The woman who
President Reagan called
“The Spirit of America”
opened the nation’s
owned ad agency
Barbara Gardner Proctor’s story is what American dreams are made of. Born in 1933 in Black Mountain, North Carolina, to a single mother, Bernice Gardner, and raised by a grandmother and an uncle in extreme poverty with no electricity or running water, Proctor would eventually rise to become a Chicago advertising icon.
According to Ad Age, Proctor passed away at the age of 85, succumbing to dementia and a hip injury.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan mentioned Proctor in his State of the Union address as a “spirit of America” who “rose from a ghetto shack to build a multi-million-dollar advertising agency in Chicago.” The Washington Post described her East Wacker Drive offices as “glitzy plush.”
Not too bad for a woman whose grandmother once told her, “You’re not cute, but you’re smart, and one day you’ll amount to something.” Proctor never forgot the advice and it turned out to be true.
Proctor’s storied life began when she first received a teacher’s certificate from Talladega College in Alabama and took up her first teaching assignment in Chicago.
“I wound up spending all of my money and didn’t have bus fare to get home. And in large measure, for 30 years I’ve been trying to get my bus fare back to North Carolina,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1990.
Proctor would also volunteer at the Chicago Urban League, but eventually would turn to her love of writing and music, becoming a jazz critic for Down Beat magazine. After forming a friendship with Sid McCoy, a Chicago-based DJ whose family owned a record store in the city, she was hired by VeeJay Records. She wrote publicity material for the company and liner notes for its album releases.
In late 1962, she took stacks of Four Seasons records stamped out by Vee-Jay to Europe (one of her many trips) and returned with singles recorded by a little known group – the Beatles.
In 1964, she was hired by the Post-Keyes-Gardner Agency, where she began using her married name Proctor so as to not share a name with one of the agency partners. She won 21 awards in three years at that agency. In 1969, she worked at Gene Taylor Associates as a copy supervisor, and later that year worked at North in a similar position.
Having the desire to open her own agency that would target African Americans, Proctor borrowed $1,000 from a friend in the Count Basie Band and rented space above Pizzeria Uno. Her billings grew into the millions as she labored to land Jewel Food Stores and then Kraft and other mass-market consumer companies as clients.
“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 five years earlier. She named her firm Proctor & Gardner Advertising, to give the impression of a white male behind the curtains.
Besides Kraft, Proctor took on Ralston-Purina, Illinois Bell, Alberto-Culver and CBS-TV’s Channel 2, and billings grew to $12 million by 1992 before an economic recession and the defection of Illinois Bell cut that in half.
By 1995, however, Proctor & Gardner was left with just two clients besides Jewel: Kraft and American Family Insurance. The agency would eventually file for bankruptcy. Proctor would try to reinvent herself as an Internet ad agency, but it didn’t get off the ground.
Fay Ferguson, co-CEO of Burrell, had this to say about Proctor, “We’ve all heard the saying that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. This is certainly true for Barbara Gardner Proctor, the first African American female to own an advertising agency. As an African American female and Co-owner of Burrell, the largest Black advertising agency in the US today, I salute and celebrate Barbara Gardner Proctor for her many contributions and for helping to pave the way.”
In the same interview with the Tribune, Proctor said, “I`m not nearly as successful as I would be if I were a white male. If I were a white male, I`d be among the Fortune 500 companies. . . . I had hoped to nurture this company into a Leo Burnett.”
Reel Chicago’s family extends our sympathies to the Proctor family.
Source: Ad Age