In 1970, Barbara Gardner Proctor became the first African American woman to establish an advertising agency.
Proctor had previously worked for other agencies and had grown dissatisfied with their appropriation of black culture. This was brought to a head in 1969 when she was asked to do a campaign parodying social justice movements for a hair care product.
“It was during the days of the black revolution,” Proctor explained, “and they wanted me to do a ‘foam-in’ demonstration, with women running down the streets waving hair spray cans. I said I would never do that.”
She called her agency Gardner and Proctor – a combination of her maiden and married names to imply the presence of a male co-founder in order to pacify clients with sexist attitudes.
Within a decade, Proctor had built a multimillion pound business. Born in 1932, Proctor grew up in North Carolina without electricity or running water. Despite excelling at school, and graduating in 1954 with two degrees, Proctor had limited career prospects. “The only thing you could train for if you were a black girl in the South, rural and poor, was a teacher, hairdresser, or a nurse,” she later explained. A chance visit to Chicago led her to fall in love with the city, and she found work drafting liner notes for jazz LPs. This led to a job writing advertising copy.
Proctor established her own agency in an office above a pizza restaurant with just a few hundred borrowed dollars. But she persevered and won work with a number of big brands – including Sears and Kraft – as corporate white America woke up to the opportunities in selling to black consumers. By the early 1980s, her agency was billing more than $13m and had the potential to grow further – but Proctor refused to compromise her principles by marketing products she believed would be detrimental to women or the African American community.
When asked how she managed to build such a successful company from scratch, she replied, “You can only do it when you don’t know you can’t do it.” Barbara Gardner Proctor died in December aged 86 – her place in advertising history secured.
By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design