“Branding is no longer the opaque art it once was”: Could DAOs alter the make-up of our industry?
Richard Turley invites Emily Segal and Lucas Mascatello to discuss and decipher how the structure – and artistic output – of DAOs might transform the current agency set-up.
I met Emily Segal through Lucas Mascatello a bunch of years ago. We occasionally have lunch when she’s in New York, and aside from her being the biggest gossip I know (which is saying something), she’s also about the smartest person I know – shortly followed by Lucas (we make Civilization together).
I love hearing both of them talk, so as part of this guest editorship I thought it’d be good to record the conversation for a wider audience. The guidance I gave them was to discuss DAOs [decentralised autonomous organisations] and specifically how their introduction may disrupt current agency structures, but also their impact on the work actually made. – Richard Turley
If you work in the design world, you may have heard a fair bit about decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) recently. The term describes an organisational structure that is community-led, collectively owned and transparently run, and it could offer an attractive alternative to the often-hierarchical agency set-up we see everywhere today. However, DAOs are often discussed in buzzword-heavy conversations around Web 3, and it’s often difficult to decipher how this approach might actually work. That’s why Richard invited Emily Segal and Lucas Mascatello to dig into the subject.
Below, Emily, a writer, artist and trend forecaster – who you may know as the co-founder of consultancy Nemesis and literary press Deluge (as well as a member of the much-discussed group K-Hole, who coined the term “normcore”) – sits down with artist, strategist and editor Lucas Mascatello in an open-ended discussion on DAOs, agency culture, Web 3, future artistic possibilities and more.
Lucas Mascatello: How do you think DAOs are impacting creative working practices?
Emily Segal: I think that when Richard formulated this question, it was before crypto started crashing super hard. I think that there was a lot more momentum coming out of the bull market, where it felt like there was going to be a wholesale transformation of working methods and everyone worth their salt would be working in Web 3. Now things have slowed down a lot and are likely to be slower for a while, at least for a couple of years I would imagine. I think it’s probably a more hybrid moment, where the old stuff and the new stuff are coexisting. Obviously, a lot of venture capital money got moved around before the crash and those companies and organisations will need some creative services, but that probably won’t last for more than a year.
So there’s the question of how much of a big change in the market does this actually signal? And I’m not certain about that. I think that part of what Richard was thinking about, or wanting us to reflect on, was this sort of unholy mix between Web 2 and Web 3. Or, the old world meeting the new world. It reminds me of Medium Design by Keller Easterling, where she writes about how it’s really where technologies meet one another that the most interesting and important problems arise. For example, she points to the smart self-driving car and the dumb traffic jam being incompatible. And so, if you figure out creative work as a set of practices and technologies that sort of feed into, or produce an iterative design process, that then gets fed back into an organisation. That is like a social technology, even if it’s not a very intensely engineered technology in the internet sense.
When creative problems get raised in the context of DAOs or Web 3 projects or whatever, certain people who have experienced that type of process will try to bring it into the Web 3 world, to mixed results, of course. We also see that with the way identity works in Web 3. So obviously, we’ve had clients now who don’t show their face and only use aliases, which is of course extremely unusual and would’ve been unimaginable in the context of an old agency. We also see people trying to import Web 2 identity structures or older identity structures into Web 3 at the same time. So it’s like all of these timelines are kind of coexisting.
LM: I think that that way of working can be really successful when you’re dealing with shorter-term or medium-term strategies where you need a lot of different ideas.
ES: But a problem with DAOs is how much they rely on Discord and voting. Both things that are intensely not fun to participate in. Like who loves voting? Who loves notifications? But the idea that you could have real structures that collectively own and operate things is awesome. But then that being conflated with these particular mechanisms is the part that limits them, in a way.
LM: I think it’s also easy to conflate this sort of new wave open corporate process and bureaucracy with an actual democratic experience. One of the bizarre things about DAOs is how they seek to emulate corporate practices. They have the chance to reinvent everything and their first instinct is to model themselves on a sludgy capitalist group-think with the same fiscal hierarchies. The same types of people in the organisation then have more influence, just like in the corporate world. It’s not flat at all. People’s levels of conviction create their own stratification, with the same sort of people becoming more influential or having more power.
So I think DAOs work. But in terms of bigger ideological positions, I think the more successful DAOs still have these sort of origin myths, these connections to an individual or a leader. I wonder if that’s just sort of a human quality that’s necessary in general. Like, Trevor McFedries [CEO of the technology startup Brud and the founder of Friends With Benefits, a private online community for blockchain enthusiasts and artists] or whatever. He’s not this huge persona, but people associate Friends With Benefits with him. It’s still kind of a person’s idea.
ES: Yeah. I mean, he started it, but it’s not just his thing. But another aspect is the way that agency work in general has changed, or the role of that. Of course our work with Nemesis is one example of that, where we were trained in more conventional settings, but now it’s totally possible for us to do high-level work with three people and a Google Drive. And a lot of the infrastructure that the agency provided is made redundant by easily available, free online collaborative software. And of course it is more precarious in a way, to run your own business or collaborate endlessly.
