Fostering Greater Creativity By Celebrating Failure

After experiencing his own epic professional stumble, Tor Myhren vowed to foster creativity by banishing fear of failure.

Most of us have had a professional failure we’ve had to overcome at some point in our careers. But when you were the lead on a Super Bowl ad that bombed so spectacularly it cost your company the $300 million account--and the whole situation is covered in the New York Times, it can be tough to shake off.

But if that which does not kill us makes us stronger, then Tor Myhren is Iron Man. After that dismal 2006 Cadillac Escalade spot which was called the worst Super Bowl ad, Myhren moved from Leo Burnett Detroit to take the chief creative officer post at Grey New York in 2007. It was just in time for him to take the lead on E*Trade’s Super Bowl commercial. He oversaw the development of the iconic E*Trade baby: a fixture in the company’s advertising until this year. He says it changed how he viewed failure.

“[I had] a big public failure and, having gone through that, I really admired the people that supported me and especially admired the people who gave me the chance the next year to try to do it again,” he says.

Myhren was named president in 2010 and then worldwide chief creative officer of Grey in 2013. During his tenure at Grey, some remarkable things have happened. The agency has roughly tripled its employee count from approximately 350 in 2009 to more than 1,000 today. In addition to a number of varied awards for its work, Adweek named Grey Global Agency of the Year in 2013 and Advertising Age named it Agency of the Year in 2014.

A short film the agency created as part of a campaign for Canon was short-listed for an Oscar--a first-time achievement for an advertising campaign film. The agency recently landed the Papa John’s account. In 2013, it landed Gillette’s business after 80 years with BBDO.

What’s the secret behind the transformational success?

Myhren credits it in large part to a culture that places a high value on creativity. Employees are not permitted to schedule meetings on Thursdays before noon, so they have at least one block of time during the week to think and work on creative projects without interruption.

He encourages them to go to the many museums and cultural events in New York City. And he even encourages them to have creative endeavors outside of work. He’s been known to highlight employees’ side businesses at agency-wide meetings.

He also works hard to make employees feel safe in their creative process because he believes fear of failure kills creative thought. Myhren says his employees know that if they come up with a breakthrough idea or creative approach, the agency will support them, even if the idea falls flat.

Heroic Failures

In fact, seven years ago, Grey even instituted its “Heroic Failure Award,” which is given to someone whose approach was an epic fail. It’s a large trophy that remains in the possession of the winner until the next failure. Two memorable winners: The team that created the 2010 E*Trade baby commercial that called Lindsay Lohan a “milkaholic,” resulting in E*Trade getting slapped with a $100 million lawsuit by the actress.

In another case, an employee procured panther excrement from a zoo for a new business pitch for a cat litter disposal product. She placed it in the container where it stayed for roughly a month before the pitch. At the end of the meeting, she asked the prospective clients to look under the table, explaining that the poop had been there during the entire meeting. One of the top client representatives “freaked out and left the room,” Myhren says. They didn’t get the business but her name was engraved on the failure trophy.

The “Heroic Failure Award” is given to someone whose approach was an epic fail such as the 2010 E*Trade baby commercial that called Lindsay Lohan a “milkaholic,” resulting in a $100 million lawsuit.

To further take the sting out of failure, every business pitch or meeting, successful or not, goes through a painstakingly candid postmortem, he says. Everyone involved gathers and speaks very honestly about what worked and what didn’t.

Myhren says it’s not judgmental, but it’s very specific. If you knocked it out of the park, you’ll be applauded--but if something didn’t go well, you’ll hear about that, too. It’s a rude awakening at first, he says, but eventually postmortems take the sting out of criticism because everyone goes through it, while helping team members up their game next time around. That’s the goal, he says. Help everyone get better and learn from their mistakes without making them so paralyzed by the thought of failure that they don’t produce anything new.

“I do think that fear is the biggest problem in the American business culture. So many businesses punish risk-taking,” he says. “I think it’s the worst thing you can do.”

Bottom Line: Help everyone get better and learn from their mistakes without making them so paralyzed by the thought of failure that they don’t produce anything new.

[Image: Flickr user marc falardeau]

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