Westport’s PR Pioneer Turns 103

When Joyce Clarke was growing up, few jobs were open to women. She didn’t want to teach, so she took a YMCA course to learn about secretarial duties.

She took a temporary job in a small New York City firm. “I didn’t know what they did, but they were very nice people,” she recalled last week in her warm, sunlit Saugatuck Shores home. “I learned a lot.”

What they did was public relations. Joyce was ready to live out her career as a secretary. But war intervened, and when her boss was called away, her life changed.

That would be World War II. Yes, it was a while ago. On February 11, Joyce — who went on to found a pioneering, legendary women-led PR firm — celebrates her 103rd birthday.

Joyce Clark, in her Saugatuck Shores home.

Joyce Clarke, in her Saugatuck Shores home.

She formed the company with Sally Dickson, a Westport woman whose family was known here for its heating and plumbing business. Starting with $500, a typewriter, telephone and 1-room office, they found a niche  — and succeeded nicely — in a very male-dominated profession.

Sally Dickson & Associates concentrated on “home ec”-style accounts. They were hired by a Fortune 500 company that became the largest American supplier of rayon; helped revive the Good Housekeeping “Seal of Approval”; created a pattern contest for Vogue that was featured in Life Magazine; wrote a book called “A Woman’s Guide to Financial Planning,” and spent 23 years managing the Ocean Spray cranberry account.

Sally Dickson & Associates had a long relationship with Good Housekeeping magazine.

Sally Dickson & Associates had a long relationship with Good Housekeeping magazine.

Good Housekeeping trusted them with a list of over 30,000 women’s clubs across the country. The firm used that gold mine to target mailings for clients like Procter & Gamble, S&H Green Stamps and Borden.

“It was good to be a woman in that industry,” Joyce says. Her vision is gone, and she does not hear perfectly. But — 3 years past the century mark — her mind is incredibly sharp. She remembers names and dates perfectly.

She spent her career in PR because she liked “the freedom of using my mind inventively. I could decide what to do, express my ideas, and then go out and do it.”

The firm’s warm, stylish offices became a comfortable hangout for clients (including men). Account executives brought their daughters to talk to the female founders.

The only discrimination Joyce and Sally faced was from a banker, who said he was not in business to finance “young women.”

Sally Dickson & Associates grew to a staff of 30. Most were female. In 1971 the firm was sold to Donald Creamer. The women continued working, retiring in 1980.

On TV, women served men in the "Mad Men" era. But Joyce Clark and Sally Dickson stood on their own feet.

On TV, women served men in the “Mad Men” era. But Joyce Clarke and Sally Dickson had other ideas.

“In the ‘Mad Men’ era, Joyce and Sally found a way to put females in the forefront,” says Matthew Cookson, founder of his own PR firm who also teaches about the history of the profession.

“That’s important, because the majority of consumers were women. She was excellent at networking, personal relationships, and partnering with clients over the long term.”

Westporter Kim Shaw interned at the firm Joyce founded. “She retired years earlier,” Kim recalls. “But the mere mention of her name commanded such enthusiasm and respect. She was a trailblazer among trailblazers.”

Near the end of their career, Joyce and Sally bought several lots on Saugatuck Shores. On one, they built a home. Sally died in 1999, at 86. Joyce still lives there.

Buying those waterfront properties was “a very good investment,” Joyce laughs knowingly.

The Silver Anvil is one of the highest honors in the public relations industry.

The Silver Anvil is one of the highest honors in the public relations industry.

She regrets very few things. (One is selling her New York City co-op.) She is proud of her work, as a professional as well as a woman. (In 1945 the firm earned one of the first prestigious Silver Anvil awards ever, from the precursor of the Public Relations Society of America.)

“Being women worked for us, not against us,” Joyce says. ” We weren’t the greatest agency in the world, but we were successful enough to be hired!”

In the 21st century, Americans marvel at the long-ago, male-centric world portrayed in “Mad Men.”

But in real live New York — starting 2 decades earlier — Joyce Clarke and Sally Dickson were quietly, determinedly and very effectively proving that women could play that game, too.

On February 11, Joyce turns 103. She’s still going strong.

4 responses to “Westport’s PR Pioneer Turns 103

  1. Mary Ann West

    I spent my childhood licking S&H Green Stamps and some red plaid stamps into books that my parents would take to a center and redeem for stuff.

    Another great Dan Woog article celebrating the Westport fabric of our lives.

  2. Jo Shields Dickison

    What an inspiring, creative, accomplished and forward-thinking woman — whatever the era. Thanks for this article Dan. You help us realize how many fascinating people there are in our midst that it would be nice to know. I relied on my husband, Don Dickison — of Ogilvy, BBDO and later Westport advertising fame — to know who was who; this post reminds me to think about being a bit more outgoing! I wonder if Joyce Clarke’s and Don’s paths ever crossed.
    BTW, Mary Ann, growing up we had so many green stamps, my mother gave us the kitchen sponge to use! I still have the silver candelabras…

  3. Betty Lou Cummings

    Joyce Clark & Sally Dickson, I have known for 47 years while.living on Saugatuck Island. …In fact, we bought one of their lots and built a house that is still standing! Joyce Clark is an amazing woman…and how I remember Joyce & Sally loving boating at the Cedar point Yacht Club….A very Happy 103 birthday Joyce….with love…Betty Lou & Tom Cummings..

  4. Estelle T. Margolis

    Dear Joyce and Sally,
    You were much smarter than I was. I was only nineteen years old and had
    the job of Art Director in a department store advertising department. In 1944-45 Men were being drafted and any woman or girl who could do the job was hired. I was there about a year and when the war was over and the men came home. The previous Art Director came to the store and was welcomed as a hero.

    As soon as I saw him I knew I had to give him his old job back. and I did.

    It was the end of my career in Advertising. In truth I was not sorry. I needed
    to do something that would help people,. not sell them overpriced stuff!
    I was lucky to get a job with the CIO Political Action Committee. Working
    with the Artist, Ben Shahn. It changed my life.

    You two were the forefront of the beginning to break the glass ceiling.
    We have not yet gone far enough but we will.

    Estelle T. Margolis