Archivists at Coke, Wells Fargo, McDonald's Advocate for Marketers -- and Themselves

Meet the Brand Keepers Trusted With Marketers' Histories

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Coke's Ted Ryan is playing hot licks.
Coke's Ted Ryan is playing hot licks. Credit: AJ Brunstein
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The event's signature drink is Red Rot.

The cocktail is named after the process that occurs when vegetable-tanned leather deteriorates, which gives you some indication of what this group is all about. While the advertising world may embrace all things shiny and new, the people meeting in a non-descript Washington, D.C., conference room are brand experts dedicated to the past. They spend their days immersed in history. Many are intimately familiar with long-departed company executives; they can easily call to mind dates and places integral to a marketer's history; and they have a deep understanding of how brands play in consumers' lives.

This is the annual meeting of the Business Archives Section of the Society of American Archivists. Those gathered here are responsible for curating, cultivating and preserving the histories of brands as varied as Coca-Cola, Estée Lauder, American Girl, Wells Fargo and Leo Burnett.

With their vast knowledge, they are a marketer's dream, yet this little-known group needs to market itself. Mondelez has an archival operation spanning four countries and 10 people, but it is the anomaly; most members in this group represent departments of one. The group, shaken by the sudden departure of Target's two well-regarded archivists last fall, dedicated the meeting to the topic of advocacy. (A spokesman for Target said the retailer remains committed to its archives and has integrated the work into its marketing team.)

"It's entirely budget and management driven. Boeing famously said they were going to decommission their archive, and they couldn't," said Ted Ryan, director-heritage communications at Coca-Cola, noting that the manufacturer must maintain certain documents for legal records. "Whoever is advocating for the archives, that may change, but the need to keep old records doesn't change."

About 100 corporate archivists took part in the August meeting, which was part of the much larger Society of American Archivists week-long annual confab. In total, about 2,500 archivists attended. On the surface they're all quite similar: Most have backgrounds in library science or history and they all take the same 100-question multiple choice test to achieve their professional certification. But the archivists who have found their way into corporations must also speak the language of business and marketing.

"I need to stay very nimble and familiar with the priorities of the business and the culture that supports those priorities," said Elizabeth Spatz, librarian and archivist for Disney Consumer Products. "I need to anticipate [Disney executives'] needs and always be thinking about what would invigorate and engage that community."
Mike Bullington, the first professionally trained archivist hired by McDonald's nearly 10 years ago, didn't mince words when he met with executives during the interview process. "I said, if you want a closet of curiosities, you will hire anyone else, but if you want the archives to support the business, the owner-operators, you will hire me," he recalled.

Mr. Bullington works closely with the chain's marketing executives, doling out brand facts for social media, alerting them to major product anniversaries, and even working on commercials for the 1955 burger that has been available overseas. Like most of his archivist colleagues, he also supports the communications, legal and executive teams, working on everything from fact checking to trademark protection.

McDonald's archivist Mike Bullington
McDonald's archivist Mike Bullington

For marketers who have access to professionally maintained archives, it can be a treasure trove of inspiration. Jamal Booker, manager-heritage communications at Coca-Cola, said the company's brand and agency teams regularly visit the company archives, which were established 75 years ago and are now estimated to be worth more than $60 million, to sift through historical campaign images, commercials and packaging.

At Mondelez, which is still in the process of separating its archives from Kraft Foods Group's, Becky Haglund Tousey, associate director-archives and information resources, maintains PowerPoint decks tracking how each brand's packaging has evolved. Press releases, annual reports and copies of internal communications are filed away for posterity, along with samples of packaging (before they're filled with food) and copies of ads. Researched and verified information, including brand timelines, is available on an intranet site.

Anna Lucas Mayer, senior archivist at Wells Fargo, said that as companies like hers change through divestitures and acquisitions, maintaining a sense of history becomes particularly important -- and challenging. "We are a much larger company now than we used to be, and [employees] are looking for that heritage and lineage -- how they fit into the family tree," said Ms. Lucas Mayer, adding that brands must "recognize the importance of archives to tell their stories externally and internally."

Rather than leave them to red rot.