Except at the same time, I think I learned early on – having graduated from college a couple of years after the 2008 financial crash – that having a diversified stream of work is actually more resilient than putting all of your eggs in one basket by having an employer (who could fire you at any time, given that we live in a country that doesn’t have labour protections, basically). And so, that’s been part of the evolution of our business. I think that now there is a lot more money moving around through Web3, although there will be less for a while, it does open up more opportunities for people to do smaller, collaborative projects and actually make a good living from it, which will be interesting.
LM: Low-infrastructure, but also low-overhead. I think we’re talking about a kind of post-professionalism. A lot of the performative parts of having a company or having an organisation, or writing a brief with costs down to the last decimal, is related to a working culture that’s sort of been replaced with a more common-sense working culture. Where people have fewer dollars to spend, there’s less overhead, bullshit and ceremony, in a lot of instances.
ES: And there’s less pretending that there are hard costs when there aren’t, which is very common in agency settings. It’s more like improv and less like Broadway theatre.
LM: And clients pay for access to specific individuals over the agency as a whole. When you hire an agency, a bunch of low-status creatives are usually doing the work, fronted by a named creative director or partner, who gets wheeled out whenever the client is needing reassurance their money is going to the right people. There’s this weird kind of irony where it is more about the people in this pseudonymous context.
ES: Right. I mean, but we’re all doxed… I also think that there’s an issue in Web 3 around overstating creativity. I think it has to do with the NFT boom and the sense of a whole new strain of art and artistic possibilities, and markets around artwork, coming up so quickly and being attached to so much money. That, coupled with the market euphoria, led to a situation in which people were saying: “We’re all the most creative people in the world and we have endless ideas and so much to express.”
Of course, real human creativity is not particularly compatible with endless Discord notifications, and the sort of pace of information digestion you’re expected to do if you want to keep up with crypto markets in a really top-level way. There is a mis-registration, which I think people who believe the whole thing is a scam point to as evidence of its scamminess. It’s like everything else – both a scam and not a scam at the same time. There are authentic, interesting, novel, emergent technologies and uses of those technologies, coexisting with scams and delusions. It’s not one or the other, in my opinion.
LM: These things are symptomatic and reflective of the broader cultural current. The big thing about crypto and Web 3 right now is people divided along the issue of whether or not we are building the same stuff on Chain and building it better. Or, if we’re actually building different stuff, and that can be different financial services or it could be different creative practices.
ES: If you’re a real artist with a real practice, you are not on Twitter 24/7 and on Discord 24/7, because you’re making your work. There’s a little bit of a fallacy in this community-centric, always having the opportunity to reach out and touch your favourite artist thing. It doesn’t actually jive with what we know to be true about making art, or having any sort of serious cultivated creative practice. I’ve felt, and still feel, that there is a huge strategic problem for new organisational structures and Web 3 in particular.
LM: Even the idea that anything can and should be collaborative is kind of a fantasy. So much work – whether it’s creative or financial, or even branding work – is created alone or created in very, very small groups and the always-on quality of these spaces creates a sort of homogeny. I do think that ultimately that’s where you would probably get DAOs acting a lot like agencies. If you’re expected to always be a part of something, it’s probably easy to default to whatever standard develops and that’s how things become mediocre.
LM: Being online all the time probably makes your work kind of mediocre and probably isn’t the best for innovation. But it’s also complicated because some of these DAOs are designed so that there’s no limit to how many people can be in them. If your ideas stagnate, I guess you just get replaced?
ES: I guess there’s a way of envisioning a sort of agency DAO that updates the Web 2 design agency model to become a collectively owned enterprise: the people who participate own the organisation and have access to a portion of the profits. And then if the consulting is paid for not just in cash, but also in equity and in tokens – which is, of course, much easier to do and much more liquid in Web 3 than in traditional finance – you can imagine a very robust structure happening. But I still don’t know how actual good, creative work would come out of that. I don’t really know what legendary design looks like in the age of memes in general.
LM: It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around as I’m not seeing people doing a lot of radical creative work. A lot of what has happened in crypto is proof-of-concept stuff and I think people conflate the historical value, or proof-of-concept value of something, with the genuine product. The memes and the NFTs that people think are really valuable from the last bull run are valuable because they are “historical”, and not because they’re proof of concept.
ES: Same when crowdfunding for my book. I think that the creative work associated with it is, of course, also very valuable or else I wouldn’t be working on it. But the reason why people were so excited about it is because it was proof of concept that you could fund a book in that way, like you’re saying.
LM: This question about how DAOs might transform the creative industry sort of jumps the gun because we haven’t seen these agencies, or these DAOs, really interface with culture broadly yet. We just see the potentiality.
I think the closest you get is the viral marketing campaigns for the Bored Ape Yacht Club, which are not very creative. I think the aesthetics and culture that has seeped out has been extremely mediocre and I can’t expect people to be excited about that. The kind of continuum of cyber-goth, sci-fi aesthetics dissolving into cartoon aesthetics doesn’t feel super new. It’s hard to sort of imagine how these theoretical DAOs will interface with pop culture because so much of it just seems speculative. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough to react to yet.
