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Grey's Anatomy

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

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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.”

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