He made Ellen DeGeneres a Cover Girl, created the E*Trade baby, paired that tot with a "milkaholic" that caused Lindsay Lohan to sue the agency, and resurrected the creative reputation – and operating profits – of a nearly-century-old ad firm with one of the oldest tricks in the book: an adorable infant.
But when the global chief executive officer of Grey Group asked Tor Myhren to be president of its flagship New York office, it took about a year for him to accept. When he did, in 2010, he became the first creative to run the shop. Since then, he has boosted operating profit – up by 30 per cent last year – by attracting new business and retaining the old; including a new DirecTV spot that cautions frustration with your cable company can lead to poor decisions, including re-enacting scenes from Platoon with Charlie Sheen.
Mr. Myhren paused to reflect on the state of the agency – and the industry – during a visit to Grey Canada's offices in Toronto.
When you got the job, the idea of a creative guy heading an agency was heresy at Grey. Why?
At most agencies, actually. There's always been a bit of a divide, historically, between the business part of advertising and the creative part. … I'll actually blame, generally, the creatives. A lot of really great creative people in our industry sort of take pride in the fact that they're not business people. It's sort of a badge of honour to say, 'I don't deal with the money.' … It's been said forever that our business is the intersection of art and commerce. If you don't get either one of those, you probably shouldn't be in the business. There's a lot more measures now. Particularly online and the whole digital space. … Our business can be measured every day, every hour, every minute. Our industry [is] a roller-coaster. For a few years big agencies are hot and then smaller boutiques are hot.
Where are we now?
We're big right now. Definitely. A lot of the best work is being done by big agencies. And particularly among larger clients … it's hard when you're a small agency to have a client come to you and say, 'I want everything, I don't want to be paying five different agencies, there can't be economies of scale there. And by the way we're global.' The global economy is one of the reasons it's a big-shop time right now.
Five years ago, Grey New York was in decline. It had lost 30 per cent of its client base. How have you changed the face of the agency?
It was a struggling agency, from a business perspective, but also from a reputation standpoint. Grey, particularly in New York, had a really, really bad creative reputation. … There was very good account management, there was great client relationships in certain areas. Pretty solid strategic thinking. We just didn't have good creative. … When we talk about [the agency slogan]'famously effective,' the effective side has always been there. I wanted to introduce more of the famous side.
Let's talk about that creative work. What did that meeting look like, pitching to a major client like DirecTV, "We're going to create a fake Russian oligarch "?
You have to earn the right to do an ad like that. That wasn't the first ad we did for them. Cannes … A young team came up with this great ad about this super-rich guy who still wanted a deal. And by the way, he happens to have a mini-giraffe. The social media world loved this thing, for whatever reason. … Immediately we spotted that. We never were going to have a website [dedicated to fake lap giraffes]… We just jumped on it while the kettle was hot. And over 2 million people have ordered one of those things now. … The client's amazing, by the way. But even they were like, 'Look, okay, it's great guys. But if you're going to build a site … what does this even have to do with DirecTV at all?' Well nothing, and everything … people love it, and because of that they love DirecTV.
E*Trade by contrast was a tiny client – and struggling.
At that time, end of 2007, they were bailed out [by Citadel's $2.5-billion in rescue financing]way before everybody was getting bailed out. … The first baby spot was a baby on his webcam making this trade. It's a really funny thing, this will go down in advertising history: We told them a million times, 'You do not want to be the baby company. Do one of these things, maybe two, and get the hell out of there.' … the thing just took off. It's by far the biggest thing I've ever worked on as far as cultural impact.
And yet it's an old cliché: if you have no ideas use animals or babies.
Absolutely. It's been done 500 times. And it was the first thing I did at Grey. And it was a Super Bowl spot. So there was a lot of pressure on that one. And it's a [expletive]talking baby. I was terrified. … Yes it's the same old thing, but the voice was so different. It was done in a way that had never been done, shot on a webcam … and what he was saying and the way he was saying it, was very, very, very unexpected.
It came at a time when there was a lot of distrust in financial firms. Was the idea to put a human face on this company?
Only in retrospect do we know this, but it came at the perfect time. At that time, everyone was so serious. Every financial institution was putting their CEO on their commercials, some old dude telling you he's got your back … and people were so damaged. They'd lost so much money, there was so much bitterness. And then this company was doing this baby that was not serious at all … It just struck a chord.
You talked about how globalized marketing is. So what's the role of a Grey Canada, for example?
The role is huge. Yes, in the U.S. you have more people and more money; so it tends to drive a lot of what happens globally. … A market like Canada, it's got all the potential in my opinion. You've got all the big clients. You've got such a surprisingly active advertising community. … I do have a strong opinion on this, which is that I do believe in global campaigns. … At the same time, the huge mistake – and this is for many reasons, money being one of them – is that often times, work comes out of whatever the key market for that particular client is. … Every market has, without question, major cultural differences. You have to have a creative platform that's flexible enough to have unique executions within different markets.
Title: President and chief creative officer, Grey New York
Personal: Born in Denver in 1971; based in New York.
Education: Bachelor of Arts (English), Occidental College, L.A.
Career highlights: Founding member of L.A. agency Wongdoody (now WDCW).
2002-2005: Creative director at TBWA/Chiat/Day.
2005-2007: Executive creative director of Leo Burnett Detroit from 2005 to 2007.
2007: Joined Grey New York as chief creative officer; became president in December, 2010.
This interview has been condensed and edited.