The charismatic and distinctive persona of Coltrane Curtis with his immaculately groomed dreadlocks rarely goes unnoticed. Often spotted sporting a bow tie matched with a baseball cap, his personal vintage aesthetic is influenced by iconic Jazz legends. Sharing his name with one of America’s great musicians, he has always had a lot to live up to. Best known for his role as an MTV television personality, this business savvy gentleman’s successes lie however, within the world of future marketing. Head honcho of the marketing empire, Team Epiphany, Coltrane works closely with universal brands such as Moet, WSJ, Heineken and Nike selling intelligently crafted communication ideas that align with contemporary social trends. But it wasn’t always this way. Building the company from the ground up involved hard work and encouragement. Influenced by a range of mentors during his career, he credits his father for almost everything and now takes on this role for another generation of budding new ambitious individuals.
Coltrane offers a tour of his home and discusses how Team Epiphany does it better: by speaking to specific audiences in relevant and contemporary ways and commodifying the emulation of key tastemakers. This new breed of marketing shuns traditional strategies and appeals to new channels of interaction. He is one of those people with his finger on the pulse; somewhat of a social technician inside the world of influencers. Partners in business and in life with his wife keeps Coltrane’s priorities in perspective. This trendsetter thinks there is nothing more cool than putting family first and hopes that his son Ellington will have the same opportunities he was afforded.
You’re known for your eclectic style and persona. For uninitiated, readers who is Coltrane Curtis?
Coltrane Curtis is an entrepreneur, a husband and a dad. I would say I’m an optimist: I believe that a lot of hard work can help you realize your dreams. I’m a realist and an optimist at the same time. I definitely have a bright view on the world, what can happen and what you can do.
What has life been like with the name “Coltrane”? There’s certainly a lot to live up to with a name like that.
I don’t know what’s more difficult — living up to Coltrane the name, or living up to the person who gave me that name, my dad. Having the name Coltrane, being named after such a great musician and creator is pretty cool now, but it sucked when I was a kid. No one can ever spell your name right. When you went to Disney World there was never a cup with your name on it. Now, it’s a good icebreaker. It definitely gives you something to try and work towards. It’s a loaded question, but the biggest thing here is trying to live up to what my dad wanted for me. I feel like it’s the sum of what Coltrane is. Coltrane is what my dad wanted me to be: good to my wife, a good husband, a good role model. It’s harder living up to John Curtis, let alone Coltrane.
How did you get started in the marketing industry? Your father certainly played an integral role. Shed some light.
My dad ran a marketing agency for 25 years, J Curtis and Company. I interned there every summer. We started the business in our brownstone in Brooklyn and then expanded to offices in Montclair and SoHo. He was born from what old school multicultural marketing looked like back in the day, which was same creative same copy for a black guy, Spanish guy or Asian guy advertisement. The game has changed, as my dad would say. It was great getting to see him build a business from the ground up and seeing how he was consistently challenged by changing clients, things never became stale. He had to be constantly in motion and was a true leader.
My dad was really the backbone of my introduction into the marketing industry. He met a guy on the bus from Montclair in NY—James Andrews, who was a pretty high level executive at SONY and was leaving to go to Ecko. My dad told him I would be perfect to work with him and that was the first job I ever had. The first time you really work as a marketer is when someone pays you to be one, so my first gig was with Ecko. And my dad created that for me.
Who have been your mentors along the way?
I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but my dad has been the strongest figure in my life. With everything from personal grooming. The reason I have dreads is because my dad told me to grow dreads. The reason I wear a bowtie everyday is because he wore a bowtie everyday. The reason why I love getting dressed up with shoes and with proper grown men apparel is because my dad curated, literally, who I am — the way that I look, and the way that I sound, and what I say. So I would say that I was his master plan. After my pops I would say I have a couple of people who really helped. One of those people would be Seth Gerszberg, the business guy behind Ecko Unlimited. He works with a passion, speed and a commitment. I learned so much from him, and he’s definitely one of my mentors. Also, my guy Ben White, who used to be at MTV, who started Slingbox and is now doing VC stuff and creating businesses from NY to Brazil and everywhere in between. I’ve also been blessed to meet and become friends with some of our clients who have taken me under their wing. Guys like Frank Cooper at Pepsi and Colin WP at Heineken. Just looking up to what these guys have done and what they have created — they’ve taken the time to teach me and offer friendship. I appreciate these guys.
