pablo makes my life easier."
"From an agency's perspective, this is a story of open conversation and support," says Gareth Mercer. "And when I say support, I don't mean the old fashioned way of 'will you please buy what I've put in front of you, and we'll pretend that we're all doing it together'. But genuine, real passion for the idea and we are always kind of egging each other on in the pursuit of growth for the brand."
For Mercer, in Socquet he found a client partner that understood that the end goal is not to be comfortable with the ad campaigns, but to buy advertising that achieves its strategic aims. He says that the trust they've since built means that there is both a mutual respect for each other’s businesses and also the ability to challenge each other openly. "It makes us more ambitious for each other," he adds.
Global goals to grow & disrupt
Talking of ambitions - how does a brand or a business seize the opportunity to remain relevant and profitable in a sector under pressure from falling sales? According to most recent reports, not just the consumer appetite but venture capital funding for plant-based start-ups has also slumped to its lowest level since 2018.
For Socquet his ambition for the portfolio of his brands is crystal clear. "I'm in the business to establish global power brands. We are the Tesla in the dairy industry. We provide great tasting plant-based alternatives in the dairy industry," he says.
Meanwhile, the appointment of Pablo as Flora's global creative partner means that Mercer can now start pursuing global ambitions for his indie London shop. Appointing Pablo as the global agency was, however, not something that Socquet took lightly. The marketer says there were initial doubts over whether Pablo could shoulder the global responsibilities for the brand. "I rang Gareth and asked him: 'Look I'm going to appoint you as our global agency for Flora but when I want to launch in Canada next can you do it?' We had a long conversation on how we could do this together."
Pablo, Mercer explains, is already working with a few international clients and therefore this global appointment was not a huge stretch for the London agency. "But the model that we're deploying with Flora is somewhat new. Our starting point is - how do we disrupt an entire butter category and nail that in every country that Jorn wants to take his brand into. Our model is less about trans-creation and global ideation. We've been looking at Jorn's key markets and making sure that we have writers and insights within those markets. We've also been Investing in great talent ahead of our growth."
The agency recently hired Dan Norris and Ray Shaughnessy, former executive creative directors at McCann London, as managing creative directors. The sought-after creative pair reports to Dan Watts, ECD at Pablo, and will also join the shop’s recently formed Creative Council, a creative management team headed by Watts.
"The more we work with Flora Plant and the ‘Skip the cow’ campaign, the more fun we seem to have," says Mercer. "And now we're taking this idea to other markets and making it culturally relevant outside of the UK and that is very exciting." It's something that's made possible with both the agency and the client "marching together in the same direction with the same ambition – to produce brilliant work that’s effective in driving the business’ bottom line."