Epiphany Keeps 'Influencer Agency' Promise With Aid of Famous Friends

Specialty Shop Services Brands Using Network of Behind-the-Scenes Folks

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The offices of Epiphany, tucked into a corner of Lowe's New York, and its staff of 13 are relatively unassuming. But the celebrities it's connected to -- Madonna, Beyoncé, Jude Law and Will Smith -- are anything but.

SOBE IT: Agency's work for Pepsi brand has included a number of New Year's Eve parties in South Beach.
SOBE IT: Agency's work for Pepsi brand has included a number of New Year's Eve parties in South Beach.
The impact bold-faced names have on mainstream brands is undeniable. But Coltrane Curtis, who had his fair share of run-ins with temperamental stars as VP-marketing at Marc Ecko Enterprises, was determined to find a better way to connect with celebrity when he founded influencer agency Epiphany in 2004. "I knew our agency wasn't going to hinge upon the success or access to a particular celebrity. But we knew we needed access to that network to support anything that we were doing," Mr. Curtis said. "We just access it in a very smart way. Innately it became something we could do that other people can't."

The 5-year-old agency is not officially affiliated with Lowe -- it gets office space with the larger shop in exchange for its expertise -- but it has 14 clients on its roster, including Diageo, PepsiCo, Rockport and Universal Music Group, and brought in about $3 million in revenue last year. Its specialty is to tap into a complex network of some 500 behind-the-scenes players to provide brands with an array of products that range from event planning to trend reporting to product seeding.

To illustrate how it works, Mr. Curtis ticks off a list of names: Dao-Yi Chow, Serge Becker, Roman Jones, Emil Wilbekin. To the average person those names are inconsequential, but then Mr. Curtis begins to connect the dots. Mr. Chow is the former creative director at Sean John and influences what Sean "Diddy" Combs wears. Mr. Becker owns New York hot spots La Esquina, the Box, Café Select and 205. Mr. Jones is a managing partner of The Opium Group (an Epiphany client), which operates clubs in South Beach and Las Vegas. He also happens to be the brother of DJs Mark and Samantha Ronson. Mr. Wilbekin is former editor in chief of Vibe and current editor in chief of Giant.

All of those people traveled to Mexico when Mr. Curtis married Lisa Chu, managing partner at Epiphany. Mr. Wilbekin performed the ceremony. "This is a part of our lives, fortunately or unfortunately," Mr. Curtis said of the blurring between business and personal, work and pleasure.

Living the brand
"Many agencies claim this capability; few can execute like Epiphany," said Mark Wnek, chairman-chief creative officer Lowe, New York and a mentor to the Epiphany gang. "They actually 'live' the influencer lifestyle. There is no smoke and mirrors."

Indeed, Mr. Curtis is an influencer in his own right. George Fertitta, one-time CEO of Margeotes Fertitta & Partners, tapped him for NYC's "Just Ask the Locals" campaign. He was also an MTV fashion VJ and editor at Complex. He is also no stranger to the world of advertising agencies. His father, John, ran J. Curtis & Co., a multicultural agency, for more than two decades and helped to lay the groundwork for Epiphany. At his father's request, Mr. Curtis weighed in on a Margeotes pitch for the Lugz business. When Lugz awarded Margeotes the account, Mr. Curtis bypassed payment in favor of office space. Three years later when Margeotes was folded into Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, Epiphany moved into Lowe's offices.

"They provide us with access to global trend information and insights that give our clients a competitive advantage in highly competitive marketplaces," said Mr. Wnek of the agencies' relationship. "They instantly make us younger, cooler and more multicultural."

As for brands, Epiphany has much the same effect. Angelique Krembs, director-marketing at Sobe, a PepsiCo brand, says Epiphany's connections have opened doors. The agency's work for Sobe has included gifting to trendsetters, as well as a group of New Year's Eve parties in South Beach.

"Technology today makes influencer marketing less of a niche thing," said Ms. Krembs. "It's less of a nice to do and more of a must do, especially for our brand. ... [Influencer marketing] is a place where we have invested and are investing more."

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