Uncomfortable Conversations: Coltrane Curtis on being labeled 'aggressive'
This is part of a recurring series of Q&As called “Uncomfortable Conversations,” taking on the sometimes tough, but always necessary, discussions about inclusion in advertising. This series spotlights the many diverse voices that make up this industry—at all levels and in all disciplines—highlighting their personal experiences to illustrate the importance of inclusion and equity throughout the entire ecosystem.
Today we speak with Coltrane Curtis, founder and managing partner at Team Epiphany, a consumer marketing agency with offices in New York City and Los Angeles. Prior to founding Team Epiphany, Curtis served as VP of marketing at Marc Ecko, was editor of Complex Magazine and had a stint as a VJ for MTV. This interview has been lightly edited.
What has it been like for you as a Black man in the advertising and marketing world?
I think it is the equivalent of an athlete playing their whole career on a one-year contract—every project, meeting, decision is one that can make or break your career or agency. It is physically and emotionally exhausting and for me. It is all encompassing because I am running my business with my wife. As a Black man I have a dual responsibility others don’t have—I have responsibility to my clients … and the second piece most others don’t have to do is my commitment to, and responsibility to, the community and culture. It is my job to respect them, uplift their voice and include them in the process, and that’s why the work is special.
We have had to work harder for less. We had to produce more with smaller budgets. We also have to be extremely proficient and better than our non-minority competitors. This is nothing new for me. From a child, watching my dad start his agency … this is a narrative driven in me from a young age. I have to be better, we need to be better.
Why did you decide to launch Team Epiphany?
I knew brands were having a very hard time reaching consumers like me—well-researched around the product we are purchasing and engaging with it, and I knew there was a void in who could effectively reach me. I also knew we had something special. My dad used to tell me the last thing the world needs is another agency. For us, the world in 2004 was very much about a plus-one philosophy and anything connected to celebrity. Our differentiation point was better than celebrity—we had access to a community globally that actually creates the celebrities the world reveres. We employ that community and utilize their skill sets working directly for a brand.
How have you felt discriminated against during your career?
Some of the negative things I’ve faced are around mislabeling and false positioning. One of my favorite books my dad and I read always was “Positioning,” that was my bible. If you don’t position yourself, the world will position you. I never got the opportunity to try to position myself, and the last couple of years of our work has been about constantly repositioning myself. We had to fight for everything, nothing came easily. … There’s this label of being aggressive. I’m a Black entrepreneur, I’m a Morehouse College guy and speak eloquently, succinct and poignantly, but when I talk it is labeled as “aggressive.” When other non-Black leaders speak and exude same energy it is seen as “spirited.” Prime example: Gary Vee [Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO and founder, VaynerMedia] is seen as a passionate motivator … even as he appropriates culture. When I do it, it’s labeled as aggressive.
Where is the agency world falling short as it relates to inclusion?
The industry has to have more respect for the cultures they are appropriating. To do that they need people from those cultures on brand teams and agency teams … they need people from community be part of process. You can have the most-diverse people on the team, but unless you empower their voices to inform the work, you might as well not have them at all. It is harder to create the environment for that talent to live in and reach peak optimal output. ... Creating the environment is more than having free snacks and pizza once a week in office. It’s having a corporate culture that allows us to recruit the people we want. … It starts from the top down. My wife and I are born a product of entrepreneurial families. We work hard and there is nothing we won’t do to support the company, whether it’s difficult choices in the board room or loading out an event—no task is too big or too small. They see the dedication we have to the work and there is nothing we wont do to make sure we don’t win.
There needs to be the ability to move up in an organization. It’s something we have been focused on doing. A lot of people in the agency were interns. Growth is very important, whether it’s professional or personal. This year we had two babies born in COVID. Seeing the agency rally around those families and support them any way necessary is something I am equally as proud of as the work. It is about putting employees first. My employees are my partners, my employees are my family, and we treat them that way.
What advice would you give to Black talent either looking to rise in the ranks at an agency or start their own agency?
Be true, be whole and be yourself. It is difficult enough to exist, let alone being two separate people. Be confident in your value, be confident in the value of your opinions and work and be focused on your goals, just like anyone else—but be super-focused on your goals. It is your job to also open up the door for people like yourselves because progression and growth and evolution is really what we are in search of, so people who come after us will have it easier than we did.