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Running a Successful Black-Owned Creative Agency: Nine Things You Should Know

Running a Successful Black-Owned Creative Agency: Nine Things You Should Know

Photo Credit: Andres Norwood

We spoke with Anthony Prince Leslie and Ashley Cimone Smith of Equator Productions. They broke down the ins-and-outs of running a successful creative agency.

Anthony Prince Leslie and Ashley Cimone Smith’s work is rooted in community and collaboration. The two, who are engaged, operate Equator Productions, a creative studio that specializes in developing film and photography for brands. It’s not easy work. And it can be time-consuming, especially if you want to do it in a way that elevates voices and talent that otherwise wouldn’t be noticed.

“We eat, sleep, breathe, bleed this shit,” Leslie and Smith said in unison over a Zoom conversation. 

Equator Productions was launched by Leslie, a multi-disciplined artist, in 2017. During the early stages of the business, Leslie was only dating his future finance and business partner. At the time, Smith was an entrepreneur herself with a unisex bag and travel accessory brand called ASHYA. The two shared a complementary creative vision, and Smith’s corporate background and business expertise went hand-in-hand hand with Leslie’s artistic sensibilities. 

“I kind of came on as Anthony’s play manager to negotiate a contract for him when he was working as an independent videographer at the time,” Ashley said. “I ended up negotiating an agreement that was really favorable, and I think we realized in that moment that we had something. Maybe we could work together.”

She sometimes would help out and started supporting more and more projects until Leslie officially asked Smith to join. Now, she’s Partner and Executive Producer of Equator.

Over the years, Equator has produced various exciting projects ( including a stellar collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger and newly minted Emmy winner Zendaya.) But one that Leslie is especially proud of was a project campaign that Equator worked on for Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter, who released a collection with H&M. They created a podcast with Carter and social media influencer Jay Versace that was inspired by the opening scene of Spike Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing, a movie that showcases some of Carter’s iconic work. The campaign’s creative team was all Black, and they released it during Black History Month.

“It really opened our eyes up to the positive change that we can make in our immediate community and the people around us who are looking to us,” Leslie said.

As for Smith, the highlight so far has been working on Leslie’s first short film project, Freebird, for Google’s Creator Labs Incubator. The program was launched to fund and provide other resources to selected photographers, filmmakers, and social-savvy creatives who aim to make a social impact with their work. “In Freebird, the main character is pursuing modern dance. Anthony is a classically-trained dancer, and I think putting that project together was really beautiful because Anthony was able to pour so much of his experiences into it,” Smith said. 

In just two years, Equator Productions has already had a number of wins, culminating with a co-sign from Beyoncé: Equator Productions is included in the list of Black-owned businesses highlighted for her “Black Parade” initiative. 

Anthony Prince Leslie and Ashley Cimone Smith have a lot of knowledge. Which is why we decided to speak with the couple about the nine things people should know about starting their own creative production studio. 

Read below for their gems of knowledge and self-reflection.

Man directing other people
Photo Credit: Christopher Zapata

1. Do your research and work on how to evolve.

Leslie: I think research is very important. I do a lot of research daily on what’s happening in the market. What are some things that I want to introduce to my community? What is something I need to educate myself on equipment-wise? And then [I think about] how we as a company can continue to evolve. I think that’s another key. It’s like the evolution of creating a company, and there are so many different ways in which it evolves from. Like from the business side and actually understanding that we need to create templates for some of our contracts and the way we work. In terms of creative: how do we want to present information to people? Those are just two things that I feel are evolution.

2. Have healthy and strong communication skills.

Smith: In this line of work, you’re never really working alone. It is almost imperative for any sizable production that you’re working with a team. In order to be able to bring ideas to life and manage egos, perspectives, multiple creatives, and everyone else that’s involved, communication is key. Learn how to communicate effectively, understand different communication styles, work with people, incentivize, and listen. 

3. Be self-aware and foster a safe space. 

Smith: I straddle between creative and business operations with the company. Self-awareness is key as manager. Because we have to know how to ask for help, we have to know our strengths. We have to know our weaknesses. 

Leslie: We have to know our collaborators’ weaknesses and strengths as well.

Smith: Yeah, so you can build teams that really complement each other. I feel like Anthony does that really well. Even just approaching a project as director, he does a really good job of pairing energies that work well together and conducting a really positive set.

Leslie: Creating a safe space in which those conversations can happen because it can already exist but unless that conversation is had, we don’t really know how to actually perform in that space. 

