As the fallout from FTX continues and federal criminal accusations against the crypto exchange’s founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, mount, many are left wondering how so many people fell for this Ponzi-like scheme. FTX, like any “successful” financial plan, was a confidence game, and the game only works if the “players” believe things are safe.
Enter the promoters and pumpers of FTX
Celebrities such as billionaire financier Kevin O’Leary, football great Tom Brady, and basketball stars Steph Curry and Shaquille O’Neal have all uploaded photos to FTX. Last year, Larry David portrayed a crypto-skeptical curmudgeon in a well-received FTX Super Bowl commercial. A class-action lawsuit has been filed against many of these well-known names.
If you convince someone to invest in a Ponzi scheme, you’ve participated in a Ponzi scheme, as actor Ben McKenzie has frequently stated about his contemporaries who exploited their popularity to market for crypto ventures. Selling “ethereumMAX” cryptocurrency is not the same as posing for Pepsi Max photoshoots.
However, another group of individuals should be mentioned: social media influencers. Micro-celebrities can have an outsized influence on their audience in an age of split attention, where people are more inclined to watch YouTube than network television. That’s one of the reasons FTX supports so many “creators,”, particularly on YouTube.
Many of the most well-known financial and money social media influencers were working together to promote FTX, all under the banner of the little-known social influencer company Creators Agency. And yes, I do mean working together.
Apple Crider, Erika Kullberg, and Eric Kullberg created Creators Agency. Apple and Erika met at FinCon, a conference where financial YouTubers gather to learn how to recruit people to the businesses they promote. FinCon, as the event’s tagline suggests, is “where money and media meet.” According to Apple, the Creators Agency is “partner in crime,” assisting creators with anything they require, as Erika stated. It claims to help creators become viral by providing talent management services.
Here are a few examples of agency-affiliated creators who marketed for FTX: Kevin has 1.85 million subscribers, Graham Stephan has 4.17 million, Minority Mindset has 1.46 million subscribers, Brian Jung has 1.21 million subscribers, Tom Nash has 283K subscribers, and Jeremy Lefevbre Financial Education has 721K subscribers. Andrei Jikh, who has 2.19 million subscribers, actively promoted FTX-connected BlockFi and promoted FTX with Graham Stephan, Meet Kevin, and Jeremy Financial Education as part of the previously removed Millennial Money channel.
Despite what some may claim, I personally tracked these accounts as they promoted FTX. At some point, they were all included on the Creators Agency website. When you look at the list of people who pushed FTX, you can see how far this confidence game has gone. It should be emphasised that several of these producers have since deleted their FTX-related work and that the Creators Agency’s clients did not want all advocate SBF’s products.
There are just too many people who promoted FTX to name them all. Other notable cryptocurrency-focused influencers and channels, such as Anthony Pompliano and Coin Bureau (with 486K and 2.18 million subscribers, respectively), supported FTX, albeit they may not be affiliated with Creators Agency. Pompliano invested in the bankrupt lending site BlockFi, which agreed to be acquired by FTX US.
The Creators Agency worked with some of the most viewed and prominent networks to publicise what could turn out to be one of the greatest financial crimes in history. In doing so, it aided Fried’s banker’s reputation as a selfless millionaire and FTX’s reputation as a secure bitcoin exchange.
Of course, neither FTX nor SBF could be trusted. However, money schemes only function if people believe in the hustle. This could explain why FTX paid so many social media influencers to repeat the same talking points—it gave a sense of safety while also promoting the very real dread of missing out. The psychological phenomenon known as the “mere exposure effect,” in which people are more inclined to believe something is genuine if it is repeated, may be exacerbated by the para-social ties formed on social media.
Contracts for YouTubers to promote FTX varied from $50,000 per month to hundreds of thousands of dollars per month and/or roughly $2,500 per video. These were pretty hefty costs for a 30-second mid-roll ad read. Given the quantity of influencers it works with and the cumulatively massive viewership, it’s possible that Creators Agency was able to drive up the price. Erika Kullberg once stated that she founded the firm because she believed creators were “underpaid.”
In the last year, I’ve made several films exposing these FTX swindlers and warning consumers that assets on these exchanges were dangerous. Clients of Creators Agency continued to pump FTX while receiving payments from SBF. Few declared their affiliation with the agency. Several posted videos to their admirers suggesting that FTX or its US affiliate, FTX.US, would be alright—even as they were on fire.
When it became evident that FTX.US was not in good standing, numerous people issued weak apologies. Within hours following FTX’s bankruptcy announcement, three creators—Minority Mindset, Graham Stephan, and Tom Nash—released apologetic videos that appeared to be read from the same script. It’s not a nice look.
These authors used funds stolen from FTX clients to promote a Ponzi scheme to their audience. Many of their viewers will lose everything or must wait years for pennies on the dollar to be restored.
Some YouTubers have attempted to absolve themselves of culpability by claiming that they just supported FTX.US, but this is a terrible defense. Every video promoted the FTX brand, and it’s likely that a large portion of a creator’s fan base was based outside of the United States. 20%–40% of viewers of the average YouTube video are from outside the United States. Bankman-Fried did not treat either exchange as a separate firm and appears to have commingled funds, putting users at risk regardless of which platform they signed up for.
Similarly, claiming that “everyone else was doing it” or “I’m awful at business” is not a valid defence. Many of these individuals act as financial experts while promoting what could be the greatest Ponzi scheme in history. Either they’re not the money gurus they claim to be, or they’re just plain greedy.
Let’s be honest: These aren’t nice people. Even when they aren’t selling FTX, many Creator Agency clients sell grifter classes à la Andrew Tate. As author Fred Schwed pointed out in his classic finance book “Where are the Customers’ Yachts?” if you’re sold an idea that would make you rich, you’re the product.
Obviously, no one should turn to YouTube as a moral compass. Tom Nash has admitted to using aliases and misrepresenting his credentials, whereas MeetKevin has received numerous DUI convictions and has drunk on camera while discussing investing, all while offering his courses through “Hustler’s University.” Andrei Jikh’s “Zero to a Million” course is selling well. Spencer Cornelia, an agency client and self-proclaimed internet sleuth, created films defending other clients and friends at the firm.
However, FTX’s advertisers might do a lot of good if they apologised in a way that acknowledged the hurt they may have caused others. Forget about plainly staged and phoney apology videos. If these folks actually care, they should return all of the money they received from FTX to the bankruptcy estate or donate it to charity.
YouTubers who promoted FTX betrayed their fans by prioritising extreme avarice over due diligence. People should not forgive or forget that the YouTubers from the Creators Agency used their viewers’ money to promote a Ponzi scam on an unregulated market.