Grey’s Anatomy

After five years at the helm, Tor Myhren has led the New York office to colorful acclaim

What should the E*Trade talking baby do next?

Give financial advice to celebrities?

Make pithy points about trading while reading articles in the Los Angeles Times?

The Super Bowl is months away, but Tor Myhren is already plotting what E*Trade’s spokes-infant should do for the big game. It’s a challenge to find something new—and entertaining—in a campaign that’s now four years old. But the president and chief creative officer of Grey’s New York office is determined as he brainstorms with comedian Pete Holmes, who voices the wised-up baby.

At 6 foot 2 inches, Myhren looks wiry and intense compared to the calm comic as they trade ideas in a small breakout room at the agency’s über-designed office near Madison Square Park in Manhattan.

How about having the baby Skype with his friends, Myhren wonders. That would be cool, the two men agree. “It’s comedy gold,” says Myhren, “if we pull it off.”

There’s always the “if.”

The low-key patter around a circular stainless steel coffee table belies the seriousness of the task. The talking tyke not only stars in E*Trade’s most popular campaign ever but also represents Myhren’s first creative success at Grey, leading the way to major account wins, critical acclaim and a stream of positive press since he joined the agency five years ago. And just like comedy builds on agony, the smart-aleck baby that Myhren created in his first months at the agency was a direct response to his biggest career failure: the slick, fashion show-themed Super Bowl ad for Cadillac’s Escalade in 2006 that bombed, leading to Leo Burnett’s loss of the $300 million account.

The chatty, buzzworthy baby in Myhren’s early days at Grey became the calling card that opened doors to new creative accounts including the NFL and DirecTV—assignments that have changed perceptions of the 95-year-old agency, long seen as an account man’s place. Along with four Lions at this year’s Cannes festival, the shop’s “Get rid of cable” ads for DirecTV even got a shout-out at Cannes from Bill Clinton, who called them “the most hilarious ads I’ve ever seen.”

By contrast, Grey’s past reel was so dull that friends told Myhren not to take the job, warning, “That’s where creatives go to die.”

Not anymore.

Under his watch, the New York team—which includes managing director Michael Houston, global CEO Jim Heekin and global strategic planning chief Suresh Nair—has added dozens of new assignments, including the NFL, DirecTV, Red Lobster, RadioShack, T.J. Maxx and Marriott Hotels & Resorts. As a result, revenue has grown 60 percent from about $200 million five years ago to $320 million today, according to an Adweek estimate. At the same time, the agency’s headcount more than doubled to 950.

With his staccato laugh and optimistic bent, Myrhen injects levity whenever possible—whether rallying staffers or telling the story before a packed hall at the Mashable Media Summit last year of how he lost his virginity. Yes, Myrhen’s approach is disarming—and at times cringe-inducing, perhaps most notably with his tone-deaf impression of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” that made the rounds on YouTube.

“Yes, there is a lot of money in this business. But at the same time, we should not take ourselves too seriously,” says Myhren, 40, who rewards risk-taking with a 2-foot-high Heroic Failure trophy and forbids meetings on Thursday mornings so staffers can focus solely on creativity. “Part of my job is to have fun and to create fun brands that people can relate to,” he says. “Is there a method to the madness? I don’t know. But I do know that it helps the culture of this place.”

Behind the levity lies a daredevil streak. “He does not feel fear,” insists Heekin, who promoted Myhren to president in 2010 after previous hire Steve Hardwick exited and Heekin ran the office. “If he were another type of being, he’d be reptilian. Seriously.”

The steeliness, Heekin believes, drove Myhren to climb aboard the “Grey battleship” in September 2007. At the time, the CEO was looking for an up-and-comer after North American creative leader Tim Mellors was promoted to global CCO at the age of 59. Meanwhile, Myhren needed to turn the page after three years handling General Motors brands as creative chief of Leo Burnett in Troy, Mich. The Escalade flop and subsequent account loss stung deeply. But Myhren is too intensely competitive to give up amid defeat—a trait he says he inherited from his father, a retired cable company CEO. His mother, a free-spirited former social worker, was his earliest creative inspiration.

With the unflagging support of his boss, Mark Tutssel, Myhren soldiered on for another 18 months on a big pitch for two other GM brands: GMC and Buick. At least financially, the subsequent $400 million GMC/Buick win (snagged from Lowe and McCann Erickson) made up for the Cadillac disaster. “It didn’t take away a lot of the sting of the Cadillac loss, but it did make me feel better about leaving a place and a city that I had a big failure in,” recalls Myhren, who had earlier also been offered other jobs but refused to move on until redeeming himself and the agency. Mission accomplished, he headed to New York.

Two months after Myhren joined Grey, the agency won E*Trade, which then spent $180 million per year in media. The first two Super Bowl commercials, written and produced in less than a month with help from executive producer Kim Kietz, showed the spokes-baby spitting up from excitement after easily making a stock trade and hiring a clown with his newfound wealth.

