Influencer Marketing Pioneer Coltrane Curtis on the Steps to Success for Industry Talent

The Team Epiphany founder lays out a blueprint

coltrane curtis
Coltrane Curtis founded Team Epiphany as an influencer marketing agency in 2004, before social media became mainstream. Team Epiphany

Key insights:

Team Epiphany founder Coltrane Curtis is all about firsts.

He was one of the first employees at Ecko Unlimited before urban fashion caught fire. He was at the vanguard with Complex magazine, serving as what he called “editor at extra large.” Curtis forged a partnership with rapper 50 Cent to create G-Unit Apparel, and was the first MTV VJ to focus exclusively on red carpet fashion.

Crucially though, Curtis, trained as a photographer, saw the power of influencers and culture, founding Team Epiphany in 2004 long before social media entered the mainstream, with footwear brand Lugz and Bombay Sapphire as launch clients.

“Our tagline was, ‘We influence the influencers,’” he said. “That’s been our secret sauce, and we’re uniquely positioned like no other agency.”

Fast-forward to today, and Team Epiphany’s client roster includes Audi, BET, Coca-Cola, HBO (the agency has worked on Issa Rae’s Insecure since its premiere), Harman/JBL and William Grant & Sons (for Hendrick’s Gin and Glenfiddich Scotch whisky).

With a diverse staff—over 50% of Team Epiphany’s employees and leadership are female and/or minority—Curtis runs the indie with his wife, Lisa Chu.

But a big part of Curtis’ present and future is based on a deep, personal connection to advertising. His father owned and ran a multicultural agency, J. Curtis & Co., for 25 years, with Christian Brothers brandy and New Jersey utility PSE&G as its major clients.

“I remember how excited he was when putting work into the world that he was proud of, doing what a brand wanted and showing the utmost respect to his culture and community,” Curtis recalled, also noting that Al Ries and Jack Trout’s book Positioning is, to this day, his “bible.”

Seeing his dad’s work helped Curtis contemporize the idea of creating aspirational marketing, and “it was the joy he had in the work that drove me to create Team Epiphany.”

“The other thing my dad told me is that the world doesn’t need another ad agency,” added Curtis. “That’s why, in 2004, we created an influencer marketing agency.”

To help others walk his path, Adweek sat down with Curtis to ask what helped him pave the way for success, the advice he has for young talent and more.

You were in the influencer game early. How do you sell a visionary idea?
Curtis: It’s the art of the look-away pass: Give the client what they’re asking for and, when they’re not looking, you do all of the things that you know you need to do to make their goals a reality. So while we’re getting paid for X, we would do X to the best of our ability, but we would also do Y and Z because we knew that was where we needed to go. Give them what they want, and something that they’re not paying for. The first one is on you but, when you prove that it works, they’ll pay the second time and beyond.

For young and new people in the game, what’s the best way to build relationships?
I grew up in the two-way pager era. Even then, I prioritized physical over digital contact 10 times out of 10. I found my way through my photography and live music. When I was at Morehouse [College in Atlanta], I became friends with club promoters and started documenting the scene—and this was in the era of Outkast, Jermaine Dupri and Goodie Mob. No one was documenting this history, and I was behind the scenes building those relationships.

We live in a microwave culture where young creatives feel like they can accelerate the process of getting popular and endorsed without putting in the work. But if you roll up your sleeves and earn it, no one can take it away from you.

Coming up, what was one of the moves that set you up for success?
Our origin story helps explain this a little. I won our first piece of business consulting for an agency called MFP in New York. They won some of the Lugz business, but I never really negotiated compensation. What I really needed was office space. So I bartered space so that I could build a home for my creative friends in the community. We then worked with other holding companies and bartered deals as we grew, because we knew that the cost of doing business in New York for a small agency would put you out of business. We also got a chance to see how agencies worked from the inside, and that’s how I learned to function as an agency.

"Be prepared to fight, but also position yourself before someone else does it for you."
Coltrane Curtis, founder, Team Epiphany

In your view, what makes the best talent fit for Team Epiphany?
We saw that more “classic” talent—like a typical tenured account manager—didn’t work for us. What we ended up doing was converting communications professionals and PR people into account and brand leaders. Our work is different, so our leadership needs to look different. They know how to communicate in a spreadsheet or Keynote, but are equally comfortable working the red carpet. We sought extremely skilled publicists that lost the passion for pitching. Our general manager was our first PR hire, and one of our best account managers was our second.

Looking back, what would you have done differently?
We tried a more all-in-one, traditional approach in terms of management of the business, and that burned us a couple of times. I would also say that I would have opened up Team Epiphany’s L.A. office earlier. I have that typical New York kid mentality where it’s New York or bust, but that was an evergreen opportunity.

What advice would you give to Black talent that wants to start an agency today?
Be prepared to fight, but also position yourself before someone else does it for you. Don’t let someone misbrand you or give you a false label. And while others are resting, you have to be working. What I’ve learned is that getting through the door is sometimes the burden of being a Black man and pioneer in the space. But it’s my job to hold the door open.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.