Celebrating Barbara Proctor, the first African-American woman to own an ad agency

Nduta Waweru January 15, 2019
Photo: Sun-Times archives

When the world of advertising was being run by men in the 1960s and 1970s, there emerged a black woman who set up her own agency.

In 1976, the agency started by Barbara Proctor in 1970 was considered the biggest black-owned agency at the country.

Aside from setting up this agency, she is also the woman credited for introducing the Beatles to America via a deal she sealed while working for Vee-Jay records.

Proctor, who died on Dec 19, 2018, according to her son Morgan, is considered a pioneer in the ad industry at a time when chances like these were unavailable for what she referred to as double minority: being black and a woman.

“It is not, in any way, easy to be a minority company, and as I am a woman and black, it has been a double minority situation,” she told the Tribune in 1990.

Her life story was so fascinating that it got a mention in President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union address, in which he described her as a “spirit of America” who “rose from a ghetto shack to build a multi-million-dollar advertising agency in Chicago.” 

Born in 1933 to an unmarried mother, Proctor was raised in North Carolina by her grandparents. Their house had no electricity or running water. She started her career as a teacher after getting a certificate from Talladega College in Alabama. 

She later joined Vee-Jay records, where she wrote content for the company’s publicity and notes for the album releases.  She also wrote for DownBeat magazine as a Jazz critic before she was brought on board as a contributing editor.

Her career in advertising started in 1962 when she joined Post-Keyes-Gardner Agency, where she won 21 awards in just three years.  She moved companies twice before opening her own company, Proctor and Gardner 
Advertising, Inc in 1970.

In five years, she was named the “Advertising Person of the Year” by the sixth district of the American Advertising Federation and in 1976, she became the first African-American women to head the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce. In the following years she would win other awards and get positions in different capacities across Illinois and America. 

What set Proctor apart was her stance on ethical advertising. It is reported that she had refused to work on a 1970 campaign “that intended to sell hair products by mimicking a civil-rights demonstration.”

“It was during the days of the black revolution, and they wanted me to do a ‘foam-in’ demonstration in the streets, with women running down the streets waving hairspray cans, which I said I would never do that. I got fired,” she said on C-Span in 1989.

In the 1990s, with the entrance of general advertising agencies and economic downtown, Proctor and Gardner started losing clients. By 1995, it only had two clients and eventually filed for bankruptcy protection. 

As a pioneer, Proctor set the pace for the industry and is still considered one of the biggest trailblazers of the industry that still has less than 
1 percent of female executives in advertising, public relations and related services.

Last Edited by:Nduta Waweru Updated: January 15, 2019


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