The ads were supposed to be Super Bowl one-offs, but the character was such a huge hit that E*Trade CMO Nick Utton believed he’d found his struggling company’s next big campaign. Still, Myrhen and his Grey team warned that too much of the wiseacre baby might obscure the company’s larger message around the ease of buying and selling stocks online. “We pushed each other,” says Utton. “And the good news is we pushed each other to a good place in that we kind of said, ‘Look, we’re going to have to keep this going.’ ”

A bona fide pop culture icon that lured thousands of new customers, the E*Trade baby caught the eye of the NFL, which awarded Grey its $50 million account in the spring of 2009 after a review. Responding to the league’s desire to ignite its fan base with an emotional appeal, Grey delivered the insight that football—and most of all the Super Bowl—represents America’s last campfire where people gather to commune and bond.

While Myhren and CMO Mark Waller agreed on the strategy, they sometimes differed on the execution. In the run-up to the 2010 Super Bowl, Waller preferred an ad that compared player athleticism to the grace of a gazelle, while Myhren favored one celebrating fans, offering (in a friendly way) to take his case to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Waller ultimately agreed to the fan approach, and two years later, he says it was the right call. “I don’t think that in the three years or so that we’ve been working [together and] we’ve disagreed that I’ve ultimately walked away feeling that he was wrong,” Waller says. “I have huge respect for his judgment.”

The DirecTV account grew in time, beginning in late 2009 with a direct marketing assignment. Less than a year later, Grey had snagged lead agency status from Deutsch. Then, in early 2012, Grey creative directors Doug Fallon and Steven Fogel delivered the satellite TV service’s current hit campaign, which comically illustrates the downward spiral effect of dealing with bureaucratic cable companies.

In President Clinton’s favorite ad, a forty-something father frustrated with “cable being on the fritz” ends up with a dog collar-wearing grandson. Another ad borrows from the plot of the film Cape Fear, featuring an ex-con taking revenge on the lawyer who screwed up his criminal defense because he was irritated about his TV picture freezing. “Don’t have your house explode,” a voiceover deadpans. “Get rid of cable and upgrade to DirecTV.”

As with the NFL, Grey’s DirecTV work stems from a vigorous back-and-forth with the firm’s marketing executives. “If I want to go in one direction and they don’t feel it’s right, they have full measure to push back and do so,” explains Jon Gieselman, svp, marketing at DirecTV, whose media spend last year totaled $360 million. “It’s sort of a healthy debate. [Myhren] has just instilled that in his team, that that’s the right way to operate.”

Grey’s creative renaissance isn’t limited to new accounts. Procter & Gamble’s Febreze, which arrived in 1998, long relied on straightforward product demonstrations. Then came the inspired idea of blindfolding consumers and placing them in a stinky environment made fragrant by Febreze. The “Breathe Happy” campaign, developed under creative directors Rob Lenois and Rob Perillo, broke in July 2011 and won two 2012 Cannes Lions.

Grey’s success on these and other campaigns, including ads for P&G’s CoverGirl featuring Ellen DeGeneres and a Canon campaign with filmmaker Ron Howard, triggered Myhren’s promotion to president in December 2010—one year after he initially turned down the job, thinking he wasn’t ready. This time, he felt confident, even outlining what he’d like to do in a four-page memo he presented to Heekin.

Despite his mettle, Myhren admits that when he assumed the president’s role at age 38, he struggled to find common ground with account executives. He knew managing business was a Grey strength, but he wasn’t sure how to motivate the folks in suits who focus primarily on marketer relationships.

To better understand their world, Myhren began meeting with account teams, giving each of them 18 minutes to tell the story of its brand. It took a year to complete the first cycle, and now he’s in Round 2. On a recent Friday afternoon, Myhren listens and takes notes as a trio of account execs from the agency’s Grey Healthy People unit brief him on Bausch & Lomb, a client of two years with a $20 million annual media spend. First, he sets the timer on his iPhone, placing it flat on the table in the same breakout room where he’d traded baby ideas with Holmes.

While a proposed TV ad for a new vitamin to enhance eye health is testing well, the strategy behind it—“Be a champion for your eyes” goes the tagline—is more functional than aspirational. Also, the ad is heavy on graphics and relies on a voiceover. Without being too critical, Myhren tells the team the execution “feels like it’s from the ’90s or ’80s,” chuckling to ease any tension. He says he’ll talk to the unit’s creative director and thanks the execs for finishing on time, with a minute and half to spare.

Clearly, Grey’s creative turnaround is a work in progress. So far, only a half-dozen campaigns have become famous at a WPP Group shop handling some 75 brands. And while New York won nine Lions at Cannes this year, up from three in 2011, Wieden + Kennedy’s Portland, Ore., headquarters scooped up 29 trophies, earning Agency of the Year.

Still, Myhren has put Grey New York on the map in his five years as CCO. It’s the longest stint thus far in his 17-year ad career, which began at a small agency in Denver (Karsh Hagan), then shifted to Los Angeles (WongDoody, TBWAChiatDay) and Detroit (Leo Burnett) before bringing him to New York.

His success at Grey has triggered other offers, including the chief creative officer’s role at TBWACD’s Playa del Rey, Calif., office that The Martin Agency’s John Norman filled in July. After briefly considering the opportunity, Myhren turned it down, deciding that New York, where he recently bought an apartment, feels like the best home for him, his wife Tomoko and their nearly 18-month-old daughter Reika. As Myhren puts it, “I do feel like I’m finally in a place in my advertising career where I’m really happy where I am.”­