Man directing people on park bench
Photo Credit: Wayne Reid

4. Stay Organized. 

Smith: It’s pretty self-explanatory. I feel like that’s needed in every job. There’s always so many balls in the air. Working in this industry, you probably have multiple projects going on at any given time. Each of those projects have so many different elements to them…We’ve put together a lot of systems within our business to stay organized in different ways. Work smarter, not harder. 

5. Be intentional to keep a healthy work and life balance.

Smith: As an entrepreneur, I feel like you have to really love what you do because that separation from work and life isn’t often there. Even with that said, it’s all about intentionality. We know that this business – our businesses – is consuming and, although we really love them, it is important to create some space for personal time. I think as a couple who’s also running a business together, all of the lines are blurred, so we’re very intentional about carving out personal time. 

I would say use your calendar. Try tools that work for you in managing your life schedule because it’s so important to make time for yourself. Burnout is real. And nobody can work at their optimal capacity when you’re just burned out all the time, or where you just haven’t given yourself space to breathe. 

6. Lean on your community.

Smith: We’ve had such generous people in our circle who shared with us advice, their time, projects, or recommendations and things like that, so we’ve been able to build our company. Equator doesn’t actively seek out work. All of our clients come by word of mouth, which is really beautiful. It may change, but I think even with that, we’re so busy with projects that are simply just recommended or come from recommendations. I owe that mostly to the relationships that we’ve been able to build over the years and just having a strong community. 

Leslie: And even with that, another good point is that you cannot expect to receive from your community if you cannot give to your community. To be intentional, you’re not doing it because you’re expecting something back. You’re doing it for the greater good, the greater purpose of rising with very intelligent, bright, and well-rounded individuals [or] companies.

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Smith: It just kind of defines what I would hope all companies can do. Share the wealth. There’s enough for all of us. I think when you approach things with the mindset of abundance, then you are able to receive. 

7. Know the stories you want to tell and your niche.

Leslie: You have to be sure of the story that you want to tell and the lane in which you want to sit because there’s so many different voices out there. To find your own voice first is important because you’re going to be leading a team, so they have to all be on board for this vision

8. Oh, did we mention research?

Leslie: We are constantly doing market research [and]  making sure that we are aware [of] what’s going on in Media. Who are our competitors? 

What’s interesting about production is that this idea of someone being your competitor isn’t always real. We’ve collaborated with so many other production companies, which is dope. There are production companies who will lean on us and hire us for something, or we hire them for something, or they send a project our way or vice versa. Research has been super integral in our ability to build relationships or define our work. It’s constantly seeking new information. 

Couple standing in front of statue
Photo Credit: Anthony P. Leslie

9. Be malleable when an emergency — like a global pandemic — happens.

Leslie: We lost so many projects in the beginning of COVID [-19]. Now we have to sit with those ideas and manifest them in new ways, which I feel helped us re-strategize and understand our approach. It was not easy. We worked on our website the whole beginning of the quarantine, virtually, with COMBO who helped bring it to life for us. 

Smith: We’ve had family loss. I think as Black folks, it’s been extremely traumatizing this time. I think in many ways, it’s flamed the fire that we already had to be active in parts of our community because it’s just so necessary. People need community to get through moments like this. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve leaned into our community. We doubled down on our self work and really used this time to analyze the way that we’re engaging with the world, and that’s through our work and personally. I think or hope that that’s the case for everyone right now because we realize how precious time is. With tragedy, you’re also reminded how precious life is too. 

Leslie: Yeah, we still have work to do in terms of how to really be able to take this and what we create to the next level as well because one other thing that I want to add to what you just said is existence. Existence in terms of what, for me personally, is the Black experience and how to accurately depict that; how to be able to let our community connect with it and what that looks like in all its ways. And specifically, what showing Black joy does for the people who are consuming it in our community, and I think that helped us realize that we have to put out certain projects because people need to feel that. 

Smith: I think we really just want our work to be centered around sharing stories that are uplifting, and I think specifically being Black founders, or Black owners of a production company, it’s great to have the power to craft the types of stories that you’re putting out into the world. There’s this ongoing conversation about representation and inclusivity. We can focus on creating work that is just naturally inclusive. We can tell stories about underrepresented communities. That’s what we’re focusing on. That’s where we want our work to sit. 

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Sri Rain Stewart is a native New Yorker living in New York City. She writes mostly about fashion, but also has a love for music, culture, TV, and film. In her free time, she writes poetry.

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