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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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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.”

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