Barbara Proctor, pioneering ad woman whoes success drew White House praise, dies

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14 January 2019 | 2:39 am

Harvard Business School called Barbara Proctor “the first woman in the United States to open an agency specializing in advertising to the black community.”

By 1976 — six years after she launched it — Proctor and Gardner was the biggest black-owned ad agency in the country. In the mid-1980s, its billings topped $13 million. And Ms. Proctor was one of 72 women featured in “Supersisters,” a set of trading cards nicknamed the “feminist answer to baseball cards.”

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan cited her achievements in a State of the Union address. That same year, “60 Minutes” featured her in a story that described “Barbara Proctor, in her chauffeured car, riding along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive — a long way, in every way, from the shack where she was brought up by her grandmother.” Her client list included Alberto-Culver, American Family Insurance, Jewel, Kraft and Sears.

On top of all that, she’s been credited with helping to introduce Beatles records to America through a deal she sealed while working for Vee-Jay records.

Ms. Proctor died Dec. 19 at the Fairmont Care facility. She was 86 and had recently suffered a fractured hip and had dementia, according to her son Morgan.

In 1974, Barbara Proctor was named Chicago “advertising woman of the year” by the Women’s Advertising Club. | Sun-Times files

“She was a player,” said Tom Burrell, founder of Burrell Communications. Adept at building relationships, “She made a mark. She helped open up the category of black-owned advertising agencies focused on the black consumer market.”

Barbara Proctor, president and founder of Proctor and Gardner advertising. | Sun-Times files

In the mid-1990s, after economic downturns and growing competition, her agency filed for bankruptcy.

Ms. Proctor, who at times resided in a South Shore penthouse and on Michigan Avenue, was living in affordable senior housing when she died, her son said. She still enjoyed a lovely view of Lake Michigan, he said: “That was her favorite thing to do, to be at that window and watch that traffic coming up Lake Shore Drive.”

People stopped her, he said, “right up to the end to say what an inspiration she was.”

She kept her clients local to be in close proximity to her son as he was growing up.

“Every day of his life, I either said good morning or goodnight” to him, she said in a 1989 interview with C-SPAN.

Adwoman Barbara Proctor. | Sun-Times files

Adwoman Barbara Proctor. | Sun-Times files

Ms. Proctor, who described being raised by her grandmother in a rural “shotgun shanty” without running water or electricity, retained an astute, pragmatic view of a business world in which she often was a first and an only — as a woman, an African-American, or both. She named her agency Proctor and Gardner to give prospective clients the impression there was an unseen male partner, according to her son and the book, “Pioneering African-American Women in the Advertising Business.” 

Industry veterans recall Ms. Proctor’s ethical stance on products or viewpoints she viewed as demeaning and exploitative. Around 1970, while working at another agency, she refused to work on a commercial that intended to sell hair products by mimicking a civil-rights demonstration.

She once recounted the story for C-SPAN. “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. She started her business with an $80,000 Small Business Administration loan.

Ms. Proctor grew up in Black Mountain, N.C. According to the book “Millionairess” about self-made women, her grandmother Coralee Baxter had a ready retort about young Barbara when people complimented her on her looks.

“Not cute,” her grandmother said. “But right smart.”

“Everything she did that was right, she would attribute to her grandmother,” her son said.

She went to Talladega College in Alabama and landed a summer-camp counseling job in Kalamazoo, Michigan. When her Greyhound bus stopped in Chicago en route back home to North Carolina, “She wandered to Marshall Field’s and ended up buying too much stuff. She spent all her money for her ticket to get back to North Carolina,” her son said.

Barbara Proctor. | Sun-Times files

Ms. Proctor found a job with the Urban League and worked as a critic for DownBeat magazine. At Vee-Jay Records, she wrote liner notes and worked in distribution, circulating artists including the Four Seasons. Then, as she put it, “In December of 1962, I brought the Beatles to America.”

“I. . . .made a trade with EMI Records in London to trade the Four Seasons records for the Beatles, who at the time were unknown,” she told C-SPAN. “It’s a wonderful coup except….I only signed them to 30 sides and said ,well, you know, we don’t want to take any chances on this unknown. And so we had the first 30 sides of the Beatles records in America on the Vee-Jay label.”

Before founding her agency, Ms. Proctor worked for North advertising, Post-Keyes-Gardner and Leo Burnett.

“She was a wordsmith,” said former colleague Emma Young.

“In the space of 50 to 80 words,” Ms. Proctor once said, “you have to move millions of dollars worth of product and you have to persuade millions of people not only to listen to you but go into their pocket and buy something which they may or may not need.”

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