Coltrane Curtis Wants Brands to Rethink the Definition of Influence

The founder and managing partner of Team Epiphany breaks down inequities in Black creator culture

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Coltrane Curtis tracks down talent who would be left largely unfazed if social media suddenly ceased to exist. 

The founder and managing partner started his influencer marketing career well before the term was widely recognized. Since launching the full-service creative agency Team Epiphany in 2005, Curtis hasn’t let the industry’s fixation on follower counts and content clicks derail him from its original mission: identify people who impact culture both on and offline.

Instead of limiting itself to a roster of clients, Team Epiphany befriends diverse creator communities and connects them with brands.

Underscoring the value of creators in informing strategy rather than acting as billboards to amplify campaigns, Curtis intends to sponsor influencer career longevity by helping them create content that will outlive their fluctuating public image. Brands can contribute to this mission by doing more than just upping influencer pay on short lived and unmemorable projects. 

“With Black influencers in particular, everyone is on this short-term compensation model,” he said. “We just need bigger opportunities that will lead to more work, and then we can figure out how to get paid ourselves.”

Adweek sat down with Curtis to talk through the minimization of Black creator influence, common threats to influencer equity and the facade of social media fame. 

How do you define influence at Team Epiphany? What do you look for in talent?

Seeing things on your phone is different than experiencing them offline. If those things converge, then you have the perfectly trusted, credit-checked influencer. Brands pick influencers because of scale, but they need to pick them because they’re trusted in the community. That social credit checking is the piece that most brands don’t do and can’t do. 

Kurtis Pemberton, our director of influencer engagement, was a VIP concierge for multiple nightclubs in New York and has translated those offline connections into Team Epiphany. It’s about having longstanding relationships within communities. 

What can brands do to meaningfully elevate Black creators? What initiatives are actually necessary? 

With Black influencers particularly, everyone’s on the short-term compensation model. Black creators just need bigger opportunities, and then we can figure out how to get paid ourselves. When that works, it creates more work for that person. We keep asking for higher compensation for small opportunities, but that doesn’t really match.

Music video director Melina Matsoukas’ Levis campaign is a great example. It looked like her art, it was connected to a brand that connects art and culture, and now she’s shooting these huge TV spots. Her name will never be mentioned as a small creator again. 

What do you want brands to understand about the value of working with Black creators? 

Black creators are not fairly compensated because the actual consumer they’re talking to is discredited and undervalued, even though they also clearly influence more than just purchasing habits in the Black community. That’s the piece where the real dissertation and work needs to happen, because the influence of these cultures will always be undervalued. The lack of respect for the consumer is just mirrored by the lack of respect for the creator who reaches that consumer efficiently and effectively. 

How can influencers maintain trust among their audiences? 

If everything you do is about being paid, it kind of defeats the purpose of influence. Celebrities are created by highly influential people. Real influencers don’t want to be in the spotlight. They want to be the people who are creating the spotlight. Brands are so enamored by celebrity, but we know that celebrity is engineered by a team of people. How about we work with that team of people to make a brand a celebrity? 

How is social media both contributing to and eroding influencer equity? 

Privileged communities have a network around them and are built to be successful, as opposed to others who sometimes have to throw a Hail Mary to find that network that makes them successful. There isn’t another accessible outlet or forum for the work of Black creators to be widely discovered, so they run the risk of getting robbed. We have to eliminate that desperation and give these creators the proper outlets to have their work seen by people who can then support and elevate it.

What is the biggest professional mistake influencers make? 

I respect creators who create products other than themselves. People often want themselves to be the product first, but they will then be here today and gone tomorrow. If you create something that is paradigm shifting and disruptive, that is the best springboard for your success. 

The Kim K model is very difficult to follow, but Cardi B’s model isn’t. She only has one studio album. If you can create one particular thing and do it well, it will live in perpetuity.