How Social Media Influencers Fed Bankman-Fried's Cult of Personality

A number of YouTubers, often working with the Creators Agency talent management company, took money that was allegedly stolen from FTX customers to promote a gigantic financial fraud.

AccessTimeIconJan 18, 2023 at 3:03 p.m. UTC
Updated Jan 18, 2023 at 10:12 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconJan 18, 2023 at 3:03 p.m. UTCUpdated Jan 18, 2023 at 10:12 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconJan 18, 2023 at 3:03 p.m. UTCUpdated Jan 18, 2023 at 10:12 p.m. UTC

Did you know many of the biggest financial and money YouTubers who promoted FTX worked with the same talent agency?

As we witness the collateral damage caused by FTX unfold and the federal criminal charges against the crypto exchange’s founder Sam Bankman-Fried stack up, many are asking how so many people fell for this Ponzi-like scam. As with any "successful" financial scheme, FTX was a confidence game – and the game only works if the "players" are duped into thinking things are safe.

Enter FTX’s promoters and pumpers.

Chris Norlund is the creator of a daily news YouTube channel and host on Busan BeFM Radio.

Celebrities including centi-millionaire financier Kevin O'Leary, football star Tom Brady and basketball stars Steph Curry and Shaquille O'Neal all attached their images to FTX. Larry David played a crypto-skeptical curmudgeon in a much applauded FTX Super Bowl ad last year. Many of these well-known names are now facing a class-action lawsuit.

As actor Ben McKenzie has repeatedly said about his peers who used their fame to advertise for crypto projects, if you convince someone to buy into a Ponzi scheme, you’ve participated in a Ponzi scheme. Selling a cryptocurrency called “ethereumMAX” is not the same as posing for Pepsi Max photoshoots.

However, there is another group of people who need pointing out: social media influencers. In an age of bifurcated attention, where people are more likely to be watching YouTube than network television, micro-celebrities can have an outsized influence on their audience. That’s part of the reason FTX sponsored so many so-called creators, especially on YouTube.

Many of the most famous finance and money social media influencers were collaborating to push FTX, working under the same umbrella of the little-known social influencer company called Creators Agency. And yes, I do mean collaborating.

Creators Agency was founded by Apple Crider, Erika Kullberg and Eric Kullberg. Apple and Erika met at FinCon – a place where financial YouTubers congregate and learn how to recruit people to the products they hawk. Or as the event's tagline states, FinCon is "where money and media meet." According to Apple, Creators Agency are creators' "partners in crime," helping them with whatever they need, Erika said. It offers talent management services and claims to help creators go viral.

Creators Agency clients were paid to push FTX, likely netting hundreds of thousands and possibly millions from signed contracts for the agency and its clients. Sam Bankman-Fried is known now for making deals seemingly on whim, based on the shaky math of “expected value.” The one-time billionaire was seen as a shrewd businessman with a heart of gold, who worked without rest to money to give away.

In addition to funding charitable efforts, Bankman-Fried saw a lot of value in inflating his public persona. Last year, FTX signed a $130 million deal to put its name and logo on the Miami-Dade County sports arena. What’s a couple million to pay dozens of YouTube creators, if they might also bring in millions of viewers to be converted into potential customers? That's expected value.

Here are just a few Creators Agency-connected creators who advertised for FTX: Kevin – 1.85 million subscribers, Graham Stephan – 4.17 million subs, Minority Mindset – 1.46 million subs, Brian Jung – 1.21 million subs, Tom Nash – 283K subs, Jeremy Lefevbre Financial Education – 721K Subs. Andrei Jikh, who has 2.19 million subscribers, heavily promoted FTX-connected BlockFi and pushed FTX with Graham Stephan, Meet Kevin and Jeremy Financial Education as part of the Millennial Money channel, which has recently been deleted.

Though some may deny it, I personally catalogued these accounts as they promoted FTX. They were all also listed on the Creators Agency website at some point in time. As you go through the list of people who pushed FTX you realize how deep this confidence game goes. It should be noted that many of these creators have since deleted their FTX connected content and also that not all of Creators Agency's clients promoted SBF's products.

This is not an exhaustive list of everyone who promoted FTX – there are too many to name. Other popular crypto-focused influencers and channels – including Anthony Pompliano and Coin Bureau (with ~486K subs and 2.18 million subs, respectively) – also promoted FTX, though they may not be connected to Creators Agency. Pompliano was an investor in bankrupt lending platform BlockFi, which signed a deal to be acquired by FTX.US.

