Yes, Coltrane Curtis is his real name. And the founder of Team Epiphany is indeed christened after the great John Coltrane.
“I’ve named my two kids Ellington and Count and collectively, not a single one of us play an instrument,” said Curtis. “We’re looking at names just for aspirational purposes and goal purposes, but I always believe in fulfilling a prophecy. And I think the first thing it really starts with is your namesake.”
But naming kids after jazz legends isn’t the only long-standing family tradition. Marketing also runs in Curtis’ blood. His story starts in 1980s Bed-Stuy as the son of John Curtis, who ran one of the first Black-owned, multicultural ad agencies in the country. Under his dad’s wing, Curtis found himself developing a comprehensive marketing toolkit while working in the family business at as early as age 7.
He left the nest—or more accurately, Brooklyn brownstone—to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, growing his network at the hallowed liberal arts HBCU. In 2004, he opened the doors of Team Epiphany. Today, he runs the “influencer” marketing agency with his wife Lisa, who he credits as the lifeblood of the business. Thanks to their sole proprietorship, Curtis is able to focus exclusively on taking care of his staff of 97 with concerns ranging from their 401Ks to “how soft the toilet paper is.”
“My dad always told me, when you market—and you take something off of the shelf—you want to put something back up of equal or greater value,” said Curtis. “It’s almost like fishing. The difference now is that we live in a very take, take, take marketing world, and it’s not reciprocal. That’s the difference between Team Epiphany and everything else. You can look at all the other tactical things we get right. But the reality is, our intent is right.”
He says the agency gives the same 110% to mom-and-pop retailers as it does to its blue chip clients like Jordan Brand and AirBnb. Curtis adds that his work opens the door to diversity in marketing—he says 70% of Team Epiphany staff are people of color. And 70% of staff are also women.
Those who watched MTV back in the day might remember Curtis as an on-screen talent, interviewing celebrities about fashion during red carpet events. But he’s not a big TV guy outside of documentaries and sports. Curtis is certainly no Don Draper, despite the slick outfits.
“I haven’t watched [AMC’s “Mad Men”], but I do know the environment of what advertising looks like and it was basically a dramatized version of it,” he said. “And does that exist? I would say yes. Is it toxic? Probably. But I would probably tell you a roomful of white men, it’s probably toxic no matter what industry you’re working in.
“Is our agency any reflection of that? I would say the toxicity, no. The passion? Yes.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1