If by naming her company Proctor & Gardner, Barbara Gardner Proctor made you think of Proctor & Gamble, the inversion was typical of her vision and imaginative advertising ingenuity. That genius was stilled Dec. 19 when she died of complications from a hip injury and dementia at the Fairmont Care Center in Chicago. She was 86.
She might not have been as famous as Tom Burrell in the world of advertising, owner of Burrell Communications, but she made her mark as the only advertising agency solely owned by a Black woman.
“I knew her to be a savvy, gutsy woman and creative, too,” Burrell told the Chicago Tribune. “She was a tough lady. Being a Black woman born in the South, raised by her grandmother and surviving in a tough business like the record business, she had to be.”
Proctor was born Barbara Juanita Gardner in Black Mountain, N. C., where she was raised. In an interview with the Tribune in 1981, she recounted her early years in that rural community, where the streets were unpaved and there was no running water or electricity.
“Back then, the only things Black girls could aspire to be was a hairdresser, a teacher or a nurse,” she said.
She attended Talladega College in Alabama, earning two bachelor’s degrees in 1954 with an aim toward returning to her hometown to teach. But fate intervened after she spent a summer in Kalamazoo, Mich. as a camp counselor, and then en route south stopped in Chicago to replenish her wardrobe.
“I wound up spending all of my money and didn’t have bus fare to get home,” she recalled in a Tribune interview in 1990. “While waiting to get some money, I volunteered at the old Chicago Urban League and was totally amazed when they gave me a check. I thought I was volunteering and found I had a job.”
The stay in the Windy City was extended after she put her hobbies of music and writing together, composing liner notes for Vee-Jay Records. Many jazz fans might remember her articles published in Downbeat magazine, where she became an editor and critic. Meanwhile, she climbed the corporate ladder at Vee-Jay, becoming head of its international division. That was fortuitous because eventually she came into contact with the emerging Beatles and traded Vee-Jay recordings for some of their early singles. Eventually, the Beatles had a short-term contract with Vee-Jay and really blossomed after signing with Capital Records. By 1963, Proctor has split with Vee-Jay and with her husband, Carl, of three years. He had been a road manager for the jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan.
It would be remiss not to discuss the business knowledge she acquired in the company of Vivian Carter and her husband James Bracken, and Ewart Abner, the Vee-Jay owners and company president, respectively.
Although her tenure with Vee-Jay ended, she continued as a jazz writer and critic, but gradually began spending time in advertising. In 1965, she worked a copywriter for Post-Keyes-Gardner. The three years there and the two at Gene Taylor Associates and North Advertising Agency was all the training she needed. She started her own firm, Proctor & Gardner Advertising in 1970.
At the very beginning of the advertising venture, she expressed an interest in learning how to write short copy. Once she got deeply involved in the industry she decided that was her calling. To start her own agency, she borrowed $1,000 from a friend, rented an apartment over a Pizzeria Uno and embarked on her path-breaking trail.
Later, she secured an $80,000 loan from the Small Business Administration to help build her business. Then came the clients, including Jewel Food Stores, Sears, Illinois Bell, Kraft Foods and WBBM-Ch. 2. In 1974, the Woman’s Ad Club named her the Chicago Advertising Woman of the Year. Along with her bustling business, Proctor participated in the Civil Rights Movement and in 1982 was at the helm of bipartisan commission formed by Gov. James Thompson charged with recommending ways to halt discrimination against women in the state.
Never one to bite her tongue or to remain silent on controversial issues, particularly in advertising, she told the Tribune in 1984, “My position has always been that advertising does not reflect life, it reinforces and determines lifestyle. That position is at odds with 80 percent of the industry.”
The nation got a chance to meet her in 1984 when she appeared on TV’s “60 Minutes,” and a few weeks later she was mentioned by President Reagan in his State of the Union address, citing her success as a businesswoman.
But for all the praise from the president and hundreds of clients who had accumulated wealth and reputations through her tireless and elegant exposure, the agency could not avoid the cultural and economic changes that affected businesses, especially the onslaught of a brutal recession in the early ’90s. In 1995, she declared bankruptcy and shuttered her agency.
Even so, the trail she blazed has been followed by a number of African-American agencies now in awe of her breakthrough. That legacy, as Burrell noted above, should not be ignored. And it hasn’t been. She is enshrined at the Smithsonian Institution and featured in its “Black Women Achievement Against the Odds Hall of Fame.”