As one of The Coca-Cola Company’s most prized possessions turns 100 this month, we caught up with Ted Ryan, Director of Heritage Communications, while he was in London filming a documentary about the iconic Contour Bottle. Ted is a long-serving member of the company and regularly contributes to Coca-Cola Journey. He’s also involved with the Coca-Cola Collectors Club, and knows a thing or two about the company’s history, at home and overseas.
What does a typical day involve?
The beauty of my role is that there is no typical day. I’ve never had two days repeat. Every day is something a little bit different, and no two markets treat the materials the same way. If there is something typical, then it’s answering requests from the marketing, legal and PR teams, and occasionally an outside researcher too. Heritage also provides a great deal of content for Coca-Cola Journey, and so I’m constantly feeding that beast.
How often do you go down into the archives?
Not as much as when I used to be the Processing Archivist. Back then, I was the one who took things out of one folder, put them in an acid free folder, wrote a label, put it in a box and then put it on the shelf. Now I have two full-time staffers who work with me, as well as two contractors, so I probably go to the archives maybe two or three times a week.
Have you always had a passion for history, and The Coca-Cola Company?
From the time I was eleven I knew I was going to study history, and I grew up in Atlanta so it’s always been in my blood to love Coca-Cola. After an internship at the National Archives, I got a job at the Atlanta Historical Society where I was a photo curator, but eventually started curating exhibits.
Coke recruited me but I turned the job down the first time they offered it to me, because I was going to go to Scotland because I was curating an exhibit about the famous golfer Bobby Jones, an opportunity I couldn't imagine turning down. They called me back and said they’d give me one more day, and then they sent a meal home to my wife who had just had our second kid. My wife called me and said “don’t be an idiot”, so I took the job and seventeen years later I’ve never looked back. I was very fortunate when my daughter spent a semester at the University of St. Andrews and I was able to visit two years ago. I walked the Old Course and visited the museum and was excited to finally make it to the home of golf.
What’s your favourite piece of Coca-Cola heritage?
The ‘Hilltop’ advert, which I’ve done so much research and so many interviews about. My favourite item is the ‘Yes Girl’ poster. It’s the perfect, quintessential Coca-Cola advertising. One word and you get everything you need to know. We did a challenge in our team and asked, if you could walk out with five things what would you take? I’d take that.
How do you organise the archives?
We’re not like a grocery store. We have an online system where we try to group things. All of the 3D memorabilia that people love and know, all that’s grouped in the same area and it’s what people love to see when we do our tours. We have moving shelves in the archives, you only have 3 feet of aisle space per 27 feet of shelving. So you push a button and you see this row of trays, radios and coolers – it’s really impressive.
What’s the most interesting item you’ve recently archived?
It’s from London. We didn’t even know it existed. It’s a Jimmy Hendrix bootleg Coke record. Somebody sent me a link on eBay and I thought, is that real? We have an acquisitions budget and so I bought it, I think I paid $500 for it. It’s usually artwork or some memorabilia that we don’t already have, but we already have so much that there’s got to another reason for us to buy it.
What’s the most valuable item in the archives?
The most valuable item isn’t in our archives – it’s the secret formula. It’s at the World of Coca-Cola and priceless. The Norman Rockwell paintings would probably be the most valuable items in monetary terms, because after years of suffering for decades as being called an illustrator, about ten years ago his work began to be appreciated for its artistic merit. Sunday Supper sold a couple of years ago at Christies for $37 million. So Rockwell’s value as an artist has skyrocketed.
What do your friends and family make of your job?
The truthful answer? Everybody is envious because it looks so sexy and cool. On Facebook all it seems I’m doing is posting travel pics from exotic locations around the world, so they’re envious of the travel not knowing how hard it is – but I’m not complaining! I love what I do. In my family we always say I could teach the history of the United States, maybe the world, through Coca-Cola advertising.
Could you do for anywhere else?
I could, but only after the 1950s. There’s an advert called Biba’s Boutique with music by The Who, from 1967. It was filmed in Biba’s Boutique in London, at the height of the hipster 1960s culture, and everything is encapsulated in this one ad. It’s the perfect history.
Biba's Boutiqe: Stills From Coca-Cola's 1967 Advert
What's the best piece of advice you've been given?
Our former President and COO, Donald Keough used to say his job was to make that trademark just a little bit shinier every day, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I take such pride in trying to maintain and polish the Coca-Cola trademark, whether that's through telling a heritage story or facilitating something like interviewing Linda Neary from Hilltop.
How did you find Linda Neary?
I got her address from a contract she signed for the Coca-Cola Hilltop Reunion advert in 1990, so I wrote a letter to that address. I stalked her on social media first, but couldn’t find a profile on Facebook or Twitter. I eventually got an email from her saying “Hi Ted, it’s Linda Neary, I hear you’re looking for me?” I was like “Wow, I’ve found her!”
Did you know the Hilltop advert was going to be featured in Mad Men?
Yes, and I can’t tell you how hard it was to keep that a secret. I didn’t formally find out until January, but I suspected in September last year when they kept coming to me for higher quality versions of the ad. All I knew is that it was for a TV show, and it was later called ‘Project Don’. Matthew Wiener said three years out he knew it was going to happen.
What have you enjoyed most about the 100th anniversary of the Coca-Cola bottle?
The celebrations have gone amazingly well. The Coca-Cola Contour Bottle is one of those icons that people know and revere, so the bottle has actually shielded and provided a means for positive news. What’s interesting is that it’s the bottle leading the way, not the product.
After the Coke Bottle 100 documentary, what’s next on your agenda?
We moved the archives in July, so that was hugely stressful. If I don’t have grey hair by the end of all this travelling, I will by the time I end up moving that. We will spend the next year getting it all organised!
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