ES: Branding is no longer the opaque, esoteric art it once was. There is so much freely available information from a process perspective and so many references that are easy to find in a way they didn’t used to be. Also, the most important part is the people side. Like any complex art, it takes years and years and years of practice to figure out how to work with people in a very effective way and to understand how to really show up for someone else’s project. That’s what doing creative services is actually about. It’s more, in my opinion, about deeply witnessing someone in their creative process than giving them any particular idea or running through any particular process.
And, of course, the antisocial elements of being in a crowded, harassment-filled chat room 24/7 do not improve one’s ability to work with and understand people – although it probably does clue you into certain parts of human nature. You still have to practice. We still practice every day, every week. Showing up for your collaborators, showing up for the people you’re working with, showing up for your clients, learning how to understand what they are dealing with and talking about on a deeper level.
LM: It’s a service job where you’re required to listen and empathise and the creative pieces of it, I think, are often exaggerated. What you’re actually trying to do with people from a group-dynamics perspective is largely about intimacy. DAOs and these structures are great ways to share profits, divide power and to collectively own things – but that’s all backend shit. It’s not really connected to the front-end experience or the piece of the labour that deals with producing assets or interacting with people.
So as a backend, I can totally see if Nemesis became a DAO, and we each owned pieces of Nemesis through these coins, and we invested a certain amount of the business together, all of that might work. But it wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with the way that we deal with clients.
ES: Right, it would change the stakes. We kind of operate like that anyway informally, but it would change the stakes for how we think about the goals of the overall business. But the interpersonal stuff, which has been just created in this big smelter of interpersonal intimacy and practice and failure and success and whatever for so many years, that’s really what we’re giving at the end of the day.
LM: I also think, in a dream world, if we made a fuck load of money, we probably would have an office and try to spend more time together as people. I don’t think that working remotely is actually more efficient, or better. It works. It’s fine, and it dovetails well, as you said, in a diversified creative practice where you’re doing many things. But I have dealt with a lot of agency people who bought the fancy headset and have their home office set up for meetings, and they’re not present. They’re not paying attention.
I don’t think that this new way of working will completely replace or obviate old ways of working. If you do run an agency or a larger creative group of people, it is really important to get them in the room together and to have these experiences that are about real-life dynamics. Not just about human engineering and what it’s like to be...
ES: The reason why we can functionally work from afar is because we’ve all spent a lot of time together in person, so we have the ability to sort of run with that. What I miss about 2X4 is just going to the office and seeing people. I really enjoyed that part of it and it was a beautiful environment. And, of course, I could insist that you move to LA and come to my studio every day, but then that would also not respect your sovereignty.
LM:We were talking about this idea of things economising and shrinking in certain respects to be more efficient. But there are certain pieces of agency work and creative work – the pageantry and the ceremony and the space and the rituals – that do actually kind of matter. It’s interesting to think, as certain services are stripped apart and things become more sort of pragmatic or efficient, if that’s also sort of a reason why so many tech things look and feel so anaemic and soulless.
ES: Definitely at 2X4 there’s a sense of you’re in this beautiful space, and there are hundreds if not thousands of books and magazines and artworks around you. Everyone is dressed beautifully, and there’s a sense of good taste and elegance in the very environment where you are. And, of course, that’s very hard to translate.
LM: I don’t think that Web 3, or any of these structures, really define or change the way that things work. In the same way that NFTs can essentially be used as certificates of authenticity to back physical paintings. All this technology is scalable. I would be very sensitive and suspicious to platforms or products that use the technology as a selling point up front. The kind of bull market hype around “this is Web 3” is sort of a neither-here-nor-there thing. It’s in the rearview mirror. And a lot of these organisations that call themselves DAOs are not really. They’re not actually functioning that way.
If the US government regulated Bitcoin, made it illegal to send to Russia, if it was like “Bitcoin USA”, people would buy “Bitcoin USA”. They don’t really care about decentralisation. They don’t really care about these values. And it’s very hard to safeguard the pieces of culture technology that are not related to the Ponzi because that’s the piece that’s too complicated, or too high a barrier to entry for most people to care about. I think the myth that crypto is a radical redistribution of wealth and will bring about an entire different economy is sort of imaginary. You can expect as much innovation from crypto as you can from any industry that’s funded by the same group of, as you said, rich white men. And the entropic, really interesting, counter-cultural pieces of it are not going to attach themselves to agency work.
So I guess another kind of insight is that the radical pieces of Web 3 won’t really connect back to culture in the way that one might expect through marketing, because these people are making exit value amounts of money. The reason why Ethereum is becoming more centralised and people seem to care less about Cypherpunk values, is because the people who were there in 2014 now live in Costa Rica and have fucking bunkers and shit.
ES: There’s definitely an exit going on.
LM: The boring version of this answer is that a lot of this stuff is really buzzwordy, and the people using these terms don’t even really understand what they’re talking about. This technology is still nascent and what’s also interesting about crypto is how you can automate parts of it. So, when crypto and machine learning really dovetail together, you’ll be able to design systems where everybody gets paid equally, no matter what. Nobody can fuck it up. It’s fully automatic. That is what will be really cool and exciting, but that’s very different from who gets the top kek in the chat or whatever.
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