creative salon selects

Pablo: "we just want to surprise people"

Pablo has made a series of hirings with two new creative director teams. The agency's founder Gareth Mercer and his management team talk about why the agency is making waves

By Sonoo Singh

When you have the moxie, you eventually get the fame and reputation to match. When Pablo first launched, in 2015, amidst the tight-knit London advertising scene there were few headlines or any double spreads.

It wasn’t an indie agency that parachuted in well-known talent, grabbing big brand attention. There was a sparkle of celebrity though - one of the founders is former England Rugby World Cup winner Ben Kay.

Over the years Pablo managed to tick along relatively nicely - often troubling the new-business league tables but never really its rivals. The key moment when Pablo perhaps first truly captured the hearts and imagination of the industry was when it scooped Deliveroo in 2020. It took over from Chime360 on the global business, and Uncommon Creative Studio on the UK account. 

Of course, this was not the first significant win for Pablo. Before the Deliveroo win, the agency - with its ebullient but relatively unknown founder Gareth Mercer at the helm - had been putting on an impressive display of new business wins over the years including Papa John’s, Kopparberg, Hovis, San Miguel and Citroen.

Pablo comes from the Latin name 'Paulus' meaning humble. And for anyone that's reading this to mean that the agency lacked foresight, the founders would probably agree. After all, let's not forget that when Pablo first launched it was a design agency, then became an integrated agency, before it relaunched as Pablo that we know today. But its tireless energy to evolve with the times has meant that its modest ambitions have always been about doing right by its clients to craft ideas that are culturally resonant.

Its most recent triumphs include winning DFS, a place on the Coca-Cola roster for Costa UK and Oasis, and the two-year £22m contract from the Cabinet Office Government Communications Service (alongside Unlimited) as joint standby agencies. Of course, one could argue that as a measure for quantifying agency success, new business on its own can be an imperfect tool. But winning these clients has given it the credibility and desirability it perhaps needed. But then Pablo’s vocation was never to be just another creative boutique or a new business machine. What Pablo and its people have done is bring an unparalleled attitude and verve to the table. And heart.

It worked for free for NHS Blood and Transplant to come up with the “Bleed for England” campaign around the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The campaign put the blood of rugby stars, including Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson, into posters to encourage people to “bleed for England”. At the time, in just 77 days, more than 101,000 new donors registered, making it one of the most successful blood donation campaigns to date.

And in 2020, I remember standing in the rain when Gareth called me to talk through his idea of giving up their office space and donating the rent money to homelessness charity Shelter instead. During the first lockdown, when many of us were sceptical about the virus itself, Gareth and his crew had decided to be a creative agency set up to do good things for good brands, and also make a contribution to those in greatest need. “We have three working principles” says Gareth. “We act as partners, we are doers, and we never give up.”

To cynics, Gareth’s bullish optimism might occasionally appear naive, but compared to many of his power-hungry peers, he is both charming and refreshing. This makes him the kind of agency leader we are all asking for.

Now recognised as one of the fastest growing independent hot shops in the UK for the last three years, the agency is standing tall as one of advertising’s visionaries that have managed to use the time of crisis to drive through new norms for the industry. Gareth saw opportunity - personally, commercially, socially - at a time when many were hunkering down, for change. Positive change.

For an agency born out of an astonishing lack of foresight, it possesses a shrewd understanding of its own self. Gareth definitely has that excellent radar. Pablo, I think, might just surprise us further. Good people, good work, and hopefully in the future more risk taking work to pave the way for more creative and braver clients.

I sat down with Gareth and his crew - Dan Watts, executive creative director; Mark Sng, partner and chief strategy officer; and joint managing director Harriet Knight to look under the bonnet of Pablo. And talk about its enviable growth. It recently bolstered its team with five appointments across creative, strategy and account management.

Creative Salon: What would you say is the biggest strength and the biggest weakness for Pablo?

Gareth Mercer: The biggest weakness and strength of Pablo is that we are not a traditional startup that was parachuted out of a network. That is perhaps a weakness, because we didn't start as these people with chemistry and knew what was wrong in the network or whatever. And off we went with the view on the world.

But that's also our biggest strength - not having that. So we weren't confined by that. So what we did was understand what we thought would really make a difference for brands, then put the best people around that. So we could build the right culture and skill-set around the methodology rather than try to bend into something that maybe wasn't naturally us. So there's been great strength and weakness from doing just that. We all had to find each other to do it right by us, and right by our clients.

And we are all here together because we knew we had to earn our place. But it's also the philosophy of building brands for us, which is earning the attention of our audience, earning the time that they spend with people earning those connections. And that weirdly has built a culture for Pablo, where we want to be a certain way to attract talent, clients and make good work. It is also a way of being for us as Pablo.

CS: All of you have eschewed the traditional startup route, what is it about Pablo that makes it so attractive for you?

Mark Sng: I started just before the agency became Pablo, so kind of right from the start. Having started client side in Australia, when I first moved here it was mostly digital agencies. I was one of the early members of Saint (RKCR/Y&R's digital shop that got merged into the main agency in 2012) and also did a little stint as a director of a mobile marketing startup. By then, Gareth had been stalking me for more than a year. There was a humility in both of us when we met, which was we don't know all the answers but we're really keen to experiment. And I felt like there was an opportunity to create something that that actually does feel a little bit different to maybe where we've worked before.

