Team Epiphany: The Pioneers of Influencer Marketing and the Philosophies That Scored Them Work with Global Brands

UPDATED: June 13, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 11, 2024
group of happy young social media influencers exemplifying team epiphany

Long before the rise of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, Coltrane Curtis and Lisa Chu of Team Epiphany were leveraging the power of influencers for global brands. But, to these early pioneers, influence has nothing to do with follower count or other benchmarks. Instead, it’s about the people and communities that drive culture forward—both online and in real life.

Curtis and Chu are the founders and co-managing partners of Team Epiphany, an award-winning marketing and creative agency with offices in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, that was acquired by Stagwell earlier this year. Over the last two decades, the husband-and-wife duo’s family business has worked with some of the biggest brands on the planet, including Nike, Coca-Cola, HBO, American Express, Netflix and Google. Team Epiphany specializes in experiential campaigns, live events, brand strategy, multicultural marketing, storytelling and public relations.

Because of their unique approach to influencer marketing—which is rooted in relationships and collaboration—the agency has grown from just a handful of employees to nearly 100. “We believe that influence is about trust and not about a paid metric,” says Curtis, who is 48. “The depth of our work, the cultural meaning of our work, is clearly a step ahead of where any agency is vibrating or working because of the fact that we are so trusted and connected to communities.”

The network that builds celebrity

When Coltrane Curtis and Lisa Chu launched the agency in 2004, they were already well-connected to a variety of tastemakers. Curtis had worked as editor-at-large of Complex magazine and as a VJ (“video jockey”) for MTV, so he knew his fair share of celebrities. But he was more intrigued by the people around them—the stylists, managers and other people who make celebrities who they are. He realized that tapping into that network could be the agency’s differentiator. At the time, the company’s tagline was, “We influence the influencer.”

“When you really think about how celebrities come to fruition, they’re generally engineered by a team, a community of people who are actually influential,” Curtis says. “This was really about the people who can move culture, the people who can predict culture and, more importantly, the people who can use that vision to then impact the careers of celebrities as we know them, whether they’re actors or musicians. Ultimately, what we saw is, we can leverage that network and empower that network to work for brands…. We use the same network that builds celebrities to build brands.”

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Team Epiphany and representation

That early vision continues to guide the company today. Coltrane Curtis and Lisa Chu also credit the agency’s success to its employees, many of whom have been with Team Epiphany for more than 10 years. Team Epiphany staffers live and breathe culture—from fashion and music to sports and technology, and everything in between. The firm is also highly diverse—Team Epiphany is more than 70% minority and more than 70% women. Together, these facets help the company stay ahead of and drive trends, as well as connect deeply with the communities that brands are trying to reach. “[Employees] can start here, they can grow here and they can envision what their lives look like,” Curtis says. “We’re only as good as the folk that we have. And if your agency is a revolving door of talent, how can you possibly create greatness with a revolving cast of characters?”

Aspirational marketing

Team Epiphany also has staying power because it prioritizes aspirational marketing—that is, the agency markets to who consumers hope to become in the future, rather than who they are now. “That has been an incredible advantage for us, especially as you think about multicultural spaces, where the perceptions, the insights are very myopic, residual and nonaspirational,” Curtis says.

That philosophy shines through in their work. For example, Team Epiphany worked with American Express to develop its “100 for 100” program, which gave $25,000 to 100 small businesses run by Black women. They also helped American Express execute its ByBlack Bazaar, a shoppable holiday pop-up experience highlighting Black-owned small businesses. And they worked with the brand to launch Built to Last, a podcast spotlighting Black entrepreneurs across the country. “We imbue a sense of positivity, a sense of belonging, a sense of responsibility when it comes to marketing to communities of color and, more importantly, communities of influence,” Curtis says. “These communities unlock the insights and, I would say, light the pathway to progressive marketing and responsible marketing.”

Looking to the future

Team Epiphany also has a long-standing relationship with HBO. The firm has worked on more than 80 titles and helped launch HBO’s “Scene in Black” platform, which promotes storytelling from the Black perspective. Their work with HBO also fostered a relationship with actress and producer Issa Rae and, last September, Team Epiphany entered into a strategic partnership with Fête, the marketing arm of Rae’s company, HOORAE Media. “We saw alignment in our overall missions, which includes being true to who we are, caring about the culture and caring about people of color and elevating them and bringing them through,” says Chu, who is 46. “It became a really seamless partnership.”

On a more personal note, Coltrane Curtis and Lisa Chu love that Team Epiphany allows them to work together daily—and that it gives them flexibility to put their young family first. They hope their work at Team Epiphany sets an example for their two sons, 12-year-old Ellington and 5-year-old Count, just like their parents did for them. “[We both] come from entrepreneurial households and…, in the future, our kids are going to grow up through this organization,” Curtis says. “They’re going to learn things and they’re going to benefit from the fact that they can see their parents work together, and hopefully, one day they will love agency life the way we did. And if not, they can go on and do what their callings are. The difference is, they’re going to understand the principles of entrepreneurship and how hard you have to work. We’re the next conduit in finishing our parents’ vision.”

This article originally appeared in the July/Aug 2024 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by View Apart/Shutterstock.com