Q&A: Grey N.Y. President Tor Myhren

Before Tor Myhren signed on as Grey New York’s CCO, he says he had barely spent time in Manhattan; knew little about the city’s advertising cliques; and never saw himself heading up the creative output at one of advertising’s least-exciting agencies, let alone running it.

Three years later, the 38-year-old has just been named president of the WPP agency’s flagship office. Myhren, who joined Grey from Leo Burnett in Detroit, where he was executive creative director, assumes a role vacated by Steve Hardwick in March 2009.  

Myhren has been credited for bringing unprecedented creative recognition to Grey, with work on E*Trade, the NFL and DirecTV. The agency has been on a new-business winning streak, often in pitches involving the kind of hot creative shops Grey would never have found itself competing against in recent years, let alone beating.

In an interview with Adweek, Myhren explains the changes he plans to make in his new role, talks about the continuing evolution of Grey’s creative department and reveals his first reaction to a recruiter’s overtures about hitching his creative future to Grey.

Q: What does it say about how Grey is changing that a creative person is leading the flagship U.S. office?
Myhren: It says a lot about the evolution of not just what’s happening at Grey, but also in the industry. Creativity is more important now than at any other time in the history of our business. There was a time when you could truly buy your way into the hearts of consumers just through a media buy alone. But in an incredibly fractionalized and scattered media landscape, you just can’t do that anymore. The power of creativity and breakthrough messaging is so much more important now as a way to get people’s attention. For us, putting creativity truly at the center of the agency is critical to the evolution of what Grey has been going through.

Does this means you’ll be spending less time in the creative department?
I’ll continue to oversee all the creative work for our clients, but the big difference is that I’ll also oversee all the other department heads. I’ll restructure the creative department as well. When I got here, I flattened our creative department, because it was so segmented and layered, with no collaboration whatsoever. In these three years, we’ve grown a lot; we hired 118 new people this year alone. I started with 81 people and we’re now up to 147 people. It’s a much bigger place now, and we’re going to create group ecds, which we don’t have currently, and they’ll oversee a much bigger body of clients. Now most of the creative department reports to me; after we do this I’ll have five or six people directly reporting to me.

Will it be hard to let go of your hands-on creative role?
The hardest thing for any creative director is to let go. My philosophy is to hire the best people you can—frankly, hire people who are better than you—and let them do their jobs. I’m not that worried about letting go. I’ll still have some say in the creative. But I really believe the creative culture of an agency has to extend throughout the entire agency: I don’t think it’s possible to have a great creative agency without having a great overall agency.

Along those lines, what might you change now that you have other department heads reporting to you?
A lot of what I’ve done in the creative department, I’m going to apply to the rest of the agency. We’ll hire the very best people we can get and let them shine. The industry is changing so quickly now you need forward-thinking people who really understand the digital space and social media. They need to be open to change because anyone in our industry who says they know what it is going to look like in three to five years is lying. I don’t pretend to know either, but I do know Grey’s been around for 93 years, so change is in our DNA. I’m going to approach this job in the same way I did as CCO, using real collaboration, real transparency and openness. I want to do this job my way, unlike any agency president has done it in the past. I want to put creative at the heart of it all and let that drive the culture.