Gareth Mercer: I think where we all aligned early on was how we talk about the experience of a brand. And then we started talking about our clients, we needed to answer these questions: who are we as a brand? How do we behave? And how do we tell people about that?.

It was that simple. In the early days, we would talk to people about active brand platforms, and creating ideas that had a social equity. And people would hear that is that a digital idea or a PR idea? I have no fucking idea. I don't really care. For us, it's about how does the brand behave to earn unfair reach and unfair connection with its prospective audience. We're about brands, how they behave, and how they create that connection.

Dan Watts: I come from the world of TV [former head of creative at 4Creative for Channel 4] where we really have to earn people's attention and keep them there. And so I immediately connected with these philosophies. And what we've done at Pablo is kind of get rid of as much guff and baggage and layers. Having worked at other agencies [ CP+B London, CHI & Partners, Fallon London, 180 Amsterdam] it was quite an eye opener to see that particularly in pitches and chemistry meetings, we make it conversation. We involve creatives very early on in the process and we don't make it feel like it's the presentation of strategy charts. Whether it is work for Shelter, or singing burgers with Karl Pilkington, or DFS helping the nation find their ‘thing' - we just want to surprise people each time.

Gareth Mercer: Clients come to Pablo because they don't want to be account managed out the process. Actually, what they really enjoy is small, meaningful conversations early in the process. Trusting each other early just means you get back more time to craft your ideas and keep building, not just through the production process but through the creative process.

CS: Does Pablo have a distinctive house-style when it comes to creating work?

Dan Watts: We are about distinctive, surprising work that commands attention of people and gets talked about. Depending on what the client brief is, and that should be different each time. And it's made possible because of the kind of people with different backgrounds and different skill sets. Not a cookie-cutter of me or Mark. That's why we hired Chris and John [former 4Creative heads].

Gareth Mercer: Our style is more that does anyone really give a shit about what we're about to say or do? If the answer's no, keep going. If the answer is yes, brilliant. The best way to bring that alive, create maximum connection [with consumers]. And that's the house style for us.

Also remember, when we first started no one knew us so no one wanted to work for us. So we couldn't look in the usual places to get talent, we had to look in really different places and put new brains into different spaces, and worked for us in our journey. This is all quite emotional talking about it now.

Mark Sng: The DFS campaign is emblematic of the Pablo thinking. We needed to make DFS feel more helpful to people rather than being a pushy sales type of brand. So we've given a platform called “What's your thing?”, which is all about helping people to just discover their personal style and embrace that. And yes there’s an ad, but we are taking that thinking on their website and into their stores - a reminder that while DFS stores are hugely important, there is a world beyond the stores where people spend a lot of the purchase journey.

CS: What does the future hold, what is most exciting?

Gareth Mercer: There’s a real sense that all the great work had happened in the past. But this [today] is a feasting ground for creativity, and this is the one thing we've got to sort out. How do we get back the time to craft the hell out of stuff to maximise the way people feel about stuff when it lands, whilst moving at pace. That’s the exciting stuff.

I write a list of everything that I’m shit at every year, and try to find people that are amazing at it. Because we know what our centre of gravity is - people. It's cheesy as fuck, isn't it? But I think Pablo has created a real team. In the management team, we have two people in every key position, because we were building for modern marketing. It's a people business, so it's fundamentally flawed. So helping remove the pressure from each other is really key to that.

I think we're like kids in a sweet shop - we look at other agencies and think "just fucking brilliant". I love being part of it. When you look at our industry and see the greats such as Mother and BBH - we feel like we've been invited to this brilliant party! Fucking great. And it feels good. And we love seeing stuff come out of these great, great places.

Harriet Knight: Most of us are in this industry because we do get bored easily and like the variety this industry offers us. It's exciting to be able to work at an agency and turn your skill sets to different problems and challenges. For instance, the relationships we have with all of our clients are very much of partnership, rather than service.

Having been at big agencies like JWT, Ogilvy and Karmarama, coming to Pablo almost four years ago was a bit of a shock to the system. I'm not a natural entrepreneur, by any way, shape or form. But I love being in this environment, I think it really prompts me to think differently and push myself and challenge myself in different ways. I remember meeting Gareth and thinking that this place feels so special. Everywhere you look, there's just opportunities and doors waiting to be kicked open. And it's up to you if you just want to grab hold of it and go for it.

CS: Final question: Pablo Picasso, Pablo Escobar or Pablo López?

Gareth Mercer: I'm going with Escobar because he's the only one that has had a whole Netflix series written and made about him in another language that the English people are cult followers of.

Dan Watts: I will go for Picasso, that's the only one my mum would know.

Harriet Knight: Pablo López. He's the cousin of my best friend. He's a really famous musician in Spain, and one of the judges on Spanish version of X Factor. And also, I am badly learning Spanish and have been for years.

Mark Sng: Picasso for me too. Just because what was really cool about him was that he learned his art the traditional way. And then completely reinvented it. Picasso always learned the rules to break them. I really like that. Hopefully there's a little bit of that going on here at Pablo.


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