I started posting videos in the spring of 2022 tracking YouTubers pushing FTX. I knew something was up because suddenly all of these seemingly unconnected creators were talking about the same thing at the exact same time. That is: FTX is great and Sam Bankman-Fried is a genius (it’s rumored grandiose compliments of SBF were part of the contract).

Creators Agency deleted its founders’ names and photos from its website as well as its client names and photos shortly after the FTX scandal broke. It seemed like they were trying to hide any association with the PR nightmare. This is why it's important to not only call out what you think are scams when you see them, but also hold people to account after things go belly up. As of January 2023, some of the creators have been restored to the website, but Erika is still not listed as a founder, like before. She's an attorney and financial adviser who prides herself on “reading the fine print.”

Creators Agency assisted some of the most watched and influential channels in promoting what could turn out to be one of the largest financial crimes in history. And in so doing, it helped Bankman-Fried establish his reputation as a selfless billionaire and FTX’s as a safe cryptocurrency exchange.

Of course, neither FTX nor SBF were trustworthy. But financial schemes only work if people are confident in the hustle. This may explain why it was worth it for FTX to pay so many social media influencers to repeat the same talking points – it created an illusion of safety and promoted the very real fear of missing out. The psychological phenomenon of the "mere exposure effect," where people are more likely to believe things are true if repeated, might be heightened by the para-social relationships that form on social media.

Contracts for YouTubers to push FTX ranged from $50K per month upwards to hundreds of thousand per month and/or around $2,500 a video. These prices were quite high for a 30-second mid-roll ad read. It’s likely Creators Agency was able to drive up the price, considering the number of influencers it worked with and collectively huge viewership. Erika Kullberg once said she started the agency because she thought creators were "underpaid."

Over the past year I made several videos calling out these FTX grifters, and warning people that assets on these exchanges were unsafe. All the while, Creators Agency clients pumped FTX and kept taking payments from SBF. Few disclosed their relationship to the agency. Though several made videos suggesting to their fans that FTX or its stateside subsidiary FTX.US would be fine – as they were going up in flames.

When it was clear that FTX.US was not fine, many put out low-effort apology videos. Three creators – Minority Mindset, Graham Stephan and Tom Nash – made apology videos within hours of FTX’s bankruptcy announcement and all seemed to be reading from the same script. Not a good look.

These creators took money that was likely stolen from FTX customers to promote a Ponzi scheme to their audience. Many of their viewers will lose everything, or have to wait years to get pennies back on the dollar.

Some YouTubers have tried to deflect responsibility by saying they only promoted FTX.US, but that's a horrible defense. In every video, the FTX brand itself was being promoted and likely a large portion of a creator’s fan base was located outside of the U.S. (20%-40% of viewers of the average YouTube video come from outside of the U.S.) Bankman-Fried hardly treated either exchange as a distinct entity and apparently commingled funds – putting users at risk no matter what platform they signed up for.

Likewise, saying “everyone else was doing it" or “I’m bad at business” is hardly a defense. Many of these people pose as financial gurus, yet they promoted what could be the largest Ponzi in history. Either they’re not the geniuses with money they claim to be or they were just plain greedy.

Let's face it, these aren't good people. Even when not pushing FTX, many Creator Agency clients sell their grifter classes a la Andrew Tate. As author Fred Schwed pointed out in his classic finance book “Where are the Customers' Yachts?,” if someone is selling you an idea that will make you rich, you’re the product.

Obviously, no one should look to YouTube as a bastion of morality. Tom Nash has admitted to using fake names and lying about his credentials, while Meet Kevin has gotten many DUI charges and drinks on camera when talking about investing, all while selling his courses through "Hustler’s University." Andrei Jikh sells his "Zero to a Million" course. Agency client Spencer Cornelia, who is a self-proclaimed internet detective, made videos defending other clients and his friends at the agency.

But a lot of good could be done if FTX’s advertisers apologize in a way that recognizes the harm they may have caused others. Forget clearly scripted and grossly insincere apology videos. If these people truly care they should take all the money they received from FTX and either return it to the bankruptcy estate or donate it all to charity.

YouTubers who pushed FTX completely failed their fans by choosing extreme greed over due diligence. People should not forgive or forget that the YouTubers at Creators Agency took their fans’ money to promote a Ponzi scheme on an unregulated exchange.

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Chris Norlund

Chris Norlund is the host of a daily news YouTube channel and host on Busan BeFM Radio.