Remembering Barbara Proctor, the First African-American Woman to Own an Advertising Agency

January 18, 2019

By Morgan Strawn

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported the death of Barbara Proctor, the first African-American woman to own an advertising agency. The Post recalled that:

"Mrs. Proctor, who died Dec. 19 at 86, grew up in a North Carolina shanty, stopped and stayed in Chicago when she ran out of money on her way back from a summer job in Michigan, and made her way into the white- and male-dominated ranks of the advertising industry in the 1960s.

"She regarded advertising as the most powerful means of communication with the American public and vowed never to participate in the negative portrayal of women or blacks. One agency fired her when she declined to work on a television commercial that appeared to make light of the civil rights movement; it showed a phalanx of housewives marching in the street, brandishing cans of hair product and demanding that their beauticians foam their hair.

"In 1970, Mrs. Proctor struck out on her own with the help of a U.S. Small Business Administration loan. By 1984, her billings had topped $12 million. President Ronald Reagan, in his State of the Union address that year, named her as an example of the American 'spirit of enterprise.'"

Brave, talented, and persevering professionals continue to widen the trail that Proctor initially helped to blaze, but troubling inequalities continue to characterize the industry, as the ANA's Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing reports in its recent Diversity Report for the Advertising/Marketing Industry.

To help address these inequalities, the report offers a number of "action steps" for recruiting and retaining diverse employees. Critical among the proposed remedies are mentorship programs that pair leaders with minority recruits to nurture their eventual development into leadership roles of their own, thereby enabling the organization to fully capitalize on their talents.

Believers in progress can hope that a vigorous commitment to such initiatives will ultimately enable the industry to live up to the values exemplified by Proctor, whose complete Washington Post obituary can be viewed here.


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