Gareth Mercer

founders stories

Pablo: how Gareth Mercer 'got lucky'

Gareth Mercer, the founder of Pablo, from starting as a one-man band to building an award-winning agency with the best talent that has made it the success it is today

By creative salon

It was the ‘old-fashioned’ set-up of the first {admittedly obscure) agencies that Gareth Mercer, the founder of Pablo, worked at that he says drove him to set up one of the most interesting and successful advertising start-ups of recent years.

He describes his first experience of advertising as “not necessarily brilliant”. But while not necessarily fulfilling, it did spur him onto create in Pablo something approaching the brilliance that he feels eluded his early career: Pablo was crowned Campaign’s Independent Agency of the Year 2022 last March.

As most people know by now Pablo was named after the Latin ‘paulus’, which means 'humble'. As well as humility yielding successful results for Mercer and his team, his approach provides a lesson for other aspiring entrepreneurs.

While his start in the business might not have been necessarily brilliant or even headline worthy, the small nature of the agencies that he worked at meant that he was exposed to the gamut of skills required – from winning new business to planning to account management, and a bit of creative. But there was a downside: “I had no idea what I was doing. I was very young, and I just hated the culture, hated the atmosphere. So I just said, ’bugger it’. I'm going to start up on my own.”

The first iteration

Pablo’s initial iteration, founded at his parents’ kitchen table in his native Leicestershire (how humble is that?), was a design agency, and launched with a list of beer and sports brands. He describes his new business approach thus: “Essentially I'd drive up the motorway, sit with two designers, and come up with some ideas. And our first clients were Scottish & Newcastle. Leicester Tigers, Carlsberg very shortly afterwards, Adidas and Champion. So I managed to win all of those. And then I quickly started working with a friend of mine who was good at all the stuff I was crap at, which was a fairly long list, but he was very good at organisation and detail on project management. And that was it. We just started employing designers and building from there really.”

As for inspiration, he’d identified agencies that he admired - as well as knew what he didn't want Pablo to become. “The agency we would really looked up to at that time was Iris. Because they were working across multiple touch points, and were pushing themselves as integrated. And, you know, my dream agency at that point was 180 Amsterdam. And if you remember, they'd just done that wonderful kind of smack it, you know, covering people with ink and smacking them against canvas ["Tackle bags" for Adidas] and just kind of stuff that felt very, very different and a bit more creative.”

The importance of craft

While the archaic approach of his previous employers (where appointments were still required to enter the creative department) might have been a hindrance, the old-fashioned virtue of the importance of craft provided further inspiration. “I suppose that the intentional bits were starting up a business that could have enough volume that could was self-sufficient and profitable but was really creating very strong crafted work. That was the first step," he says. "The second step was then to make the work more active. So, kind of demonstrating what a brand was about: activating a brand rather than maybe a brand broadcasting.”

At that time Pablo was largely built around Mercer’s personal energy and charisma as well as some freelance talent – and it had been a successful run. However, it took the shock of losing out on the advertising pitch for Kopparberg to Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R (now VML) for Mercer to seek new partners. Mark Sng, Pablo's CSO, ran the RKCR pitch at the time.

“It took me two years to convince Mark to join us as a bit of a kind of hotchpotch start-up team,” says Mercer. “And essentially, we started talking more and more about a different model for brand, which was what's a brand's belief? What's its purpose? And I suppose our observation was that brands were broadcasting and we'd come from a world where we were asked to demonstrate what a brand was about in a digital channel, an experience, a retail channel. And what we wanted to do was take brands, work out how they behave, what their culture was, what they did, how they made the lives of their customers better.

"Our job then was to demonstrate we could do that could create value with customers. So demonstrate the value of a brand to its customers - how does it make the life of your customers better - and then make that as famous as humanly possible.” It was this approach that Mercer describes as Pablo’s “big accelerator”.

Life as a solo founder

Whilst most start-ups tend to have a number of similarly minded founders (and in the old days they’d have had their name proudly above the door), Pablo was unusual in that it was built around Mercer who them assembled a team of people to help him achieve this vision.

“The weakness for me was, I didn't have that [co-founders]. And you find that on the hoof. And sometimes you were trying to shortcut that by bringing in people that maybe didn't completely share that vision, maybe they'd come from more traditional background, and maybe they didn't kind of feel the same way - the huge, the liberating benefit of that. So it's quite lonely. The liberating part of that was actually you were building a model around this active brand platform.”

Finding the right talent to join him was a big focus, he says. “I spent a day a week every week, which often would be a Sunday afternoon, looking at people. So as LinkedIn started to evolve and just generally before that, I would make it my business to know who was really good and who was doing things that were really interesting. And I started to build relationships with them at that point. And I put an inordinate amount of effort into that. I wrote a list every Christmas of everything I was shit at. And I spent a lot of time trying to find people that are really good at it, and learn from them and understand what they were doing.”

While Mercer and Pablo both had non-traditional focus, he says that there was always a determination to excel in TV advertising. “I was desperate to make some of the best film out there,” he says. “I just wanted to be able to create a bit more depth to it. And if you take DFS, ‘What's Your Thing’? I feel really excited when you walk into a store. And that's the first question you're asked. I love it that when we create an ad about what's your thing in the animal kingdom, that you can go online and buy sofas for cats and dogs. I like the substance that comes with it. And it's a hell of a lot of fun. It just makes brands a bit more interesting.”

He was also clear in the benefits of seeking mentorship. ”As we were building, we realised it was very helpful to us, there were a lot of kind of Big Bang startups… Laurence [Green] is probably one of the most generous people and became a real mentor to me. Because we would just reinvent ourselves and position ourselves slightly alongside them [Green’s former agency 101].”

