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Wordsmith at the helm

Grey Group's chief creative officer Tor Myhren believes so much in the mantra that failure is a precursor to success that he even gives out Heroic Failure awards to encourage risk-taking in the company.

'It was this big production - very expensive, very fashiony. And at the Super Bowl, what I learnt very quickly was that people don't want big, fashiony things. They want funny, or they want bombastic, or they want explosives. But not the cool fashion thing. It just totally tanked...I always say: Fail fast. The long, extended failure - not so good.'

WHEN Grey Group appointed Tor Myhren to be president of its flagship New York office in 2010, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Having a creative guy head an advertising agency, after all, was tantamount to heresy.

"I think for a long time us creatives really did ourselves a disservice in this industry, by thinking it was very cool to not understand the business. Like: 'Naw, the money stuff - I don't mess around with that.' And it was cool to act that way," says the group's global chief creative officer.

"It's so not cool anymore. You have to understand the business. (Advertising) is truly where art meets commerce; commerce is 50 per cent of that equation. And if you don't understand the business part of it, I don't think you're going to do as well. I don't even think you're going to do as great work."

His track record at Grey shows he's on to something. Within a year of taking the top post at Grey's headquarters, he boosted operating profit by 30 per cent, deftly attracting new business while holding on to older accounts. Since his tenure, the New York office has also tripled in size to over 1,100 employees.

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Business figures aside, Grey's creative fortunes have swelled under Mr Myhren's leadership, too - at the 2015 Cannes Lions, the Oscars of the creative world, the agency won a total of 113 awards across 20 categories including film, radio and mobile.

Not bad for a guy who, up until his early 20s, did not know advertising jobs even existed.

Journalism training

Growing up, Mr Myhren wanted to become a journalist. After attaining his bachelor's degree in English and Comparative Literary Studies from Occidental College in Los Angeles, he moved to the East Coast and joined The Providence Journal.

At the Rhode Island daily newspaper, he covered mostly sports, but general news and human interest stories as well. Despite doing the work he had always dreamed about, the tight deadlines and restrictive news writing format eventually wore on him.

"At least, the kind of journalism that I was doing - which was largely covering daily events - I found to be incredibly limiting for the kind of writing I wanted to do," he explains.

Frustrated with the constraints of daily news, Mr Myhren quit the newspaper and moved back in with his mother in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, clueless about what to pursue next. It was there that a friend's father seeded the idea of an advertising career as a possibility.

"This is going to sound really bizarre, but I didn't know at the time that advertising was a thing. I know that sounds really strange, but you know, you grow up and you don't even think about where these things that you're watching on television come from. I always thought they came from the brands - like I thought Nike just did those ads," confesses Mr Myhren with considerable embarrassment.

Persuaded by his friend's father - who had told him that advertising would allow him to write creatively "and still make money" - Mr Myhren applied for a job at Karsh\Hagan, a tiny advertising agency in Denver. Not fully knowing what he was in for, he arrived for his interview in an ill-fitting suit and a portfolio of only short stories and poetry. Even without any advertisements among his writing samples, Mr Myhren was hired on the spot as an unpaid intern.

"(The boss) said: 'Well, I have no idea if you can write ads, but you can definitely write. So why don't you come in to work.' And then as I'm walking out, he goes: 'Oh, and by the way - don't ever wear that suit again.' So that was my introduction to advertising," Mr Myhren laughs.

While journalism never turned out to be the ideal job he had envisioned, Mr Myhren believes it was the best training for an advertising career - simply because his reporting stint had trained him to write quickly and succinctly, while under pressure.

He recalls with fondness his first advertisement assignment - a quarter-page newspaper ad for United Way. "The account guy said: 'I tried to get this thing pushed back, but I'm serious, they won't even budge. You've got to have this thing done in two weeks.' I'm like: 'Wait, so I need to write a headline and this much body copy and I have two weeks to do it? Oh this is going to be easy!' And it really was, because I had so much time.

"Because of the intensity of journalism, especially for a daily (newspaper), I think it really made advertising so easy. Everyone thinks it's such a grind, but really, if it's not due that night, it's easy!" exclaims Mr Myhren, who says he knew on his first day that advertising was what he wanted to do.

Having played basketball competitively in college, Mr Myhren thrives on the advertising industry's hyper-competitive culture. In fact, pitching to clients is his favourite part of the job.

"In a weird way, I think pitching business is the closest thing to sport that our industry offers. It's incredibly competitive - you're up against agencies that you probably don't like very much, and you want to win. And just like any sort of sporting event, you have two hours to go out on the field and prove yourself - and either you win or you lose ... And I love that, I love the pressure of it," says Mr Myhren breathlessly.

The Heroic Failure Awards

That's not to say that he has won all the time, though. His career took a serious hit in 2006, when his ad featuring Cadillac's Escalade as a runway model was panned as one of the worst Super Bowl ads of all time.

"It was this big production - very expensive, very fashiony. And at the Super Bowl, what I learnt very quickly was that people don't want big, fashiony things. They want funny, or they want bombastic, or they want explosives. But not the cool fashion thing. It just totally tanked."

While he's able to laugh about it now, there was nothing funny about it at the time. The mis-step caused Leo Burnett - the agency he had been working for then - to lose the US$300 million account.