Coltrane as VP of Marketing at Ecko. Coltrane and MTV VJ. Coltrane as Founder of Team Epiphany. Give some “brush strokes” on your life’s ascension to Coltrane the boss, father, and husband.
There was no blueprint, even with a business. You think you start with a five-year plan or a ten-year plan. I don’t necessarily have or ever have had that. I chased passions and definitely got some bumps and bruises along the way. People calling me boss is just as scary as my son calling me father and my wife calling me husband. They’re just titles, but they’re things that I had very good role models and figureheads for, that gave me the right path to follow. When you’re thinking about a boss, you’re thinking about a motivator, and that’s what I’m trying to be for people everyday.
Watching my son grow up and develop a personality just makes me want to be a better boss so I can manage my business more efficiently so I can go home and spend more time with him. Fatherhood for me is everything. I want to be able to be that role model that my father was for me for Ellington. I just want to be able to spend as much time with him as possible. People say that I obsess about his look: I definitely obsess about his look, but I also obsess about his education. I just want him to have the education that allows him to do anything. Creating a well rounded, smart individual is the goal. I hope that I’m a great husband. I’ve been able to be the man that I want to be for my wife because I saw what my father was to my mother and what my grandfather was to my grandmother. I know that I‘ve had the right model to aspire to.
Explain what your agency, Team Epiphany, is all about.
TE was created from a need. The need was that brands were having a very hard time communicating with me effectively. And I knew that many of them were having the same challenge. What we do is allow big brands to communicate with consumers in a meaningful way. We started from special events. We proved the power of special events and grew PR and social media. Everything sat on a firm bed of strategy. Now we do strategy for brands like Ralph Lauren Fragrances, and Pepsi, and Heineken, and Hennessy. But we also produce experiences and amplify those experiences. For me, in layman’s terms, it’s a collection of some of the most brilliant entrepreneurs I’ve ever met in my life. It’s a collection of my travels and my experiences, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to curate an environment where I like to be. This environment is where people can be around other like-minded people and create work representative of the great time we have at work.
You are business partners with your wife Lisa. That’s certainly an exceptional situation. How do you guys make it work?
I am business partners with my wife and life partners with my wife. I feel like we are just transparent about how it works. She has her lane, I have my lane. As the company gets larger, those lanes are becoming easier to identify. She handles event production and operations for the company: managing the business, the day to day, the lawyers, the accountants. Because she does her job so well she allows me to be creative and to service our clients. We still butt heads, we still argue, but the reason why we do is because we’re so passionate. By the time we get home there are no arguments because we’re all yelled out in the office. It’s lollipops and unicorns at home.
Shed some light on the scale and scope of the agency’s current projects and clients. From Moet to the Wall Street Journal, there’s certainly a lot there to manage.
There is definitely a lot to manage, and we are learning as we’re going, but we have some pretty great clients. What’s really interesting is the differences in perspectives. We could be working on activating an event for one client when another client doesn’t even know we produce events. WSJ is a great example of a personal relationship that I had turned into an opportunity for us to work on strategy. And now we’re allowing them to get a little bit younger and develop a conversation with a younger demographic. When you think about a brand like Moet Rose, you’re thinking about a brand that has all the luxury touch points of a traditional French luxury house. They’re obviously owned by LVMH, and they do a great job, but how do they effectively communicate with influential consumers nationally? And how do they do that with consistent messaging? That’s the kind of work that we’re doing there.
From Moet to WSJ, from Heineken to Nike, the brands are very powerful. What we’re doing for them isn’t so different from what we were doing on day one; it’s just on a larger scale. Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I get up in the morning because we have the opportunity to work with some of the best brands in the world.
Let’s give the spotlight for a second to the “Heineken 100” program. Talk about its multi-year genesis, and what’s in store for 2014.
