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One On 1 Profile: Advertising Guru Tor Myhren Takes The Leap To Tell & Sell Stories

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Advertising maven Tor Myhren says he loves to tell a story, but his own story is pretty compelling, as he arrived in New York five years ago questioning his place in the industry and in the city and has now answered his questions. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

It's not surprising that Tor Myhren cites his parents and early mentors as inspirations in his successful advertising career. Another early inspiration is Howard Roark, the embattled architect in Myhren's favorite book, Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead."

"The amazing architect who did it his way. No one else had a say, it was his ideas, his vision," says Myhren. "Always walk into a meeting with a little of Howard Roark behind you. I think it's definitely helped my career a lot."

The irony is that the advertising agency Myhren runs, Grey New York, has some rather un-Roarkian features — no walls, no offices and long tables shared by co-workers, working, yes, collectively.

"I do believe that ideas are living organisms. Put walls around an idea, it can't grow. Same as putting walls around a person, it can't grow," says Myhren. "By having no walls, it allows ideas to go free, be picked up, be shared, collaborated on. Next thing you know, you have a much bigger idea than when you started."

In Grey New York’s almost 100-year history, it never had a chief creative officer take over as president, until Tor Myhren.

Asked if there is an extra burden being a "creative guy," Myhren answers, "I never really saw it as a burden. I always thought it maybe it's my optimistic way of looking at the world. I always saw it as I had a little more leeway to screw up."

Screw up? Hardly. Myhren is on a roll, having created some of the most successful and hip advertising campaigns, like the e-Trade baby.

The initial e-Trade baby spot got 11 million hits on YouTube only days after its debut. But Myhren, creative and cautious, wanted to end it. The client said no.

"He always reminds me of this. He says, 'Tor, you were the one who said, "Do you really want to be known as the baby company?"' And I did, I had a huge argument with him and he said, 'Right now, with response of these commercials, yes, I do,'" says Myhren.

Myhren's also the man behind the Direct TV ads. The commercials got an unexpected boost when former President Bill Clinton told an industry audience in France that the campaign was his favorite.

"I wasn't there, but immediately I got probably 20 text messages within 20 seconds of him saying that. 'Oh my god, did you hear Clinton?' It was all over the press," says Myhren.

Despite Myhren's many successes, like making Ellen DeGeneres a cover girl at 50, failure, inevitable in advertising, plays an influential role in how he runs the company.

In 2006, he was working for an agency in Detroit when his Super Bowl ad for Cadillac was deemed a failure. Cadillac, an estimated $300 million account, left the agency and the city.

"The city was angry with me. That sounds bigger than it is, but at least the advertising community of that city was," says Myhren. "'You come in and lose our biggest client!' So it was a tough one to get over."

At Grey, failure is occasionally rewarded. For bold ideas that fail, some employees have been given the so-called Heroic Failure Trophy.

"I don't want to create an environment here where people afraid to fail. So many great things come from taking risks. If you punish that as business, as a person, as a friend, people cower and they don't blossom," says Myhren.

People are encouraged to put their ideas on an office wall for all to see and a thick skin is a requirement.

"What's good about this is you can take [a paper with an idea] and gently place it down here [on the floor] and it's gone forever," says Myhren.

Myhren grew up in Denver and his father is considered one of the pioneers of cable television. His parents divorced when he was young.

Myhren skied and played basketball in high school and at division three Occidental College. He was the embodiment of good health but his older brother was not.

“Our parents flew us out to the Mayo Clinic to essentially say goodbye to him. They thought he was going to die, and he pulled through. At that point once, he got out of the hospital, it really changed his life,” Myhren says.

As part of that change, his brother eventually created an inner-city lacrosse program primarily for African-American children in Denver, a program Myhren chronicled in the documentary, "City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story."

"It was great for my soul," says Myhren. "You want to make sure in some capacity that you're giving back and you're not the cliche term, 'selling out.' In most people's minds there's nothing more selling out than advertising right?"

Myhren has always had a love of the road, at one point bringing his career in Los Angeles to a screeching halt with a five-month trek overseas. It was on one of these trips that he met his wife Tomoko in Japan, an experience chronicled in their apartment. They have a young daughter, so Myhren’s latest passion is studying Japanese.

“I decided that I can't have them having these conversations without me not having any idea what they're talking about, starting taking Japanese," says Myhren.

"Just a second," Budd Mishkin counters. "My wife speaks English, my daughter speaks English, I have no idea what they're talking about."

Fatherhood means that Myhren is facing the age-old question.

“How much time can I actually be in this building versus home with a 14-month-old daughter? Maybe for the first time ever, I know absolutely positively that there is something way more important back there, right?” he says.

Tor Myhren came to New York in 2007, unsure of the city and his place in the advertising world. He appears now to be a man at peace, with his own personal story and the stories he creates for millions.

“I don't look at it oftentimes as just selling products. I want to make people laugh, I want to make people cry, I want to make people feel something, and that’s to me the storytelling piece," says Myhren. "And in advertising, it was this way when advertising began and it’s this way now, and even with the changing digital landscape, everything that's going on, I promise you it will be this way in the future. But it's about stories.”

Myhren's latest "stories" include ad campaigns featuring the Azerbaijan Olympic wrestling team and the air freshener Febreeze.

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