There is a corner of Terry O'Reilly's office that smells like a basement.
The culprit is a bag full of cassette tapes, sent to him after he asked a former creative director if he had archived any of his old radio commercials.
"You know that smell? That's the state of our advertising archives right now, in this country," Mr. O'Reilly said, speaking from the office at his post-audio production company, Pirate Toronto.
Lacking in storage space – or the time and resources to catalogue past work – many advertising agencies have been lax about building archives. Much of the Canadian industry's heritage has been gathering dust in piecemeal personal collections.
But a new movement to organize and preserve Canada's marketing history has taken a step forward: Pirate Toronto has donated a massive catalogue of about 50,000 pieces of advertising to McMaster University in Hamilton, creating the largest industry archive in Canada.
Mr. O'Reilly, who hosts the CBC Radio show Under the Influence, describes himself as a bit of a hoarder, having kept much of his own work as well as ensuring that his company, unlike others, kept its work dating back to its founding in 1990. He and his partners decided they wanted it to continue to be preserved and used for education.
Pirate Toronto handed over the materials last June, and the archive will be unveiled officially by the university on Wednesday.
The archive, which dates back to 1981, includes concept pitches, video and audio of casting sessions, sheet music and lyrics for jingles, and a wide swath of radio and TV commercials. Campaigns such as the "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" series for Becel, early ads for mobile phones, and former prime ministers' campaign ads are all part of the collection.
"When it comes to discussing Canadiana in marketing, there's a lack of resources to work with," said Mandeep Malik, a marketing professor with the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster. "This particular legacy will create a rich resource which can start getting studied and developed."
McMaster is not the only institution interested in the issue. The Canadian Advertising Museum, a small online project made up of industry veterans, is working to build a Web-based archive for the Canadian industry. The next step for the university is to digitize what Pirate has donated. Once that process is complete, Prof. Malik said, some of the digital work could be shared.
Pirate Toronto is planning a second donation, which will expand the archive to about 75,000 pieces of work. It will be useful not only for the business school but also for communications studies, history, and other humanities courses, Prof. Malik said.
Quoting Marshall McLuhan, who once referred to advertising as "the cave art of the 20th century," Mr. O'Reilly said the importance of the work extends beyond the industry.
"Advertising is the great mirror of our society. It truly reflects what we're thinking at any given time, what we're wearing, trends. … It tracks and dates our species," he said. "I really hope this will start a wave with ad agencies and clients to preserve their work."
Some of Terry O'Reilly's favourite Canadian ad campaigns:
Cadbury's "Mona Lisa" TV spot – the only Canadian TV commercial to make it into the Clio Hall of Fame.
Molson's famous "I Am Canadian" commercials.
Dove's "Evolution," which won in both the Film and Cyber categories at Cannes in 2007, and was the first Canadian campaign to snag two Grand Prix victories.
Bud Light's "Good Dog," a commercial that aired in the U.S. during Super Bowl XXXVIII but was created by a Canadian ad agency, Downtown Partners (Mr. O'Reilly's agency, Pirate, also worked on it). Voted top commercial that year in the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter.
HOW ALAN ARKIN ENDED UP AS SPOKESMAN FOR MOOSEHEAD BEER:
On Wednesday night, Terry O'Reilly will host a presentation at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business campus in Burlington, Ont., as part of the unveiling of the archive of historical advertising materials his agency has donated to the university.
One of the campaigns he will present is among his personal favourites. In 1994, Pirate was working on a TV campaign for Moosehead Breweries Ltd. But during casting, the agency ran into a problem: there was a shortage of Canadian actors who were male, relatable, and also had not been in a beer commercial before.
"At that time beer just ate up the [Canadian]talent," he said. They needed a fresh face.
So Pirate expanded its casting effort to the pool of actors in New York. Not long after, Mr. O'Reilly received a surprising call. Alan Arkin wanted to do the commercial. He had heard overheard the auditions in the next studio, and had developed a love of Moosehead while spending time at his summer home in Cape Breton, and it became his favourite beer.
"The wonderful serendipity – sometimes in this business everything falls together," he said. "It was just the serendipity of him being in the next studio."
The Moosehead work went on to win best campaign of the year at the Canadian Television Bureau awards, The Bessies, in 1994.
Editor's note: The online version of this story contains corrected information