"That was a really, really bad, bad, bad time. The New York Times wrote about it, they used my name in the article... It's very rare that ads, even when they fail, get that kind of press," says Mr Myhren.

He learnt from the disaster, however, and redeemed himself within two years with his campaign for online broker E*Trade. The ad, which featured a smart-aleck talking baby, made him an overnight celebrity in the advertising world and was hailed by The Wall Street Journal as the best ad campaign of 2008.

"I always say: Fail fast. The long, extended failure - not so good," says Mr Myhren.

With Mr Myhren at the helm, Grey looks at failure a little differently from most other companies. At Mr Myhren's initiative, the firm now gives out Heroic Failure Awards, which are meant to celebrate failures of daring and audacity. As described on Grey's website: "Better to attempt something astonishing and go down in flames than to gingerly hold back."

The point, Mr Myhren says, is to show employees that the company is serious about rewarding creativity and risk-taking.

"I think most companies in the world punish risk-taking. That's part of the culture of companies, right? It's horrible! What that does is it creates a little bit of a culture of fear, so people think: 'I don't want to do anything that's going to get me in trouble.' What a terrible place to work that must be, you know?

He says the Heroic Failure Awards have "changed everything" because employees are more willing to take chances.

"I think it's actually the only way that you're going to get to greatness - you have to push those edges. And sometimes you go over the edge and you fail... (But the award is there to say that) it's an idea we still believe in as a company; it just went out into the world and didn't work. That doesn't mean it's a bad idea."

When asked to name past winners of the Heroic Failure award, Mr Myhren recounts his favourite example with relish.

The pitch was for the Litter Genie - a cat litter disposal system that promises to keep pet owners' homes odour-free. For three weeks prior to the pitch, a junior account executive collected panther excrement from the Bronx zoo - sealing it off in a Litter Genie unit to show how well the product worked.

When pitch day came, she snuck it under the boardroom table, and revealed at the end of the session that three weeks' worth of panther poo was concealed in the Litter Genie.

"The CMO (chief marketing officer) completely freaks out. He throws his chair back from the table, walks out, slams the door, and we never hear from him again," laughs Mr Myhren.

Despite costing the agency a potentially lucrative account, Mr Mhyren awarded the staffer with Grey's first-ever Heroic Failure Award.

"I say it to this day and I really mean it: I would do that idea 10 times out of 10. I think it's brilliant. It was taking a risk, and it didn't work - but that doesn't mean I wouldn't do it again."

Even though he tends to be partial to funny ads - "I am always making light of things and creating humour in the oddest circumstances" - Mr Myhren says he is heartened by a new trend in advertising, where ads are used to better the world.

He references Grey's Life Saving Dot campaign, which tackled the issue of iodine deficiency in women in rural India by creating bindis that double as iodine patches. The project - conceived and executed by the Singapore office - won accolades at the 2015 Cannes Lions.

Says Mr Myhren: "I think in a world where there is a lot of parity among products, and every consumer knows that, people - especially the younger generation - want to buy into a brand that has the same values.

"This sort of value-driven messaging and marketing is becoming increasingly popular, largely because it has to. Our industry is actually responding to what's happening in the world. I don't think big companies just decided that they wanted to be better in the world. They're driven by profits. It's like evolution - people are forcing companies to be better citizens and to actually take action.

Attracting top-tier talent

"So we tell our clients that you need to be selling more than just your product - that's the new world. You have to stand for something more than just the product. It's a business decision. But hey, if that's what it takes to help the world - great."

Still, Mr Myhren thinks the advertising industry needs to be a lot more innovative in order to attract top-tier talent, which he believes are mostly going to tech companies.

"No one is looking at advertising and saying: 'Can you believe all of these things that this industry is coming up with?' We're sort of reacting," he muses.

That lack of innovation is coming at a cost, talent-wise. Mr Myhren says that advertising is no longer able to attract the world's most creative minds, since the best young job-seekers are going to technology companies - whether to startups, or to established firms such as Google, Facebook and Apple.

His vision for Grey is to change that - by coming up with hyper-creative products. "When I say products, I'm not saying we're going to make the next iPhone. I mean the product that we're putting out into the world.

"We need to make sure that our industry is putting out products where the young generation - the super-creative young kids who are in school right now - see it and say: 'I don't know where that comes from, but I want to be a part of it."

While he acknowledges that it's a tough thing to do, he says that the company - and the advertising industry as a whole - has no other choice. After all, Grey is not competing against other advertising agencies for the best talent; it is competing against all of the creative companies in the world.

"So in order to get the best talent, we need to be putting out a better product than those companies. That's a very tall order. But I think it's possible - advertising has been an incredibly resilient industry."

*Following BT's interview in October, it was announced mid-December that Mr Myhren was leaving Grey to join Apple. He begins his new role as vice-president of marketing communications in the first quarter of 2016


Worldwide Chief Creative Officer, Grey Group and President, Grey New York*

1994 BA, English and Comparative Literary Studies, Occidental College, Los Angeles, California, US

Started as a sports reporter at The Providence Journal

Prior to joining Grey New York in 2007, held Creative Director roles at Leo Burnett Detroit; Leo Burnett Worldwide; TBWA/Chiat/Day in LA; Wongdoody in LA

2010, 2013, 2014 Cannes Lions jurist

2010-2015 President, Grey New York

2013-2015 Worldwide Chief Creative Officer, Grey Group