Close-Up: Live issue - Protecting adland's treasure trove

The History of Advertising Trust vows to raise its profile and become indispensable.

The Aladdin's Cave of British advertising is not to be found in some Soho cellar, but at the end of a country lane in a village located halfway between Norwich and Lowestoft.

The reason for the History of Advertising Trust's unusual location is a practical one. It needs the space to store and display one of the world's largest advertising archives (more than three million items) that no expensive central London location could provide.

Yet HAT's off-the-beaten-track setting is also rather emblematic of a charity that remains either unknown by the industry at large, or ignored by agencies more preoccupied with securing their own future than preserving their past.

That, however, could all change thanks to two developments that, if fully exploited, may allow the charity to become more dynamic and relevant to the industry. What's more, the developments could also help to provide HAT with a more regular income stream and end the often haphazard fund-raising system which it has largely relied on for more than three decades.

The first was the official opening this week of HAT's refurbished and extended premises, located at Raveningham.

After years of having to "make do" with a cramped, dark and dusty space and overflow storage facilities, HAT can now store all of its collections (which include the complete archives of mould-breaking agencies such as Collett Dickenson Pearce) under one roof, and also offer extensive study facilities for students and researchers.

The second defining event may well turn out to be the recent acquisition by HAT of the entire archive of the British Television Advertising Awards since their inception in 1977. Not only is this a massive treasure trove (almost 30,000 commercials, representing the best of British advertising), but it could become a potential moneyspinner for the cash-strapped operation.

This opportunity could not have arrived at a better time. The huge effort needed to get the refurbished building up and running has not only drained the energies of HAT's tiny staff, but also its bank balance.

The charity costs £250,000 a year to run, but can't rely on annual guarantees for any of this sum. "We're operating close to a very bumpy bottom line," Barry Cox, the former Publicis managing partner and Grey London vice-chairman, and now HAT's chief executive, says.

HAT's income is split equally between donations and what it can raise through storage fees or the hiring out of its research facilities. While revenue derived from the latter has grown slightly, the former fell by 13 per cent last year. In tough times, an agency's annual handout to HAT is an easy economy to make. Moreover, the number of agency mergers and takeovers has dramatically reduced the number of places where HAT can rattle the collecting tin.

The fact that HAT has managed to keep itself afloat financially for so long has been due in no small measure to its mercurial former chief executive, Michael Cudlipp.

During his decade in charge, the former deputy editor of The Times drove HAT with passion. The power of his evangelism persuaded many people to give up both their time and money.

The fatal heart attack he suffered as he was setting off for work one morning in October 2004 not only robbed HAT of its spark plug, but it also came at a point when the construction of the extension, Cudlipp's all-consuming mission, had barely started.

Now, the Michael Cudlipp Study and Research Centre will stand as his monument following its formal opening this week by his widow, Jane.

Under Cudlipp, HAT's ambition could sometimes outstrip practical considerations. His plan to include an exhibition centre within the extension was killed off by Cox, who saw little future for it given HAT's rural location. "Our exhibition centre is now the net," he says.

Nevertheless, the opening of the refurbished building is seen within HAT as hugely symbolic. "We've reached a stage in our evolution where one era is ending and a new one begins," Graham Hinton, the former Bates Group boss and the HAT chairman, says.

For Cox, though, the main challenges are to equip HAT for the digital age and - as he puts it - "to provide a service that will not only command value, but also lift HAT's profile significantly".

As far as the latter is concerned, Cox has brought the recent start-up Dye Holloway Murray on board to offer marketing advice and to help establish the agency's credentials with a new generation of its peers.

At the same time, other potential revenue generators are being explored. Among them is the possibility of some Heritage Lottery Fund money. Cox does concede that this is likely to be a long and complex process, but claims: "Our size and substance takes us into a different league, where we should be able to have conversations with the HLF."

He's hopeful that HAT's existing relationship with the University of East Anglia and Norwich School of Art, which pays the charity for student visits, can be expanded to other academic institutions across the country.

An initiative under which HAT has become involved with a Suffolk secondary school's GCSE course in Applied Media is also seen as having wider possibilities.

But all these things pale in comparison with HAT's ultimate challenge - how well it can harness the power of digital to capitalise on its unique collection.

The process begins with the launch of a more user-friendly website this week. However, the charity still has some significant obstacles it has to overcome on its digital journey.

One is the need to win ISBA's support for a HAT digital library that would be constantly refreshed by a "divert", allowing it to receive new commercials as they are sent for broadcast. HAT would then be able to compete with archive services such as Xtreme for advertiser and agency business.

The other challenge is how to navigate the copyright minefield. The digital age has changed things fundamentally, with agencies even fearful of putting their own commercials online lest they get a call from a litigious actor claiming copyright violation.

"HAT could have all the rights to my work," Trevor Beattie, the Beattie McGuinness Bungay foun-ding partner and HAT vice-president, says. "The trouble is, I don't own them."

Viacom Media's £500 million action against Google and its YouTube subsidiary over the alleged unauthorised use of some 160,000 programme clips shows what a huge issue copyright has become. "We're in a grey area," Cox acknowledges. "And it's dark grey rather than light."

HAT might be helped if ISBA were to dissuade its members from pursuing copyright infringement actions against the charity. But such an action would only amount to limited protection.

"You have to weigh the risks," a leading media lawyer says. "Would a major advertiser really want the unwelcome PR associated with suing a charity? Also, the copyright ownership of much of the material HAT holds would be very hard to track down. My advice would be to bite the bullet and get on with it."

Whether all this will stop HAT being perpetually regarded as the industry's country cousin remains to be seen. Even Cox admits he had never heard of HAT before he was headhunted to run it.

"Since then, I've come to realise what an extraordinary resource HAT is," he says. "It's very sad that we are such a low priority for agencies. It's their heritage that we're looking after."