How Talent Agency WME Is Expanding Into Crypto

Chris Jacquemin, a speaker at CoinDesk's Consensus conference, on Hollywood's embrace of Web3.

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Denzel Washington. Ben Affleck. Serena Williams. Tina Fey. Rihanna. These are the types of names that are represented by WME (William Morris Endeavor), an elite talent agency that runs a good chunk 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 that the rise of the internet completely changed humanity,” says Chris Jacquemin, head of digital strategy of 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.

This interview is part of CoinDesk's Culture Week. Chris Jacquemin is a speaker at CoinDesk's Consensus festival in April.

“I've always evaluated data and media trends,” says Jacquemin, who began his career in research and has a knack for spotting trends in tech on the early side – from DVRs to YouTube to the rise of social media. Years ago, Jacquemin started the firm’s digital media business, which led to signing podcasters, esports gamers, Web2 creators and others.

And Jacquemin saw the potential with Web3. He discovered bitcoin (BTC) over a decade ago (alas, 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 hadn’t. But he also knew that younger 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 crypto winter – who often works with existing clients on Web3 collaborations. (This is the benefit of scale. New Web3 clients can help WME’s “legacy” clients get into Web3, and the traditional arm of WME can offer new playgrounds for the Web3 clients. Win/win.)

WME is even signing 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 concerned about crypto winter and why he’s spending “an inordinate amount of my career in this area.”

Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

When did you first explore the idea of WME getting into Web3?

Jacquemin: It was actually in the fall of 2020. My background is in research, so I really obsess over a lot of consumer trends and behavioral trends. And what I was seeing in 2020 was that everybody's at home during the pandemic and the collecting market exploded. Sneakers, coins, trading cards, stamps, you name it. And everybody was feeling isolated. There was a thirsting for community and connectivity.

And, in parallel, crypto was on fire. So it felt like this perfect storm. I stumbled on 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 become the most disruptive thing to happen in video we've ever seen." This felt similar. We were seeing the emergence of a new file format and collectible construct of assets. And it tied into a generational shift that I thought was happening. It felt like, “Okay, this is all coming together. This is real. Let's go."

How’d you pitch the idea internally, to your colleagues?

I was explaining that, “Much 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 clients 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’m guessing this wasn’t always an easy sell. What kind of pushback did you get?

One thing people said was, “Is this kind of a fad? Is this going to be something that goes away?” We had a little bit of that.

There was certainly a little bit of, “I don't even understand what we'd be making here. What does this look like as a creative project?” That was a big one. And there were a lot of other issues at the time that are no longer as prevalent, such as the environmental pushback.

How’d you overcome the objections?

I think one of the things that I have a good reputation for is removing a lot of the technical speak. So for NFTs, it’s, “Let’s just talk about these as digital collectibles.” And I’d tell them, “This is a theme that you’ve seen before, no different than the rare Fortnite skins that you might have bought or the World of Warcraft secondary market that was happening illegally on eBay. We’ve seen this before. And because these are familiar themes, the technology that underpins these new developments is not going away.”

And I would tell them that it’s going to be very similar to the way that the rise of the internet completely changed humanity and our access to information on a global scale. The rise of social media allowed for the world's population to connect over common areas of interests. This is another wave of that. So let's think about how it [Web3] complements a lot of the work that we’re already doing in these areas: artist fan clubs, merch as collectibles.

How’d you guys jump in?

Well, a few years before we were early-stage 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 back to particular artists, such as 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 television show without a showrunner or you wouldn't make a movie without a filmmaker. I saw the importance of the visual artist to be central to the success of these projects. So if you are an athlete or a music artist or a storyteller looking to get into Web3, then you should really think about partnering with these [Web3] visual artists who have a track record of building communities, in building creative projects and certainly building value in this space. And to look at them as partners, not look at them as somebody that you can pay a small fee.

It’s very analogous to how you would put together a television show or a film. So over the course of the first few months in 2021, we began to identify 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're putting 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 more recent one is bringing Scottie Pippen into the Web3 space. This was met with a really positive reception, and it has done quite well. Orange Comet, who we partnered Scottie with, had a really thoughtful and creative take on the project. Scottie got really excited about the space overall.

And also getting Jim Carrey into it. In addition to being a highly successful movie star, he's 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 space in the right way. He started by collecting first, as opposed to just putting out his own art. We feel really proud about that one.

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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 that feels like the kind creative talent that an agency typically signs. But I wouldn’t have guessed you’d be signing … developers?!

Yeah, so it's interesting. I think of people that fall into that category, or companies that fall into that category, as essentially producers.

When I look at new technologies, I describe them to our [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 make a visual design and something aesthetically pleasing. But there’s also a coding component to creating the generative output. Or, in the example I shared about Transient Labs, bringing a technical 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 off a potential creative concept, and realizing that there are actually some partners – or producers, if you will – that happen to have a much more technical background. It was an early observation that we made. Because when I zoom out and I talk about Web3, I'm including 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 it, and identifying ways to either represent those companies, like Transient, or where we've got some referral-oriented relationships and can create some sort of a strategic partnership.

What advice would you give Web3 creators who are hoping to get signed by an agent? What are you looking for?

What we look for is unique storytelling. And unique is the operative word here, because there are a lot of projects that seem to copy other projects.

So we’re looking for both creative uniqueness and also strategic uniqueness. What our client Gmoney has been doing with his 9dcc apparel collection – this is highly unique, super innovative and really thoughtful around the community. And if I wasn't representing him and I saw what he was doing, he would absolutely be an obvious target for us to go after.

How has your work with Web3 been impacted by crypto winter? And how have you handled it?

There are a couple things that I tend to say. One is, we've obviously seen a global [challenge] in broader financial markets, with equities and with inflation and rising interest rates. And economic downturns are just cyclical. We'll have the downturn, then there'll be a recovery period. I can't predict how long that will be, but I take comfort in the fact that this is just part of a series of different macroeconomic cycles. And I think that's largely what's affecting this space.

And the second thing you say?

I think it's safe to say that there's no systemic issue that underpins blockchain technology to its detriment.

What do you mean exactly?

What happened at FTX is different than what happened with Luna. And to some extent, it's different than what happened at 3AC. Yet all these things add to the clickbaity headline of “crypto's in the toilet, and there's no business to be done here.”

And in some ways, what [crypto winter] has done to the benefit of this community is to really shine a light on who's here to stay. Which companies are well-funded, well -run, have strong entrepreneurship inside of them and are still interested in doing partnership deals with our clients? It's really important to play this for the long haul. This is not a one-and-done transaction that we're talking about.

This is about making a commitment into 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 in that. It's why I've personally invested into the space and collect in the space, and am really spending an inordinate amount of my career in this area. I'm not naive to the crypto winter, but I'm also not concerned to where I've exited stage left.

That’s two of us! Thanks Chris, and best of luck going forward.

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Jeff Wilser is the author of 7 books including Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life, The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden, and an Amazon Best Book of the Month in both Non-Fiction and Humor.