Paving The Way For NFTs, Promo And Art
Gloria and Herb Barker, Gerry's parents, founded Barker Specialty Co. together in 1951, shortly after they married.
When non-fungible tokens (NFTs) began attracting national attention, Gerry Barker was already knee-deep in minting (creating) one for his distributorship, Barker Specialty Company. Having realized early on the benefits these one-of-a-kind digital assets can offer to both the promotional products industry and the art collectors’ market—for the family-owned business, one has never existed without the other—Barker, president and CEO, and his team, which includes his son, Account Executive Max Barker, began leading the movement in NFT innovation for their clients in both industries.
“I recognized the fact that we’re dealing with tangible products in the promo space, yet at the same time we understand how important digital and technology are to our world. There’s been a real effort made to create tangible products that have application to the digital world or provide support for many of these digital products,” says Barker, noting examples such as web cam covers and smartphone attachments, like PopSockets®. However, researching NFTs led him to ponder, “If the world became almost exclusively digital, what would happen in the promotional products space with a total reliance on tangible products?” He says, “I wasn’t sure NFTs would fit this bill, but I believed it was a step in the right direction.”
Since joining his family business in 1986, Barker has always had a strong interest in technology and how it can enhance creative design and branding potential. The pandemic only propelled the use of tech, and Barker teamed up with Barker Specialty’s Director of Marketing Amy Serrano, CAS, who was recognized as a 2019 PPB Rising Star; Director of Sales Alex Bowen and Max, who represents the family’s third generation in the distributorship, to break into the world of Clubhouse, an invitation-only social media application that allows users to chime in and out of, and participate in, live conversations about any number of topics that are taking place around the world. Together with Max’s brother, Harrison Barker, this group leads a conversation on the app known as “The Swag Shop,” where they discuss industry- and tech-related topics.
Gerry Barker (far right) discusses different notebook options with Art Carbone, Barker Specialty's director of manufacturing; Amy Serrano, CAS, director of marketing; and Kim Chandler, receptionist.
Barker also isn’t afraid to consider a new experience or tool if he feels it may pose an advantage to his business or provide personal growth. The year prior to attending business school at the University of Chicago, he spent a year teaching English to high school students living in the Samoan rainforest, while living in a hut in a small village, side by side with his students and their families. It was an experience that broadened his perspective of understanding the needs of humanity and the humility that comes with living closely with others.
When chatter of NFTs grew louder amongst the general public, he saw that, as the owner of a promotional products distributor—which includes an office in Orlando, Florida, and sister businesses, Barker Character Comic and Cartoon Museum (BCCCM) and Barker Art Animation Galleries, located on the company’s 10-acre office park—not only did NFTs offer the potential for brands to convey truly meaningful, lasting and unique messages that align with modern-day tech trends, but also for special moments, like graduations or weddings, to be forever preserved and cherished, and for artists to sell their creative works in a potentially lucrative, new way as well.
The Allied Bus Company ruler is regarded as an important artifact to the Barker family and the history of Barker Specialty Co. Rudolph Pick, Gerry’s maternal grandfather, owned the Allied Bus Company in Manhattan and told his daughter and her husband, Gloria and Herb Barker, that tangible advertising would be the future of marketing—and this was back in the ’40s.
“It was very easy to think that NFTs were synonymous with artwork, but that really isn’t the case,” says Barker. “What I believe is that artwork provided an easier way for people to start understanding NFTs. Many artists would say, ‘no, NFTs are only about art and this is what we’re sticking with,’ but I saw a greater vision for how NFTs could be used in an ever-expanding number of areas. That’s what got me excited for the world beyond art and to be used as uniquely owned digital assets, which is what they are. Indeed, we are starting to see cross-collaborations and greater support for a convergence of both digital and physical assets.”
