During the coronavirus pandemic, agency creatives have continued to find ways to make silver linings in an otherwise exhausting time. There are daily workouts out of an agency in Denver. And a social distancing project from an L.A. shop that edited iconic album covers allowed the industry to pause and appreciate well-meaning efforts.
Now, a duo of creatives from The Martin Agency is putting levity to good use with an Instagram account that puts teen heartthrobs from over the decades into the stay-at-home conversation. “Quaranteen Heartthrobs” is the handiwork of Neel Williams, svp and group creative director, and Justin Harris, vp and creative director. Both know a thing or two about comedy, as the pair works on the Geico account.
Based on the title of the project, it’s easy to establish what it’s all about: shots of famous teen pinups like John Travolta, David Cassidy, Scott Baio and The Osmonds circa the 1970s.
There’s also Will Smith, Kirk Cameron, Heather Locklear and, perhaps puzzlingly, Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia on the Brady Bunch. All include messages about social distancing, working from home and, predictably, toilet paper.
According to Williams, the idea took shape after his daughter’s school in Richmond closed, and she started making cards to send to her friends in the mail.
“It really touched my wife and me, and I thought, ‘Hey, adults could use a little social distancing-safe love, too,’” he said. “At first they were going to be quarantine-themed valentines you could share with friends online, but then the pun muse visited. The idea of Quaranteen Heartthrobs bubbled up and helped make the idea much dumber (in a good way).”
The idea of doing something that veers into more absurd territory was appealing to Harris, but it was essential to determine how to tread a line as the country struggles to find its way forward.
“We’ve lived in that [humorous Geico] world for such a long time,” he said. “Everything is so heavy and serious right now, and I think it was a chance to do something dumb. The world needs a little bit of ‘dumb’ out there, and if it brings a smile to someone’s face or they chuckle for a second, that’s awesome. That’s been our M.O. for Geico for such a long time.”
Thinking ahead, especially with creative messaging becoming more direct and informative, the question of what creativity may look like when the coronavirus crisis abates is one that Williams ponders.
“It’s something that everyone is asking themselves,” he said. “People are gravitating towards escapist entertainment, and not from brands. When you start introducing a brand into the equation, those that have a confident, well-defined voice will find a way forward. It will be a tightrope, though.”
For the moment, though, Williams and Harris are contributing in a way that fits their histories, points of view and years of clever, comedic chops. And there seems to be plenty of grist for this escapist mill.
“There’s a surprisingly deep well of teen idols,” Williams said. “We’ve got from the ’70s to the 2000s. There’s a lot to work with.”