The occasional absurdity of being a professional pitchman isn’t lost on Tor Myhren, Worldwide Chief Creative Officer and New York President of internationally recognized advertising giant Grey Global.

Seated on a shallow bench in a cozy lounging area of his company’s Manhattan headquarters, the smartly dressed 43-year-old exec recounts a 2007 meeting with online brokerage house E*Trade in his first year on the job (Myhren had come from Detroit’s Leo Burnett, and smaller firms in Denver and California before that).

He and his colleagues had just presented their ideas for a Super Bowl ad featuring a now-iconic talking baby.

“We’re getting on the subway [afterwards], and it’s kind of packed, and I’m totally in the moment of this thing we’re trying to get them to buy,” he says, adding that it happened to be a spot that culminated with vomit. “And I’m totally passionately like, ‘It can’t be small puke. It has to be at least a big chunk.’ And this guy next to us is like, ‘I don’t know what fuckin’ industry you work in.’

At that moment, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is actually my life.’”

If Myhren’s on-the-record plain-spokenness is jarring, it represents the paradoxical shift that his business has undergone since the days when Don Drapers lorded over the halls of big agencies with public polish rivaled only by their private indiscretions.

Myhren, who started out as a sports reporter for the Providence Journal before finding his niche in advertising, is Roger Sterling re-imagined with a softened interior life—he’s a happily married dad whose biggest indulgences are travel and sharp suits—and less calculated but just as charismatic interpersonal panache. It could be argued that he’s at the vanguard of a new era in accessibility among corporate leadership.

“I do think the old way [where] every single answer to every question, whether in an interview or by an employee, is very canned is not appealing,” he offers. “I don’t think it works. At the same time, it’s not something I intentionally do, but I do believe in leading somewhat through humor.”

He’s also unafraid to make himself the focus of those punch lines. It’d be pretty difficult to fathom a Mad Men-era spinmeister a la Peter Campbell addressing a Mashable Summit with soliloquies on his punky adolescence and premature first sexual encounter.

But Myhren never really lost perspective on the angsty kid from Denver, Colorado he was once was (“I was always getting into weird shit,” he says with a laugh), and it’s informed his point of view to this day.

“I do think that mild rebellious attitude of punk rock is sort of timeless,” he says. “I’ve definitely tried to take a piece of that into the workplace for sure.”

One example Myhren points to is he and Grey’s work with non-profit States United to Prevent Gun Violence, for whom they produced the virally buzzed-about #GunsWithHistory PSAs.

The provocative pieces feature actual customers in what they think is a real weaponry store.

As the man behind the counter offers specs for various revolvers and rifles, he also explains that they were the actual arms used in accidental killings as well as mass-murders like the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.

“The holy grail is when you’re doing work for clients that has a really amazing social benefit to it. And I think that as the world gets more transparent and corporations get more transparent, that helps to build brands and help the world at the same time.”

The startling vignettes gathered millions of YouTube views within a week, and were certainly audacious for a major ad house to produce, but for Myhren, it was a clear and personal imperative.

“Aurora happened,” explains the Denver native, referring to the horror of gunman James Holmes killing 12 people inside an Aurora, Colorado movie theater in 2012.

“I have a lot of friends who live in Aurora. I had just had my daughter. So I got the whole agency together and put out a brief, and it just said, ‘This is gonna be a cause we take on. If anyone comes up with an idea good enough, then we will help fund it.’”

From that memo, several campaigns ensued to raise awareness about preventable gun-related crimes, from “Unload Your 401K,” which brought attention to the connection between many workers’ retirement portfolios and public gun companies, to the aforementioned #GunsWithHistory videos.

And that’s in addition to other socio-politically charged outreach under Myhren’s auspices, particularly this past February’s NO MORE Super Bowl ad addressing domestic violence and their 2008 election-season poster, “Let the Issues be the Issue,” which swapped Barack Obama and John McCain’s skin tones to stress the idea that people should be voting on more than just race.

That’s all pretty subversive stuff for a nearly 120-year-old company with a wide range of clients.

Myhren is well aware it could in fact be polarizing, but he also feels like it’s he and Grey’s obligation to enter the public discourse and not merely exploit its commercial ends.

“For any corporation in America to go out and make a political statement, you are going out on a limb, and you are putting a bit of a stake in the ground,” he concedes. “The holy grail is when you’re doing work for clients that has a really amazing social benefit to it. And I think that as the world gets more transparent and corporations get more transparent, that helps to build brands and help the world at the same time.”

In the interest of that sort of glasnost, Myrhen also opens his New York office’s doors each year to 15 eighth graders from Manhattan’s East Harlem School for a kind of month-long internship they’ve dubbed Grey Minors. Each of the students gets to meet and work with the staff and eventually present their pitches for an actual client brief.

Myhren knows it’s not as if all participants will leave the building thinking advertising’s for them, but it’s a chance for this once-wayward, insecure Colorado teen to provide a platform for other kids to discover and develop their confidence.

“Having grown up in the public-school system, I had no idea advertising was a job,” he says. “So what we wanted to do was just open their eyes and show them you can be creative for a living. The goal is to just expand their minds to understand that the arts goes way beyond what most kids think growing up. Nowadays, there’s this trend that by high school, you need to know exactly what you want to do, and I just don’t think when you’re 15, you know what you want to do. At the very least, they know there’s a much broader array of creative channels they can tap into.”

Myhren is similarly pragmatic about his firm’s furious commercial output. He realizes not everything he touches on behalf of companies like Canon or Gillette will have universally broad appeal. In fact, I point out my own beef with their ubiquitous 30-second spots for DirecTV starring Rob Lowe playing superior and inferior versions of himself, contingent on whether he went with the satellite provider or regular old cable.

Myhren’s unfazed by my candor about finding the campaign irksome. In fact, it elicits his throatiest guffaw of the afternoon, as if it’s hardly the first time he’s heard that complaint. That’s the gamble a person in Myhren’s position takes when he’s spending millions of someone else’s dollars to convince consumers to slow down their DVRs and become transactional beings.

“Some clients, [and] DirecTV is definitely one of them, when they put something on air, their intention is to get noticed,” he says matter-of-factly. “Hopefully not by grating, but certainly by being incredibly provocative. So whether it’s the Rob Lowe thing, whether it’s ‘Cable Effects,’ part of the intention of the advertising is to get attention and create conversation in the world and culture. As long as it’s not purely negative conversation, I think that’s increasingly becoming part of our jobs, because the role of media’s changing so much.”

So, too, is Myhren’s leadership approach. “The biggest change in my management philosophy is I have a lot more patience now,” he says. “When I had my first job running [Burnett], I wanted change, and it had to happen that day. I didn’t really think through a lot of the decisions I was making.” He credits his current boss, Grey Chairman Jim Heekin, whom he says “really sits on things and is able to see a little more clearly.”

Moving forward, all this one-time Fortune magazine “40 Under 40” honoree has to do is find that sweet spot where the wisdom of experience intersects with today’s nimble pace of life. “There is a dichotomy there,” he acknowledges. “The patient part I think plays a bigger role with people, and the work itself is moving at an all-time high rate of speed.”

Fittingly, Myhren’s next appointment calls. As he buttons up his jacket to head down the hall, he aptly concludes, “You do have to move quickly.”

Lead and final photo by Owen Hope.