“If I was to be honest about the advice, every time is to have a good clear sense of yourself as a group of people, and never, never compromise on it. Every time we've tried to hire in 'that big name from that place', or try and be a bit more like 'them', we've fallen flat on our face. Every time we've just focused that we've got a very clear idea of what we are and how we want to do it - and not think about what anybody else is doing - we've succeeded.”

The World According to Gareth Mercer...

What one piece of advice would you give to other would-be/recent founders?

There are so many thoughts this inspires in my mind. The ones that surface first are these five:

  1. Have an idea.

  2. Construct your business around this idea.

  3. Have a plan.

  4. Get comfortable saying no politely.

  5. Talk to people.

Have an idea: There are over 17,500 independent agencies out there. It’s very hard for us to all compete by saying we are not a network and we are nimble. I exaggerate the last bit to make the point but it's so important that you understand the differentiated value that you bring to brands and the people that power them. People being their customers, the clients and the people that sit behind them, your team, your partners. A guiding idea based on how you make brands better becomes a guiding light for everything you do and the decisions you make. When people start up they are often trying to be appealing to everyone but then work for brands and tell them to be confident, to be committed and its ok to put some people off as its more important to stand out, to stand for something and allowing customers to self select in or out leads to a loyal customer base. I have learned, that’s also good advice for the agencies themselves. Oh and once you have it, don't sit still….

Create a business to deliver that idea. Our industry is run often on received wisdom handed down from our predecessors or the current theme in the industry. Stop copying what’s come before and be single minded in realising your idea. All of your processes and the way that you operate both with your clients and with your team and partners should be set up to deliver your idea. The tools you develop should support your idea and you should constantly look to prove the value of that idea to the world by innovating against it and doing things for your own brand as well as others. Look outside of advertising for ideas as well as within it. I have always loved the concept of ‘writer’s rooms’ in TV, for example. For example, at Pablo, our vision is to create big brand platforms rather than just ads. So we needed to ensure ‘big picture thinking’ was embedded in our process. So we have two key people in every position to drive the next phase of our clients' brands growth whilst always making sure we are over delivering on what's in front of us now. Another example is our day to day operating model is designed to create space for people to think stupid and make it real.

Have a plan. You must have a goal and destination to aim for each year and spend the year colouring that plan in. When will your clients be busy, when will you pitch, are you recruiting and resourcing against those periods for example? Mike Tyson said everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, so flexibility is key but it must not take the targets or destination away. That is your tight grip.

Get comfortable saying no, politely. When you have a brand and a plan. It should guide you. Which opportunities/ clients you are right? For you and the Client! Can you both truly alight and forge a partnership to get the brand where it deserves to be? Is what's needed aligned with what you do well? Don’t try to do everything. Do what you’re great at. Be brave, say thank you and say no to the things that don’t get you there.

Get out there and talk to people. Not when you need something but make friends and don’t be scared to ask. Martin Jones, Peter Cowie, Suki Thompson, Tony Spong, Jon Peppiatt, Laurence Green, trusted journalists, Ben Bilboul, Trevor Robinson, the founders of Creative Salon, David Wheldon, Phil Rumbol (about 100 clients) and many more people that I apologies for missing, who I just called up, LinkedIn or asked someone to introduce me to to learn! Not to get a pitch or PR, to learn before any of that was an option. This is a genuinely generous industry so ask questions and of course then make your own leaps. If they are reading - Thank you.

What's been the best thing about starting your own company? And the most challenging?

For me these two come hand in hand.

Developing above, creating momentum and finding the people that are best to thrive around this.

Creating a world class product requires world class people. People that can stretch your thinking, build positively and help own your plan and brand. They need to be elite at the thing you want to focus on: the idea behind your brand. They need to live and breathe and help progress that vision further than you can. The truth is that’s not every world class person out there so you must be committed as let's face it when you love creativity sometimes it's all you can see. Certain people thrive in certain environments and behind certain goals, that should be respected. This takes time to learn but it is vital.

I started on my own and then very shortly with one of my best friends. I spent two years tracking down one of my now best friends, our CSO, Mark Sng. We really got each other and understood where we wanted to go. We made a plan. I never had a group of people that I had spent 10 years working with in a network and a track record in something together. But we had the advantage that we didn’t have any baggage to hold us back. We could simply focus on building an agency around an Idea and find people right for that. We had a healthy disrespect for received wisdom, but we didn’t exist simply to rebel against the networks. We were always focussed on the vision and the market opportunity.

We always backed ourselves to succeed quietly despite being told constantly we were being to nice or humble. We recruited ahead of our growth curve. This created our momentum, particularly in our creative talent, which has been instrumental in driving us forward. I still spend 1 day a week looking at the best people out there. It blows my mind and helps me no end in building the right team for our model.

What will the disruptive start-up of the future look like?

We love that every day new exciting ideas come out of our industry. If we look at agencies as brands and create the space within our operating models to fulfil these ideas we should look forward to all sorts of delicious surprises.

I hope with a focus on diverse thinking from diverse brains from diverse backgrounds, the disruptive startups of the future will innovate new platforms that give brands unique ways of creating compelling connections with their customers.

I hear people saying the future of agencies will be fascinating. Will we be able to adapt to the rebalancing away from traditional broadcast? Will we work with or against the AI revolution? How will data and personalisation finally drive world class creativity?

All I do know is that no matter what new tools we create, people thinking stupidly and making those thoughts a reality will light it up!

Whats next for Pablo?

Can’t tell you that. It would spoil the surprise!!!


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