The “Heineken 100” program is a collaborative effort. Heineken is a great client that allowed us to go out and do what we do best. It started as a PR initiative to speak to influential African American consumers and has evolved to target a more diverse man of the world. We really wanted to extend the conversation from Heineken just being a beer to being a lifestyle. Our concept was to identify lifestyle products, identify the most influential people in the business — hence the #Heineken100, and then seed them limited edition products and allow them to share that experience with like minded people. Whether it was word of mouth, or PR, or via social media, it didn’t really matter. It was about working out how to create a lifestyle brand. Heineken is my favorite beer in the world, but it also goes a lot deeper than that. It’s liquid. It’s a lifestyle and we make this possible through the #Heineken100 program.
Ok. Bossman question. Elevator speech. Why and how does Team Epiphany cut through the clutter? Sell me.
This is where the territory gets a little arrogant and a little cocky. The truth is we actually live the lifestyle we’re selling as opposed to being reporters on a lifestyle that we would like to live. It’s funny because when other brands ask us who our competitors are, we don’t really have competitors in the agency game because looking around, they don’t really live what they do. The new hire process is so difficult for us, because everyone is so highly skilled. What we want to do is find well-rounded individuals with a diverse set of interests because those interests generally become what they execute for our clients. We walk the walk, we talk the talk, but we also are an agency that must innovate and must think twelve and eighteen months ahead of the curve because that’s what our clients demand. Not only do we do it uncannily and accurately, we do it often.
Marketing is one part feel, one part rooting “feel” in numbers. How have you used metrics to prove the “feel” that you share with your clients?
You have to be good at creating buzz, but you also have to listen to the buzz that you create. So thank god for social media. It’s the reason why our agency has been able to win. We not only create the buzz, we can quantify it. It’s two different skill sets, but they’re married. To be able to see chatter on social media and understand where it’s coming from, and then replicate that, that’s something that sets us apart. And as an agency we get props for being cool, but you have to think about what cool is. Cool is being educated and informed so we’re pretty much geeks and dorks, but we wear it very well and we wear it proudly. So now our geek shield is pretty much the coolest thing you can find. We’re cool dorks and happy to be that.
Team Epiphany is a 40+ person agency. What are four qualities that you’ve learned, by trial and fire, by being a leader of a sizeable team?
Transparency and honesty: sharing your stresses, both personally and professionally. We are a team, we are a family, and this is what we do. No procrastination: do what you can do today because tomorrow it’s going to present itself with an entirely new set of challenges. Do what you can do today, and do it well. Information hot potato: the only time I get upset at the agency is when someone had information and didn’t share it. If you get it, get it out of your hands, pass it on. Someone can use that information, learn from it, leverage it, and move on. Lead by example: coming from an event production mentality. My wife, Lisa, can produce events better than anyone I’ve ever met in my life, and what she taught me is that there is never any job too small to do. So while she is an agency head, she is also the person at the end of the night lugging garbage and peeling decals off of windows and making sure that everyone on her team has a safe ride home. I don’t really believe in titles — other people do, that’s why we have them — but we’re all here on a team, we’re all here to do A+ work for our client. I don’t care what your title is, if something needs to be done, you need to do it.
How is your “industry” different now in the age of social media? “Connecting” with others certainly used to me much harder — and real.
Our industry has changed, I think, in a negative way. Social media has obviously helped our business, but I always yell at our team about not picking up the phone and texting people instead. I believe in real relationships in the real world. I grew up in the age of the two-way pager, and I had to be out, I had to be physically social. Now we’re in the age of microwave cool kids where they can incubate relationships quickly. The reality is the only way to build leverage-able relationships, business proven personal relationships, is to be at war. Being in the field, being on the front line with a person and building a relationship that way.
Social media has also made the hiring process a little bit difficult because even at the agency when they get here they’ll be surprised at the skill sets I have and the work that I do. You’d be surprised who can write and who can’t. You be surprised who understands basic attire for meetings. You’d be surprised at how ill-prepared kids who think they’re the best thing ever are. They come here to get broken.
What is one piece of advice that you would give to burgeoning entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with people who have complimentary skill sets. If you look to your left and to your right and those people look a lot like you, it’s probably the wrong person to go into business with. Identify with people that you can grow from and vice versa. Doing business with your friends could work, but then do business with your friends if their skill sets are complimentary.
Curtis, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and inspirational role models in work and life. To find out more about his work at Team Epiphany, see their Blog here.
Photography: David Engelhardt
Interview: Sky Gellatly
Text: Rachael Watts