When Grey New York’s new chief creative officer, Tor Myhren, decided to boot his team of 120 creatives from their posh offices into a sea of ’70s-brown cubicles, he skipped the pep talk on the cultural virtues of the open office. Instead, the bald newcomer shot a music video spoofing Sinéad O’Connor, crooning his own “Nothing Compares to Two”–the new floor–and setting an example of the new DIY spirit being unleashed at the stalled 93-year-old Madison Avenue shop. In the two years since his arrival, Myhren has transformed Grey New York into a multimedia powerhouse that is anything but colorless: In 2009, as ad spending plummeted 11%, the WPP–owned agency’s operating profits were up 44%.
One of Grey’s most effective moves was to build up its own production department, allowing it to produce TV and Web spots in-house quickly and cheaply, rather than outsourcing them. That lightness of foot helps explain how Grey won a startling 17 out of 19 new business pitches in 2009, including BMW, DirecTV, Ketel One vodka, and the NFL. The work, best exemplified by Grey’s now ubiquitous E-Trade babies, oozes zeitgeisty appeal–from its thousand-frames-per-second Phantom HD spots for the NFL to the creepy YouTube videos that transformed Penguin’s teen novel 13 Reasons into a best seller to the viral “Obammcain” ad for the presidential election. “We have to keep pace with the rest of culture,” says Myhren. “If news is coming out in real time, we have to be able to get our marketing out just as fast.”