But even from its start, Barker Specialty Co. was borne from a forward-focused, go-getter mindset. Celebrating 70 years in business this year, the distributor was founded in 1951 by Barker's parents, Gloria and Herb Barker, a U.S. Army veteran, who sold souvenir salt-and-pepper shakers across the East Coast; something which, in three years’ time, developed into selling branded, custom merchandise and became a multimillion-dollar business not too long after. While running their business, the couple developed their shared interest in collecting, and eventually decided to invite the public to enjoy their personal art and toy collection, opening BCCCM in 1997. Today, the collection the Barker’s started in 1873, spanning more than 40 years’ worth of collecting, features over 80,000 items, most of which are relics of childhood, like cartoon lunchboxes, toys, games and other collectibles. Some of the many smile-worthy characters in the collection include Popeye, Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse and Howdy Doody. Also during this time, Gloria and Herb discovered their shared, niche interest in production works, which began after purchasing a Mickey Mouse original production drawing in the ’60s. This interest evolved into an animation and pop-art collection which opened as Barker Art Animation Galleries in 1997. Recognized as the largest animation and entertainment art gallery in the world, Barker says, it includes an additional location at Foxwoods in Mashantucket, Connecticut, and features works from studios such as DC Comics, Disney/Pixar, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P., Marvel Comics, Universal Studios and Warner Bros.
Gloria and Herb Barker opened The Barker Character, Comic & Cartoon Museum in 1997, which remains open to the public today. It features a collection of more than 80,000 toys, games and other collectibles, with a special focus on cartoon characters.
Considering the Barkers' joy for celebrating the collection of toys and other collectibles and creations, it only made sense for Barker Specialty Co.’s very first NFT to be of a treasured toy from Gloria and Herb's personal collection. The chosen item was a cast-iron elephant ramp walker manufactured in the 1870s by Ives Toy Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, using discarded Civil War bullet casings. Being one of BCCCM’s oldest toys, an original is hard to find on the marketplace, but now toy collectors and fans alike can purchase their own digital version (NFT), aptly named “The Ramp Walker,” complete with music and animation to add to the experience. An NFT created by the company soon after, showcasing Barker Specialty Co.’s logo, can be found at bit.ly/3jgAzsD.
Today, the promotional products distributor has grown to a staff of 100, and serves as a one-stop resource for all promotional- and marketing-based solutions, including custom graphic design, webstore capabilities, warehousing, fulfillment, in-house decoration services and overseas sourcing capabilities. Its office includes an impressive 6,000-square-foot showroom with a meeting area that was purposely designed with a relaxed feel. The showroom includes a bar space complete with barstools and a large-screen TV for viewing products, and now NFTs. Serrano’s plan was for clients to meet with salespeople in a comfortable environment—and comfortable, it surely is.
Barker, together with his business, remains focused on continuing to offer advanced tech solutions for clients. To educate them and fellow promotional products professionals alike, the company created a webpage dedicated to NFTs, their purpose and how they are being used today: promoNFTS.com. Currently, Barker is partnering with Craig Wolfe, the owner of Celebriducks, a line of collectible NFTs featuring these iconic ducks, which can be viewed at bit.ly/3AdKLsC.
“We may be wrong in our vision, but many ideas in our country take time to evolve, which is exactly why I have been speaking out on this subject (NFTs),” says Barker. “I often think of the creation of the microwave oven as an example of an innovation that was designed to accelerate cooking time! However, most people don’t use their microwave as often to cook food but everyone has one, as people recognized the value of reheating and defrosting, which was never the original intention. Our latest project is the creation of a business to use NFTs to help charities expand their fundraising as these exclusive digital assets can be marketed to a large audience, even a universal one. I have teamed up with Lisa Fosdick [a business leader and early adopter of crypto currency and blockchain] to build NFTs4Charity (www.nfts4charity.io) and this is already gaining traction.”
For more on NFTs, read Barker’s “NFTs: The Next Revolution In Promo” in the May 2021 issue of PPB by clicking here.
Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.