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Proctor, Barbara Gardner


Barbara Gardner Proctor (1933) rose from dire poverty to the head of the second-largest African-American-owned advertising business in America. Her fearlessness and determination in facing obstacles originated from her own harsh beginnings. She was unique in the advertising industry for using her values to guide her work, and she was not afraid to turn away accounts that she found objectionable, such as those that demeaned African Americans or women.

Barbara Gardner Proctor was born in 1933 in Black Mountain, North Carolina, to a single mother, Bernice Gardner. Raised by a grandmother and an uncle, she lived in extreme poverty with no electricity or running water. Her grandmother instilled early determination in Proctor, telling 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 academic ability earned her a scholarship to Talladega College in Alabama, and she went on to earn a B.A. in English and another B.A. in psychology and social science. She graduated with both degrees in 1954. She also was awarded the Armstrong Creative Writing Award from the college in 1954. Later she attended law school.

In 1960 Gardner married Carl Proctor, road manager for jazz singer Sarah Vaughn. But they divorced in 1963. She had one child named Morgan who later worked for her business. She claimed that the 15-hour days that she worked were the best relaxation for her.

Proctor was involved in the business community and received many awards for her work. She served on a number of boards, including the Illinois Bell Telephone Company, the 1988 Illinois Olympic Committee, the Better Business Bureau, the Illinois State Bar Association Institute for Public Affairs, and the White House Conference on Small Business. She was involved in efforts for the advancement of women and African Americans and worked with such groups as the League of Black Women (served as president from 1978-1982), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (lifetime member), and Handicapped Organized Women (served on honorary board). Proctor won a number of awards for her contributions to the fields of writing and advertising. Some of these included the Small Business of the Year Award (1978) and the Black Media Award for Outstanding Professional (1980).

Proctor began her career by using her writing skills in the music field. In 1958 she began working as a jazz music critic and contributing editor to Downbeat magazine. From 1961 to 1964 she worked for Vee-Jay Records International in Chicago, creating copy for jazz record covers and later serving as international director.

After her divorce from Carl Proctor, Barbara Gardner Proctor shifted to the advertising industry. Between 1965 and 1970 she worked for three different advertising firms: Post-Keys-Gardner Advertising, Chicago, 1965-1968; Gene Taylor Associates, Chicago, 1969; and North Advertising Agency, Chicago, 1969-1970. Eventually, she served as copy supervisor at North Advertising Agency. She decided to launch her own business when she was fired from North Advertising Agency for refusing to work on an ad campaign to which she objected. The ad, which she found demeaning to women and African Americans, parodied the Civil Rights Movement and featured protesting women running down the street and demanding that their hairdressers foam their hair.

In 1971 Proctor launched her own business, Proctor and Gardner Advertising. To go into business she applied for a small business loan, which she was denied for lack of collateral. Armed with data (three advertising agencies statements of what they would pay her as an employee), she convinced the lender to give her an $80,000 loan using herself as collateral.

She faced a number of societal obstacles that did not deter her. As she explained in Ebony, "I happen to be born female and black, but I am much more than that. To view one's self in terms of those two small biological characteristics is very self-limiting." In a time when not many women or African Americans ran businesses, Proctor purposefully named the business using both "Proctor" and "Gardner," so that potential clients would assume that "Gardner" was a male partner behind the scenes.

After six months in business Proctor had her first client. At the end of four years in business, Proctor needed more working capital and applied for another loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA). But the SBA refused. Undaunted, she looked inward, refusing to blame any external situations. In the April 30, 1984, edition of the New Orleans Time-Picayune, Proctor explained, "In every case where something would have been an obstacle, I've found a way to turn it to an advantage. I cannot buy the concept that anyone outside is responsible." She credited her impoverished upbringing with giving her the ability to take risks, since she had already been exposed to adversity in her life and had little fear of the unknown.

Proctor brought to her business a firm belief that advertising should encompass quality and equality. According to Contemporary Newsmakers, the timing was right for minority business to succeed. In the advertising arena, the African American market was just beginning to be understood, giving Proctor's company a virtually untapped market. Proctor was able to focus on this niche and maximize profits, as well as present a positive picture of the African American community.

Proctor maintained a diverse staff with many women and minorities, and in a 1982 Ebony article she called her staff one of the best in the world. She described herself as a non-boss who did not believe in telling professionals how to do their jobs. On the other hand, she held employees accountable, specifying that if they challenged any directions that she had given, that they had "damn well better deliver" to the client. Her son Morgan served on her staff and expressed an interest in taking over the company in the future.

By the mid-1990s sales had slowed, however, and in 1995 Proctor & Gardner Advertising filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a protective measure that offered a chance to restructure the firm's finances and pay off debt. At the time of bankruptcy the company was more than $1.8 million in debt and reported assets of $361,000. The company had more than $5 million in account billings. In 1996 Proctor dissolved the advertising agency. Honing in on the increase in Internet use, she started a new company, Proctor Communications Network, which offered Internet marketing expertise and web site design. The business was later renamed Proctor Information Network, Inc.

Proctor was able to rise from extreme poverty and create a business that became the second-largest African American advertising agency in America. In 1983 the company had $12 million in billing. Some of Proctor & Gardner's long-standing clients included Kraft Foods, Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Alberto-Culver. Another long-term client, Jewel Foods of Chicago, credited Proctor & Gardner Advertising with rescuing Jewel's generic food line, which suffered poor sales. Proctor & Gardner redesigned the food campaign, giving it a stronger and more positive tone.

Noteworthy of Proctor's work in the advertising field was her adherence to her values. She refused to take work that degraded women, blacks, or that she found morally unacceptable. For example, Proctor & Gardner did no work for cigarette or liquor accounts. Proctor was wary of what she called "ethnically dubious advertising pitches" that were aimed at women and minorities. She maintained, "Advertising is the single most important way of reaching everyone in America and I feel a deep responsibility to my work."

See also: Advertising Industry


Ball, Millie. "Ad Whiz Was On Her Way With Her First SBA Loan." New Orleans Time-Picayune, April 30, 1984.

"Black Woman Advertising Entrepreneur Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy." Jet, October 9, 1995.

Brown, Michelle. Contemporary Newsmakers, 1985 Cumulation. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986, s.v. "Barbara Gardner Proctor."

The Ebony Success Library. Nashville: Southwestern Co., 1973.

Francke, Richie L. "Proctor Takes a Gamble and Hits the Jackpot."Working Woman, August 1979.

i happen to be born female and black, but i am much more than that. to view one's self in terms of those two small biological characteristics is very self-limiting.

barbara gardner proctor

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