Embracing Web3: How Talent Agency WME is Expanding Into Crypto
Denzel Washington. Ben Affleck. Serena Williams. Tina Fey. Rihanna. These are the types of names represented by WME (William Morris Endeavor), an elite talent agency that runs a good portion of Hollywood.
Founded in 1898, WME has a roster of talent across nearly every branch of culture – film, music, television, comedy, books, art, theater. And in 2021, the firm expanded its scope to include a new vertical: crypto.
The impact of Web3, ultimately, “is going to be very similar to the way the rise of the Internet completely changed humanity,” says Chris Jacquemin, head of digital strategy at WME and the partner who led the firm’s embrace of Web3. Under Jacquemin’s watch, WME has signed more than 50 Web3 creators, building an eclectic roster that now includes Mack Flavelle (co-founder of Dapper Labs, the company behind NBA Top Shot), AI (artificial intelligence) artist Claire Silver and pseudonymous NFT artist FEWOCiOUS.
“I’ve always evaluated data and media trends,” says Jacquemin, who began his career in research and has a knack for spotting early-stage technology trends—from DVRs to YouTube to the rise of social media. Years ago, Jacquemin started the firm’s digital media business, which led to the signing of podcasters, esports players, Web2 creators and others.
And Jacquemin saw the potential of Web3. He discovered bitcoin (BTC) over a decade ago (unfortunately, he says he wasn’t “tech-savvy” enough to buy any at the time) and had been curious about the sector for years. In 2020, he asked his colleagues things like, “Have you ever heard of an NFT?” Most had not. But he also knew that junior employees at WME, like assistants, were buying crypto and trading non-fungible tokens. He felt a generational shift.
Over two years later, WME continues to sign talent – even during the crypto winter – often working with existing clients on Web3 collaborations. (This is the advantage of scale. New Web3 clients can help WME’s “legacy” clients get into Web3, and the traditional arm of WME can provide new playgrounds for the Web3 clients. Win/win.)
WME even signs Web3 developers, as Jacquemin thinks of them almost as “producers” who can help creators fulfill their vision. “There’s real value in understanding the developer ecosystem,” says Jacquemin, who is pushing the boundaries of what it means to sign creative talent. He opens up about why WME has embraced Web3, how he explains it to his colleagues, why he’s not too worried about crypto winters and why he’s spending “an unorganized lot of my career in this space.”
The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
When did you first explore the idea of WME entering Web3?
Jacquemin: It was actually fall 2020. My background is in research, so I’m very interested in a lot of consumer and behavioral trends. And what I saw in 2020 was that everyone was at home during the pandemic and the fundraising market exploded. Sneakers, coins, trading cards, stamps, you name it. And everyone felt isolated. There was a thirst for community and connection.
And in parallel, crypto was on fire. So it felt like this perfect storm. I stumbled upon a data report that suggested that by the end of 2020 there would be roughly $300 million in NFT sales.
It reminded me of how when YouTube launched, I had made this proclamation like, “This is going to be the most disruptive thing to happen in video that we’ve ever seen.” This felt similar. We saw the emergence of a new file format and collectible construction. And it connected to a generational change that I thought was about to happen. It felt like, “Okay, this is coming together. This is real. Let’s go.”
How did you present the idea internally, to your colleagues?
I explained that, “Just like you’ve heard me say many times before, technology allows creators to tell stories using these new platforms and devices and tools. So this is just another canvas for our customers to paint on and to play in.” “
We really came at it from this point of view as an opportunity to tell stories in a different medium and reach a different community.
Smart. But I guess this wasn’t always an easy sell. What kind of pushback did you get?
One thing people said was, “Is this a fad? Is this going to be something that goes away?” We had a bit of that.
It was definitely a bit of, “I don’t even understand what we’re going to make here. What does this look like as a creative project?” It was a big one. And there were many other issues at the time that are no longer as widespread, for example the environmental impact.
How did you manage to overcome the objections?
I think one of the things I have a good reputation for is removing a lot of the technical stuff. So for NFTs, it’s, “Let’s just talk about these as digital collectibles.” And I’d tell them, “This is a theme you’ve seen before, no different than the rare Fortnite skins you might have bought or the World of Warcraft secondary market that happened illegally on eBay. We’ve seen this before. And because this is familiar themes, the technology that underpins these new developments does not disappear.”
And I want to tell them that it’s going to be very similar to the way the rise of the internet completely changed humanity and our access to information on a global scale. The rise of social media made it possible for the world’s population to connect over common areas of interest. This is another wave of that. So let’s think about what it’s like [Web3] complements much of the work we already do in these areas: artist fan clubs, collectibles.
How did you jump in?
