Asked to share a lingering memory from Heartbeat’s 2020, co-president, executive creative director James Talerico’s mind immediately flashes to a particularly tense virtual presentation. As the agency’s group creative director attempted to display some work, he was interrupted by his young son screaming and running toward him — for all to see via the miracle of Zoom, of course.

“It was beautiful and insane and hysterical,” Talerico recalls. “It was so spot-on with what 2020 was like: Everybody was really tense and trying to get the work out under dire circumstances, and yet we were in each other’s worlds.”

In the presentation’s wake, a new spirit prevailed among its participants. “You come to not just see one another more richly and more fully, but to embrace one another,” Talerico adds. “When we got off that call, there was such a high level of compassion and empathy for one another.”


Amid the COVID chaos, Heartbeat added eight assignments to a roster that already included work for pharma A-listers such as Gilead (on its HIV franchise), Bristol Myers Squibb (blockbuster cancer drug Opdivo) and Genentech (multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus). The additions included Applied Therapeutics, for a new product designed to treat the rare disorder galactosemia, and Agile Therapeutics, for birth control patch Twirla.

Talerico describes both engagements as impactful. The Applied work “opened our eyes to a unique therapeutic space,” he explains, while the Twirla work “opened the door for a more honest interaction with our audiences.”

Revenue at the agency grew to an MM+M-estimated $70 million in 2020, up 17% from an estimated $60 million in 2019. Head count jumped from 242 at the start of the year to 265 at the end of it.

Talerico has big expectations for continued expansion, especially given the robustness of the pharma and biotech pipelines. “Brands are going to break through in the oncological or the dermatological setting — crowded spaces that are in need of new inventive products,” he explains. “That’s what we’re keeping an eye out for: Newcomers to the space to partner with, right from the outset.”

Another priority for Heartbeat in the months and years ahead is further diversifying the makeup of its staff. Co-president, executive planning director Nadine Leonard says that while 40% of the agency’s recent hires come from diverse backgrounds, it still has a ways to go.

“We look for asymmetrical people to bring new perspectives to our work,” Leonard explains. “We’ll come with different answers to the same old questions, because we’re not asking the same old people. From my perspective, those are the two big differentiating points for us as a creative community.”

Leonard adds that 2020 has taught Heartbeat — and, hopefully, the industry as a whole — to pay greater attention to mental health and work/life balance.

“The advertising industry has a horrible reputation for work/life balance,” she acknowledges. “But this past year created not only new opportunities to reinforce how much we want to support people, but also more of an urgency around just how important it is.” 

. . .

The idea I wish I had…

Expedia’s Let’s Take a Trip. Not only is this ad delightful, well-designed and wonderfully optimistic, it captures the wanderlust daydreams so many of us indulged in throughout 2020. In these 30 seconds of stop-motion wonder, directed by Victor Haegelin, shoes, bed sheets, pillows and paperbacks become highways and mountains, swimming pools and deluxe accommodations. In its unusual overhead POV and jaunty score, the spot brings us in and pushes us out: to a future where we’ll discover those only-imagined places, together. — James Talerico