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Last month, Web3 innovator and artist Erick Calderon teamed with Adidas and crypto sports brand WAGMI United to design the first real-world, professional soccer jersey embroidered with imagery from an NFT. The art was a “Chromie Squiggle,” an NFT project created by Calderon that is currently the ninth most valuable collection on the market, per token, with a price floor of nearly $15,000. 
Calderon, a.k.a. “Snowfro,” knows a thing or two about NFTs. Besides being early enough to the space to grab a handful of Crypto Punks back when they were still being offered for free (their price floor is now $95,000), he founded the platform Art Blocks, a marketplace for content that is randomly created through computer algorithms and stored as NFTs on a blockchain. Art Blocks has an all-time trading volume of nearly $1.3 billion, and while its process of creation—called generative art—was inspired by Crypto Punks, it has directly influenced the development of the most popular NFT projects today, including Doodles and Bored Ape Yacht Club.
Calderon’s dignified status in the NFT space also means that he’s encountered plenty of brands interested in making a mark in Web3. Many have sought partnerships with Calderon, but unlike Adidas, most have not succeeded in offering what he considers a necessary value-add that brands must bring to the table. There’s even a specific phrase with which many brands have approached Calderon that he deems an immediate deal breaker. 
On the heels of receiving an inaugural Cryptie Award from Decrypt Studios—a Web3 production studio and sister company of brand Decrypt Media—for “Industry Achievement” in the crypto ecosystem, Calderon spoke with Ad Age about how brands should build credibility in the space in order to effectively land partnerships. Among his recommendations, he discussed the importance of acting quietly and completing one’s due diligence, as opposed to making a big splash from the start. 
Calderon also gave background on the deal with Adidas, shared his thoughts on NFTs moving past their speculative reputation and explained how Art Blocks grew from a personal project into the globally recognized platform it is today. Curiously, he ascribes significant credit to Discord for creating a novel social experience—a kernel marketers should remember when creating their own Web3 communities.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
When WAGMI United came to me, they hadn’t signed Adidas yet. But they wanted to bring Adidas in because of the brand recognition they had. And this is so important. For example, I have my preferences of brands that I’d like to work with that have had an impact in my life [such as Swatch, Onitsuka Tiger and Lego]. And as the space grows, there will be more people like me, each of whom are going to have their preferences for brands. And I think that there’s going to be a very different dynamic between people that are already in the space and pulling in the brand versus the brand saying these fateful words that literally shut me down anytime I hear them, which are ‘How do I get in?’
Adidas had proved themselves with a couple other drops in the NFT space that happened way before the WAGMI thing. I was more likely to sign the deal with WAGMI to allow them to use the Squiggle on their jersey because it was Adidas, versus just some random jersey manufacturer. So when the brand brings credibility to a project, I think it’s a home run.
It requires a little bit of effort. It requires a brand entering the space not through splashing on Twitter that it bought their first NFT but maybe by attending conferences, sitting in on the dinners and hiring a Web3 person that knows how to get them into some of these events.
Let’s pretend I don’t know Swatch. Swatch starts coming to conferences and ends up at a table next to me, and I’m nerding out over a couple of drinks about how much I love this technology. And Swatch starts thinking ‘Oh man, it might be fun to do something together.’ Then I go home and I research Swatch and think they’d make a great partner, and so I reach out to them. That takes dedication.
Or maybe Swatch buys a Goblin Town NFT, but privately, and then gets to go to the event and has a good time, meets really good people, has conversations and says, ‘Oh yeah, I work with Swatch.’ People would be like, ‘Wow, someone from Swatch is here,’ but not in this ‘ta-da!’ way of doing it through Twitter. Rather, in an organic way, and all of a sudden that generates some interest and leads to a conversation where Swatch is now relevant in this space as a participant.
It’s all about the project. For example, I get approached by brands in the space and they’re like, ‘Would you be willing to announce this or would you be willing to amplify this?’ and my answer is ‘Wait, what am I amplifying? You’re asking me to amplify something that we actually haven’t settled on yet.’ And so that to me is an immediate deal breaker.
I think fashion is also one of the lowest barriers to entry for brands in this space. And so maybe you start with apparel. Start with the things that people are confident and comfortable sharing with each other. People want to show their NFTs and they don’t want to show it on their phone because that gets old. So the next step is on a hat and on a shirt.
Companies are going to value-add, but the brand itself is not necessarily relevant to that value. It’s about the product that they add and they just happen to be making that product.
There are a few things that happened. We have Discord, first of all. I don’t know that Art Blocks would be what it is today if it wasn’t for Discord, nor do I think the NFT space would be what it is today. Discord enabled this beautiful concept thanks to bots [platform-native automated accounts], where when something new was minted on Art Blocks, the bots would paste it in this Discord channel. People would just sit around in that channel, watch new Squiggle mints come in and have opinions about them. It was like a performance art experience, and it would cause you to want to go mint another one because you just triggered a social experience.
There’s also some beauty in minting the project versus buying it on a secondary market like OpenSea. Collectors get pride out of saying, ‘Oh yeah, I bought so-and-so’s work at their first show’ or ‘I bought so-and-so’s work when they were in a school exhibition.’ It wasn’t for like four or five months that there was actually a secondary market of any kind of value, but I think what happened is people realized that they wanted to participate in [minting] and when there was nothing to mint because everything would sell out right away, then they would go to the secondary market. And that’s when all of a sudden there just was not enough supply and Art Blocks started to grow.
Yeah, it’s like compound interest, in a weird way. Every time someone mints they’d go on Twitter, and they’d be like, ‘Look what I just minted,’ and then that would get to new people and eventually it would land with some person that has a bunch of followers, who would be like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ And then they’d go mint and share their mint.
I think they will be decoupled very soon, and just like you don’t wonder how your email got to the other person—you just send an email. I think the same thing [for NFT technology]. In two years, if you receive an important digital file from anyone, you will assume that it’s minted as an NFT in one way or another, especially for receiving a deliverable from a branding package or from a branding agency—something that I might use in court in five years to defend my logo or my brand against something. The fact that I have a timestamp of the data that was created, the day that that was presented to me, that nothing has been tampered with, because you can prove that with NFT technology—a court will uphold the one that has the timestamp on the Ethereum blockchain versus the one that doesn’t have any substance to it. And in 10 years, I think that will be the precedent, but I really believe that that’s one of those beautiful things about NFT technology. It’s really just a proof of ownership of a file type.
In this article:
Asa Hiken is a technology reporter covering digital marketing, social media platforms and innovation. A graduate of Northwestern University, he joined Ad Age after writing for Marketing Dive, where he focused on the alcohol space and digital privacy.


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