Well, a few years before we were early investors in Dapper Labs. But in 2020, there was nothing on our roster that represented Web3, if you will. And the pattern I kept seeing was that the success of so many projects tied to specific artists, like Beeple or FEWOCiOUS or XCOPY.
And it became very clear that this is no different, in a way, than how you wouldn’t make a TV show without a showrunner, or you wouldn’t make a movie without a filmmaker. I saw the importance of the visual artist being central to the success of these projects. So if you’re an athlete or a music artist or a storyteller who wants to get into Web3, you should really think about partnering with these [Web3] visual artists who have experience building community, building creative projects and certainly building value in this space. And to look at them as partners, not look at them as someone to whom you can pay a small fee.
It’s very analogous to how you would put together a TV show or a movie. So in the first few months of 2021 we started identifying people like Mack Flavelle and FEWOCiOUS. We said, “Okay, we should go sign them and build up a roster to represent them. And this will then help us as we put more projects together in this new area.”
Interesting. So signing Web3 clients also helps your current clients get into Web3. Smart. What are some of your favorite success stories?
I think a newer one brings Scottie Pippen into the Web3 area. This was met with very positive reception and it has gone quite well. Orange Comet, who we partnered with Scottie, had a very thoughtful and creative approach to the project. Scottie was very excited about the space in general.
And also get Jim Carrey in it. In addition to being a very successful movie star, he is a painter and is genuinely passionate about his artwork. So we worked with him and partnered with SuperRare (a crypto art and NFT marketplace). I think it was a good example of bringing an artist into the room in the right way. He started by collecting first, as opposed to just posting his own art. We feel really proud of it.
You’ve signed such a wide range of Web3 clients, from artists to developers to founders. I can see how a visual artist makes sense – which feels like the kind creative talent that an agency usually signs. But I wouldn’t have guessed you’d sign… developers?!
Yeah, so that’s interesting. I think of people who fall into that category, or companies that fall into that category, as essentially manufacturers.
When I look at new technologies, I describe them to ours [traditional] clients as opportunities to tell stories. In this area there is a bit of a technical barrier. So if you look at something like generative art, for example, there’s a coding aspect to it. Yes, you need to create a visual design and something aesthetically pleasing. But there is also an encoding component to create the generative output. Or, in the example I shared about Transient Labs, bringing a technically dynamic aspect to an art project is often not something that the visual artist inherently knows how to do. Or an athlete or music artist, for that matter.
So it’s just working backwards from a potential creative concept, and realizing that there are actually some partners – or producers, if you will – who happen to have a much more technical background. That was an early observation we made. Because when I zoom out and talk about Web3, I include gaming and the metaverse and AI and a lot of these technologies. So it’s understanding how to build in these different environments and across these different platforms. There’s real value in understanding the developer ecosystem that exists around that and identifying ways to either represent those companies, like Transient, or where we have some referral-oriented relationships and can create some sort of strategic partnership.
What advice would you give to Web3 creators hoping to get signed by an agent? What are you looking for?
What we’re looking for is unique storytelling. And unique is the operative word here, because there are many projects that seem to copy other projects.
So we look for both creative uniqueness and also strategic uniqueness. What our client Gmoney has done with its 9dcc clothing collection – this is very unique, super innovative and really thoughtful about society. And if I wasn’t representing him and I saw what he was doing, he would certainly be an obvious target for us to go after.
How has your work with Web3 been affected by the crypto winter? And how have you coped with it?
There are a couple of things I tend to say. One is that we have obviously seen a global [challenge] in broader financial markets, with shares and with inflation and rising interest rates. And economic downturns are only cyclical. We get the downturn, then there’s a recovery period. I can’t predict how long it will take, but I take comfort in the fact that this is just part of a series of different macroeconomic cycles. And I think that is largely what affects this space.
And the other thing you say?
I think it’s safe to say that there is no systemic problem underpinning blockchain technology to its detriment.
What do you really mean?
What happened at FTX is different than what happened with Luna. And to some extent it is different from what happened at 3AC. Still, all of these things add up to the clickbaity headline “crypto is in the toilet and there’s nothing to do here.”
And in some ways, what [crypto winter] has done for the benefit of this community is to really shine a light on who is here to stay. Which companies are well funded, well run, have strong entrepreneurial spirit within them and are still interested in doing partnership deals with our clients? It is very important to play this for the long term. This is not a one-and-done transaction we are talking about.
This is about committing to this category. I think the statement is overused, but this is the time to build. And if you look at the number of tech unicorns, the majority of them were built in a bear market. I take a lot of comfort from that. That’s why I’ve personally invested in the space and collect in the space, and I really spend an excessive part of my career in this area. I’m not naive to the crypto winter, but I’m also not worried about where I’ve left the scene again.
There are two of us! Thanks Chris, and best of luck.