Never in its 36 years preserving adland's past has the future of The History of Advertising Trust looked more bleak. With plenty of sympathy but little practical help from the industry, HAT faces financial meltdown - and imminent extinction - unless short-term funding can be found.
Without it, HAT will have to close, raising the prospect that its archive of more than three million items - one of the largest of its kind in the world - will go to a museum or be broken up.
The charity is planning to use the rest of the year building a case to present to the industry. But Barry Cox, the HAT chief executive, warns: "This money has to be found or we won't see out the summer."
He calculates that HAT will be solvent only until June. After that, £80,000 is needed to finance operations to the end of the year.
Last week, HAT's SOS was answered by the WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell, who has pledged £10,000 to help it stay in business and called on others to follow his example. "We're a busy industry and a fragmented one," he says. "Today and tomorrow always take precedence over yesterday. Yet our history contains work and wisdom of priceless value. So we should be deeply grateful that HAT exists - and we should all show evidence of that gratitude in the most generous and concrete way."
Sorrell's gesture is certainly a welcome start - but others will need to match it.
Those running HAT have known since last November that they were in for a rough ride. And they admitted four years ago that their haphazard system of raising cash through donations and storage fees was no longer workable.
The recession has ensured that donations have continued their downward spiral, dropping by more than one-quarter last year.
"The current business model is bust," Cox insists. "In spite of all our efforts to develop new products, services and ideas to generate fresh income, we will not be able to compensate for the loss of income."
To make matters worse, HAT's charitable status prevents it selling off any of its collection in order to stay in business.
Cox has already alerted ISBA and the IPA Council to HAT's plight, but concedes that aid from both bodies will be limited. ISBA has offered help in putting a business presentation together, while the IPA has set up a working sub-group to look at the problem.
However, an Advertising Standards Board of Finance-type levy on IPA agencies to fund HAT has been ruled out, and IPA sources claim it can offer little more than commiseration. "For one thing, agencies don't have the money," an IPA insider says. "And even if they did, they have insufficient appetite to help because they don't have enough knowledge of what HAT does and what it's there for."
For Graham Hinton, HAT's chairman, this is indicative of the disconnection between the archive and an industry employing an ever-more youthful workforce.
HAT's immediate objective is to bridge the gap between its current income and the expected shortfall - and fast. One option is to try getting more immediate help from the country's biggest agencies. Just nine of the top 20 shops still donate regularly to HAT, and only 11 of the top 40. According to Hinton, this is a direct reflection of how little HAT's relevance and value are understood in adland.
Another option is to negotiate a "rent window" of up to a year for HAT's premises in the Norfolk village of Raveningham.
But while these initiatives might provide a temporary respite, they won't solve the underlying problem of providing a sustained income for HAT, which costs around £275,000 a year to run.
Cox would like to see the current donation system replaced by a "stakeholder arrangement", under which annual contributions from agencies will be made automatically by standing order.
He also plans to take HAT's message to print production businesses, never regular supporters of the charity but whose collective output forms an integral part of the organisation's archive.
Meanwhile, there's hope that the National Lottery grant - helping HAT set up an online package for teachers and students involved in the new creative and media diploma for 14- to 19-year-olds - will establish an important fresh revenue stream. "Nothing we do will compromise the future of that project," Cox promises.
For the time being, however, HAT has been desperately exploring the possibilities of help from beyond the industry. Cox has already had talks with the British Library about a possible collaboration, including help with digitising its archive, and there are ongoing discussions with the Victoria & Albert Museum.
At the same time, the charity believes it has to tackle its poor profile within the industry. This has much to do with its lack of a London presence, a problem since it quit the capital in 1992, unable any longer to afford the cost of storing and displaying its burgeoning collection at Butlers Wharf in SE1.
The Advertising Association has offered itself as a potential London base, which would give HAT day-to-day contact with the industry.
Another possibility is linking up with the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London's Notting Hill. There's little duplication between the HAT archive and the museum's collection of more than 12,000 items that are seen by 5,000 visitors a year.
In the end, though, it's adland that holds HAT's fate in its hands. "Does the industry care enough about what we do?" Cox asks.
The next few months will provide the answer.
Anybody interested in making a donation to HAT should e-mail Barry Cox (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call him on 01528 548623.
- In 1974, a group of enthusiasts appealed for advertising memorabilia for an exhibition. Such was the response that HAT came into being.- HAT has more than three million items, making it the largest archive of UK advertising in the world. - HAT holds the archives of many leading agencies including JWT and Ogilvy & Mather, as well as collections from famous shops of the past, such as Collett Dickenson Pearce, and classic ads from Heinz and the Dairy Council.
- For many years, HAT's driving force was the late Michael Cudlipp, the one-time deputy editor of The Times. HAT's study and research centre, which opened three years ago, is named after him.
- Forty-five per cent of HAT's income comes from donations, the rest from sources generated by its services, including storage.- Sir John Hegarty was appointed as HAT's president at the beginning of last year as part of plans to give it a more dynamic image.