Ancient Wisdom

October 21, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The History of Advertising Trust reminds us why we should protect the past to improve the future of our industry.

The advertising industry’s obsession with the future is inevitable. The new is exciting, cool and interesting – everything advertisers want to be – and if they’re going to be communicating in a relevant way, agencies need to be on the cutting edge of culture. But this obsession is also a dangerous one. It results in acute amnesia. The past is quickly disregarded in favour of the next big thing and lessons are often left unlearned in the wake.

The History of Advertising Trust (HAT) has been fighting to restore balance to the industry since 1976, reminding them that a look in the rear view mirror every so often can be a valuable thing. They also handily provide them with a big mirror to do so.

HAT’s job is to protect and represent the heritage of advertising, to preserve the story of its development and the best work through the ages. Their archive of millions of relics from the advertising world is fascinating and ever growing, stored in temperature-controlled, low-acidity conditions at their facility in Norfolk. It’s a potentially a rich source of inspiration for new generations and a fascinating treasure trove to dig through.

There’s a lot more than just ads at HAT’s archive. Their collection also encompasses the context in which they were created, including such fascinating artefacts as the notepads and sketches that went into their creation, telling the stories from behind the scenes. There are even contracts for famous talents and correspondence between clients and agencies, fleshing out the history of the social dynamics of the industry.

“Although formats change the ideas are what really matter,” asserts Chloe Veale, Director of the Trust. And while HAT’s collection is vast and exciting, she and her team are always keen to grow it and fill in the gaps in the communications tapestry.

Their facility is full of gadgetry and gizmos for converting old formats into stuff that can be digitally archived and backed up, but it’s painstaking work putting old 35mm film and transparencies onto hard drives as it often has to be done in real time.

The end goal of all this is to reduce the impact of that geographical barrier between the metro-centric British advertising industry and HAT’s base of operations in Norfolk by cataloguing everything online in a digital format. That’s a huge job, especially for a charity with limited access to funding, but it’s one they’re handling at a steady pace with the support of the idustry.

Channelling their efforts into this digitization and opening the doors of its archive wider to the industry is testament to the fact that HAT is no dusty repository where ads go to be catalogued and forgotten; it’s an active, participatory part of an industry that desperately needs to learn from its past in order to produce the best work.

They’ve built their archives by gathering material from a plethora of sources and as lovers of history they relish this. “We rescue material,” says Chloe, “but we’d prefer a working relationship. The hardest thing is to make sure we’re getting the fresh stuff that’s being produced today. We’ve got to keep feeding the archive with stuff that’s current.”

It’s a paradox, but while technology has given us all the tools to preserve our work easily by building our own digital archive, it has also taken away the structures and disciplines that physical cataloguing demanded. The notes a creative made while coming up with the next historic ad are likely in a folder in a hard drive somewhere, but where exactly is up to that creative’s personal filing system – and calling it a system may be giving it too much credit. “We’d like agencies to send us their digital records,” explains Chloe, “but a lot of them wouldn’t know how to access them. The digital world is a great asset for information but it’s also extremely expensive to have all the back-up storage.”

HAT want to nurture a two-way relationship with agencies. Ultimately they need cooperation in constantly building their archive, but it all goes towards the greater goal of strengthening the industry as a whole.  “It’s all about relationships, the whole business,” says Chloe. “And we’re here to help everybody. We’re a service, not a museum. This is living heritage. We’re still creating it and it’s here to be drawn upon.”

Ultimately, in a world obsessed with immediacy and cost cutting, HAT can save agencies and production companies time and money, by smoothing the process of research. They have shelves rammed full of guard books that detail the entire chronologies of brands’ advertising histories. They’ve gathered together material from disparate sources – from head offices, local factories and outlets, agencies and even ex-creatives’ lofts and boiler rooms – to fill in the gaps in brands’ timelines of communication.

It’s all in one place and available for their clients to access and they can deal with lines of enquiry where Google would hit a brick wall. HAT have recently been working on a project called Saving the 70s, producing compilation reels of 1970s advertising and collecting anecdotes, photographs and ephemera from the era, but Chloe is confident they could virtually cover any timeframe or theme people are interested in.

“You can’t catalogue ideas,” she admits, “but you can catalogue slogans, language, images, products and brands. When [agencies] are saying ‘give us everything you’ve got on salad cream since the 1930s’ we can do it."

At Advertising Week Europe earlier this year, The History of Advertising Trust screened Risk and Responsibility, a witty deconstruction of the client-account manager-agency dynamic featuring now legendary ad men Ronnie Kirkwood, Jeremy Bullmore, Sam Rothenstein and David Bernstein. You can’t find it on the internet, but the sketch from 1966 hilariously depicts a pair of risk-averse clients reducing Ogilvy’s iconic The Man in the Hathaway Shirt ad to a pile of bland rubbish. It’s message is as relevant now as it was then – risks must be taken in order to stand out, and clients will need some persuading to take these risks. The battles of the industry then are still raging.

We may have immersive online brand experiences and creative technologists coding our advertising now, but the core principles of the industry still hold. That’s why we should pay attentions to The History of Advertising Trust and the wealth of knowledge held within their archive. We’ll never be so enlightened that we cannot learn from the past.

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