SINGAPORE — Tor Myhren, global chief creative officer of Grey Group sat down with Campaign Asia-Pacific to talk about nurturing creative cultures around the world, including the region he calls the network's weakest link — Asia.
Myhren said he can tell within two seconds of walking into an office whether it houses a positive or negative culture. "It just screams out at you," Myhren said.
It’s a sixth sense he claims he has picked up since stepping into the role of CCO in 2013, with the hope of extending the creative culture he helped cultivate in the New York office across the network.
Grey has offices in 154 cities across 96 countries, and Myhren has racked up a lot of flyer miles getting to as many offices as possible in addition to the agency's global hubs in Sao Paulo, Singapore and London.
His first order of business when stepping into a new office is to meet with the management team and then hold a town hall meeting with the rest of the agency.
"You can really see the difference in the messages you’re getting from the leadership and what you get from the rest of the team," he added.
The main goal for Myhren is to assess each office’s state of mind and to sniff out what their ambition is — in order to formulate how best to nurture a more creative-centric culture.
Grey has a Global Creative Council made up of the top 15 creative directors from its global network, that meets three times a year to strategise on how to improve the agency's creative profile.
Founded by Myhren’s predecessor, Tim Mellors, the committee has no permanent seats, with CDs selected based on a series of metrics such as number of new business wins, famous work and creative awards.
"One thing we do is, every office in the network submits their best work, and we rank them from one to 154," Myhren said. "It can get really intense, and is definitely very competitive.
"What’s funny is that when I walk into an office as the CCO, people expect me to talk about creativity, but when our global CEO Jim Heekin walks in, he comes holding only two pieces of paper — the P&L and the Council Rankings — puts it in front of the MD and goes, ‘OK, let’s talk about this.’ And I can tell you that almost always, the office that ranks well is also doing well from a business perspective.
"Great, famous work solves every problem an agency has," Myhren said. "I think that’s the one mistake many agencies make. They convince themselves that it’s not about the work but about the relationships instead. I mean that we tend to look for excuses — when not doing good work — to find something that would be more powerful than the work to win new business when really, nothing is.
"I keep saying that the product we sell is a creative product, so if the product sucks then your business is going to suck."
Is Asia creative enough?
Myhren noted that each part of Asia is in a "totally different state of creativity," but said that in the case of China, very little great work of any kind is coming out of the market.
"This is just one man’s opinion, but I think China is behind in the creative realm," he said. "It’s still a very account-driven business, and creativity is not valued as highly with a lot of mediocre work right now that’s all the same. But I think that’s going to change dramatically in next couple of years, because someone’s going to do really great work and it’ll work really well for sales and growth and then like always, everyone says ‘Wow okay, so good work is what we need to do’."
As for other parts of Asia, Myhren notes that India does solid work, while Korea has been doing some very interesting things in the mobile space. "Japan always does really interesting work in technology and design, they are far ahead of the rest of the world in that regard," he said. "Every year when I see the work coming out out of there I go ‘how did they think of that?’"
Myhren added that Southeast Asia continues to churn out interesting work with Singapore continuing to be a hotbed for creativity.
As diverse as Asia is, if there was one blanket statement he could make about the state of creativity, it is the lack of good work in film.
"I’m not referring to just television commercials here, I’m talking about compelling stories made on film that can live on television, online, pre-roll or long-form," he clarified. "I’ve been a judge at Cannes for three out of the last five years, and I’ve seen very little good work coming out of Asia in that regard."
Myhren pointed out that the fastest growing segment in the internet is video, and while TV may be dead, film and video are not and will only continue to become more important.
He added that the available platforms for creatives to tell stories via different medium open up all kinds of possibilities.
Grey’s creative weak link
In the last two years, Myhren hasn't walked into a new-business pitch that hasn’t started with, "How’s your operation in China?" he said. "That’s the first question, especially when it’s a big global business account."
When questioned about Grey Group's creative reputation in Asia, Myhren agreed the network has work to do.
"I would say that yes, in the past few years Asia been our weakest region, but it’s also been our strongest from a business perspective," he said. "Particularly in China, where we’re seeing incredible business growth."
Myhren said that Grey’s business in China has tripled in size, with three offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai servicing the region.
He also admitted that China contradicts his stance of great work having a direct correlation to business results, but said this is mainly due to the overall growth the industry has been enjoying.
According to IBISWorld, China is the second-largest advertising market in the world and over the past five years, revenue for the advertising agency industry has been growing 20.2% annually.
"With business growing, Asia is a huge point of emphasis for us, and we’re looking to improve the creative product coming out of this region," he added.
However Myhren was short on details about how Grey intends to improve Asia’s creative chops. He asserted there’s hope on the horizon for that particular goal, with Grey Group Singapore having what Myhren describes as a "watershed year."
The agency’s Life Saving Dot campaign has been making waves in the region, winning six awards at Spikes Asia this year, including a Grand Prix for the Outdoor category and the Innovation Spike.
Myhren is confident that Singapore’s "breakthrough" will influence the region toward crafting better work.
"With the Singapore office doing well, other folks in Asia will start to get competitive with them," he added. "After all, we’re all competitive beasts by nature."
Good work ultimately stems from good people, but Myhren is not a fan of firing people just for change’s sake.
"As a network we’ve gotten bigger over the years, and I’ve met some really talented people that were just wallowing away because they either had the wrong client mix or it was a problem with leadership," he said.
This is a big driver behind Myhren’s ongoing commitment to visiting as many offices around the world as possible, to assess the situation before making "grand sweeping changes," he said. "There’re people who’ve been with Grey for 10 years and are now doing really well because the environment has changed and empowered them to come out with really great work. But sometimes, as the saying goes ‘if you can’t change the people, change the people’ and there have been changes made."
In addition, attracting new talent has always been a struggle for the industry and Myhren points to a new challenge in the recruitment game.
"The biggest issue our industry is facing right now is attracting the best young minds to come and join us," he said. "There are so many other creative professions now and we’re losing out to gaming companies, tech startups and other creative fields."
The solution to the problem? "It all comes back to ‘do good work’," he said. "We just have to do the kind of work that makes these young creatives go ‘who did that?’ and be the kind of place that they’d want to come work at."
The work and nothing but the work
The "Holy Grail" or ultimate benchmark that Myhren sets for his teams and the wider Grey network is simple: Will it make it into the cultural conversation?
"That’s what you want at the end of it," he said. "As long as the focus remains on creating work and platforms that seep into popular culture, then everything else follows on from that."
Myhren admitted that trying to just focus on creating good work, in the midst of multiple pressures and distractions, is difficult, especially with the industry so much more complex than ever before.
"It’s not just hard to focus on work, but also what work to focus on. There are so many different platforms to work on these days and each client’s needs are different," he added.
Myhren describes the ad industry as being in a constant state of flux, and believes the agencies succeeding are the ones open to, and embracing change.
"Nobody know where this thing is going," he said. "The best we can do is embrace the change and try to have a point of view on where things are headed and help lead clients in staying one step ahead of competition."
This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.