Barbara Gardner Proctor: Supersister
By Brett McKenzie on Mar 26, 2021
Legendary advertising leader made it to the top on her own terms
March is Women's History Month in many parts of the world, and while we at The One Club for Creativity aim to highlight women every day of the year, we thought it right to spend some time this month to shine a spotlight on some of the legendary advertising and design creatives of the past and present.
Earlier this month we featured Shirley Polykoff (1908-1998) and Eiko Ishioka (1938-2012), and today we set our sights on the city of Chicago, to schoolteacher-turned-Beatles herald-turned-advertisng industry pioneer Barbara Gardner Proctor.
In one of the cringiest ads of the past few years, celebrity Kendall Jenner boldly strutted to the front of a nondescript protest, de-escalating a police confrontation and curing all social ills with an ice-cold Pepsi.
The commercial shamelessly co-opted and trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement that reached national attention by that point, and received well-earned backlash from the public. Many were flummoxed as to how the ad even got made. Wasn't there anybody in the agency or company to tell them that making light of civil rights and social justice wasn't a smart move?
More than 50 years ago, a copywriter named Barbara Gardner Proctor was that person in her agency to stand up and say "no" to a similar idea. She was fired for her stance, but that became the impetus for a groundbreaking next move — the first-ever ad agency founded and owned by a Black woman.
Barbara Gardner was born on November 30, 1932, and raised by her grandmother in an impoverished community outside of Asheville, NC. Although she eventually graduated from Alabama's Talledega College in 1954 with degrees in English, education, psychology, and sociology, opportunities for poor Black women were few and far between, especially in the 1950s South. She settled on becoming a teacher, although self-admittedly not a very good one. "I couldn't spell, which was a job handicap," she once reminisced. While her students found motivation in correcting her spelling errors on the blackboard, she saw that as a sign that she wasn't exactly cut out for this line of work.
In 1956, Barbara worked at a summer camp near Kalamazoo, MI, and decided to detour through Chicago on the way home that fall in order to buy new clothes for the school year. Whether this was a subconscious decision, who's to say, but she ended up spending all of her bus ticket money, thus stranding her in the Windy City and away from that teaching job. "In a sense, I've been 30 years trying to get my bus fare back home to North Carolina," she joked in a 1989 interview.
With no money and no place to go, Barbara found herself working for the Chicago chapter of the National Urban League, serving as a social worker. After finding the job depressing, she would spend the next few years as the office manager for a real estate office, a position that afforded her the free time to hone her writing skills on the side. Her love of jazz led her to write profiles on all of the greats for various publications, as well as into a short-lived marriage to Carl Proctor, then the road manager for Sarah Vaughan.
Through music industry connections that she made during her time at the Urban League, Barbara would soon land a job at VeeJay Records where she began writing liner notes for jazz, blues, and R&B albums. The company would eventually promote her to run their international division, where she would soon help negotiate a deal with the UK's EMI Records that would bring an up and coming act to their label. That act? The Beatles. Unfortunately, Beatlemania was short-lived in Barbara's life; the Fab Four would leave Vee-Jay for Capitol Records, and Barbara would leave for a new career that would still allow her to write — advertising.
While initially turned away from Chicago's mighty Leo Burnett, Barbara would soon catch her first industry break as a copywriter for Post-Keyes-Gardner in 1965. Although she had been divorced by this point and had used her maiden name professionally, the agency had her adopt her ex-husband's surname to avoid any conflicts with the name on the door.
After three years of learning the ropes at PKG, writing copy for beauty and household goods, Barbara moved on to a stay at Gene Taylor Associates and then North Advertising.
And that's where she became that person that should've been in the room with Pepsi nearly 50 years later.
The late 1960s were a time of upheaval for the Black community in the United States, with the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr's peaceful optimism giving way to anger and militancy. The people were marching in the streets… and North thought it would be wonderful to appropriate it all. They wanted to stage a "foam-in demonstration" — co-opting the struggle by having women waving hairspray cans in mock-protest of their hairdressers. Already feeling pigeonholed by her gender and race when it came to the products she was expected to work on Barbara was aghast and refused to go along with the campaign idea. "I said I would not do that, and I was fired," she recalls.
But that termination proved to be the impetus for the biggest and boldest move in Barbara's professional life. Knowing that the only way she could avoid such situations was to do things on her own terms, she received a small loan from a friend and started her very own ad agency, opening Proctor & Gardner in 1970. And unlike at Post-Keyes-Gardner, this time she was making her former married name work in her favor; that ampersand made people believe that there was a male partner in the company's founding, making it easier to secure loans to get things off the ground. But there was no man, just the first Black woman to successfully launch an ad agency in the history of the industry.
Despite not having any clients for the first six months, and needing to sell her possessions to keep the lights on during that time, Barbara found success against all odds. "There was never any reason for me to succeed," Barbara once said. "I had no business experience, I had no capital, I had absolutely nothing but a strong gut feeling that I had something to say in this business, and nobody was going to tell me how to do it."
This meant adhering to Barbara's personal philosophies as they relate to both advertising and society. She believed that advertising was less of a mirror held up to society and more of a projector, reinforcing and determining the lifestyle of society. Because of this belief, Proctor & Gardner avoided clients and campaigns that reinforced negative stereotypes of women and African Americans — even if it would be detrimental to her own bottom line.
The clients that Barbara did pursue helped elevate her company and her profile to heights unheard of by most Black-owned agencies — national brands such as Sears and Kraft Foods became part of her agency's client list, alongside local favorites WBBM and the Jewel supermarket chain. These brands believed in her mission to present women and Blacks in a positive manner, and helped lead the agency to more than $13 million in billings by the mid-1980s.
As a leader, Barbara was one who had faith in her diverse staff to make reasoned decisions — even if she didn't agree with them herself. She sat on the boards of numerous organizations that championed women and African American issues, and was named Chicago Advertising Woman of the Year in 1976. A rather unique claim to fame saw her as one of the "Supersisters", a 1979 trading card collection featuring 72 inspirational women of the era, alongside such icons as Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm. Barbara's accomplishments even led to her being name-checked by President Ronald Reagan during his 1984 State of the Union address, and featured in the Smithsonian's Black Women Achievement Against the Odds Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, the recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s were not kind to Proctor & Gardner, and the agency filed for bankruptcy in 1995, shuttering a year later. An attempt to rebrand as Proctor Communications Group alongside her son Morgan Proctor followed, with a focus on the emerging digital marketing possibilities. Sadly, this did not last, and Barbara's days in the advertising world came to an end.
Barbara Gardner Proctor died in her beloved Chicago on December 19, 2018, at the age of 86. And while her name does not often appear on the "paler and male-r" lists of industry greats, her legacy of standing up for one's principles and community and becoming a pioneer in the process should never be erased.