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.

Grey has given you your first big management jobs. What do you bring from your past experience to the challenge?
I started in journalism as a sports writer at The Providence Journal. People in this business complain when they only have a week to do an ad. When you’re a journalist, you only have an hour to write a story and the amazing lessons I learned as a journalist have really helped me in advertising. My first two jobs were in very small agencies. I started in Denver at Karsh\Hagan and helped open WongDoody in L.A. A lot of what I’ve tried to carry over into this role is to use that small-agency mentality of be nimble, be quick. Solve problems no matter what—you don’t say no—you’re going to find a way to get it done. That’s a small-agency mentality that I’ve tried to bring to a big, big agency. The only way to stay relevant in today’s world is to be nimble and move at the speed of culture. Big isn’t bad, slow is bad.

After working at agencies like WongDoody and TBWA\Chiat\Day, was it a difficult decision to take the top creative role at Grey New York?
It was tough. When the recruiter first called me, my two-word response was ]”‘No way.” Even though I didn’t know much about New York advertising, I knew Grey didn’t have a great creative reputation. But she talked me into it and I eventually ended up coming out to New York, where I met with [Grey Worldwide CEO] Jim Heekin and Michael Houston [the Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners’ director of corporate development who was joining Grey N.Y. as director of marketing]. I saw a world of potential. The client roster was amazing and the people were incredibly nice and driven. The entire agency was open to change. There were a lot of naysayers, a lot of people who said it was the stupidest career decision I could have taken. But more than anything I love challenges and I saw a humongous challenge in infusing a creative culture into a nearly 100-year-old place that’s never had a creative culture.

Where are you finding all your new creative hires and how hard a sell is it to get them to come to Grey?
The difference is night and day in terms of attracting of talent now and three years ago. It was very, very difficult and really great creative people were not taking me seriously when I called them. Even the people I knew from the industry would say thanks, but no thanks to me. It was the work that changed this place, changed people’s opinions and enabled me to attract creative talent. That happened once we started to do work that was getting picked up in pop culture. Whether it was E*Trade, the NFL or the recent DirecTV with the Russian oligarch and the miniature giraffe, once you start to see the work on the morning news shows or on Jay Leno, people started to talk about Grey’s creative product, which had never happened before. People began to believe something was really happening here. We’re at a point now where it’s kind of bittersweet: we just lost a writer to Crispin and a writer to Goodby. I was laughing about it. Probably never in the history of Grey have we lost writers to Crispin and Goodby. We’re hiring people from Wieden + Kennedy and Chiat. But the big difference is at places like Wieden, WongDoody and Chiat\Day. They were actually born creative; they are agencies created by creative people and that’s the way their culture has always been. The tricky thing about most of the big agencies in New York is they weren’t born creative. They were born in business. What is happening now in our business is that there is a creative revolution with the value of creative at an all-time high.