A marketing group behind one of the most successful TikTok ad campaigns of all time is drawing scrutiny for its alleged ties to NXIVM, the so-called “sex cult” once led by Keith Raniere in upstate New York.
Geoffrey Goldberg and Evan Horowitz are the married co-founders of Movers+Shakers, a Brooklyn-based ad agency that has collaborated with brands like Netflix, Neutrogena, Tinder, and Arm + Hammer. They are perhaps best known for their work with makeup brand e.l.f., with whom they created hugely viral TikTok campaigns, such as 2019’s “Eyes Lip Face (e.l.f.)” trend, which was promoted by celebrities and influencers such as Reese Witherspoon, Lizzo, and Addison Rae.
Last month, Movers+Shakers was acquired by the communications company the Stagwell Group for $15 million, prompting headlines in advertising and marketing trade publications. Following the sale, whispers started circulating that Goldberg and Horowitz had previously been associated with NXIVM, the subject of the HBO documentary series The Vow. Such whispers culminated with a recently released report by e.l.f. investor Spruce Point Capital Management shorting the e.l.f. stock and detailing Goldberg and Horowitz’s alleged historical ties to the organization.
Goldberg and Horowitz deny any knowledge of wrongdoing within the organization. In a statement to AdAge, they said they were only involved with a “professional leadership training course” called the Executive Success Programs (ESP), a self-help program launched under the NXIVM umbrella, and that “when the shocking and abusive behavior by some of NXIVM’s leaders were revealed, we ceased our participation entirely.”
“We strongly condemn the abhorrent actions conducted by some of the leaders within NXIVM,” Goldberg and Horowitz told Rolling Stone through a representative. “We were not aware of or involved with these horrific acts, nor was our company. Our hearts go out to the individuals they hurt.” A representative for e.l.f. did not respond to a request for comment.
Led by Keith Raniere, a 63-year-old Albany man who referred to himself as “Vanguard,” NXIVM was a self-empowerment organization that was widely referred to in the media as a cult. In 2017, former members of NXIVM came forward to speak to the New York Times about their involvement with DOS, a secret sorority within NXIVM that required members to brand themselves with Raniere’s initials and provide “collateral,” such as nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves, for entry. Raniere was arrested in Mexico in March 2018 following reports that he was the leader of DOS, and in 2020 was sentenced to 120 years in prison on charges of racketeering and sex trafficking.
Based in Raniere’s “rational inquiry” method, ESP was a melange of hypnosis techniques, 1970s self-help programs, and the Ayn Rand-inspired ideology Objectivism. One former member previously told Rolling Stone she recognized some ESP tactics from the book Stress Management for Dummies.
ESP achieved some degree of popularity in the early 2000s, with executives and celebrities like Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk briefly taking courses. (Kreuk has denied having any further involvement with NXIVM, or knowing about “illegal or nefarious” activity.) Nearly 16,000 people took ESP courses throughout the program’s history, according to 2020 court documents obtained by Rolling Stone.
Many former NXIVM devotees have argued, however, that ESP provided a gateway for them to become further involved in the organization, and in a 2003 report on ESP, forensic psychiatrist John Hochman argued that the program used coercive “mind control” practices, resulting in followers acceding total control to Raniere. A federal lawsuit filed in court against Raniere, ESP, and other NXIVM leaders in 2020 also alleged that the organization “(drew) from methods used in pyramid schemes” to make it “financially, physically and psychologically difficult, and in some cases impossible, to leave the coercive community.”
According to an archived version of his website, Horowitz, who earned a MBA from Harvard Business School, enrolled in ESP in 2011. He was impressed enough by the company to apply “its revolutionary methodology” to his own company, Evan Horowitz Advising, per the archived “about me” section. “He now advises others using ESP’s proprietary system, so that more leaders may achieve greater personal fulfillment and accelerated impact on the world,” Horowitz’s bio read.
A source formerly involved with NXIVM who spoke with Rolling Stone says that Horowitz and Goldberg had some degree of authority in the organization, with Horowitz at one point earning a yellow sash with three stripes, allowing him to provide unpaid coaching services to other members of NXIVM. Horowitz appears wearing the sash with other alleged NXIVM members in a photo published on the investigative website the Frank Report. According to the timestamp on the Facebook photo, it was posted in Jan. 2018, a few months after the New York Times’ investigation into DOS, though it’s unclear when the photo was taken.
According to the former NXIVM member, who spoke with Rolling Stone on the condition of anonymity for fear of harassment from current members, Horowitz and Goldberg were also close to Smallville actress Allison Mack, a NXIVM devotee who pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy for her role in helping to lead DOS.
Goldberg, a former Broadway actor, dancer, and choreographer, also performed with Mack at “V” Week, the annual week-long celebration commemorating Raniere’s birthday, as seen in a YouTube video from the 2016 event at Silver Bay, which appears to show Goldberg singing backup for Mack. (“There is no relationship” between the couple and Mack, a source close to Movers+Shakers says.)
On Twitter, Mack alluded to her friendship with Goldberg multiple times, posting a link to one of his dance videos in 2014 with the caption, “So cool knowing this person is my friend. Yay Geoffrey!” Nicki Clyne, an actor and former DOS member, also tweeted about her relationship with Goldberg, posting in 2017, “either my friend @geoffreywithag is hilarious, or i just can’t stop laughing.” Both Mack and Clyne have since publicly disavowed Raniere’s teachings; Mack was sentenced to three years in prison in 2021, and was released earlier this year.
According to its website, Goldberg and Horowitz founded Movers+Shakers in 2016 after Goldberg posted a dance video on Facebook that went viral, garnering 30,000 views overnight. The video’s success prompted the two to see the potential to use “genius storytelling to produce fresh, standout marketing.” “As a brand, we’re always looking for a way to cut through the clutter and engage with somebody in a way that is unique,” Horowitz says in a promotional video for the agency on its website.
One of Movers+Shakers’ initial successes was a campaign with e.l.f. featuring the song “Eyes Lip Face (e.l.f.),” by iLL Wayno feat. Holla FyeSixWun, which was commissioned specifically for the partnership and massively trended on the platform in 2019. With its catchy refrain, “Do that thing with your eyes/let me see those lips/attitude and give me face/eyes, lips, face, wait,” the song racked up more than 7 billion views on TikTok. The result was “the most influential campaign on TikTok,” according to Adweek, earning Movers+Shakers the reputation of being “TikTok whisperers.”
A source familiar with Movers + Shakers says that Horowitz and Goldberg cut ties with NXIVM around 2016 or 2017, after the agency was founded, but prior to the massive success of the e.l.f. Campaign. There is evidence to suggest, however, that the men continued to associate with individuals associated with the group after that.
Horowitz, for instance, is listed as a character witness in for Dr. Brandon Porter, a NXIVM member who, between 2016 and 2017, conducted human fright experiments on approximately 40 subjects by showing them “a video depicting the actual murders and dismemberment of five women and movie scenes (from American History X and The Accused) showing a gang rape and a racially motivated murder of an African American male,” according to medical oversight board documents.
Between 2018 and 2019, Porter was the subject of a series of New York Department of Health hearings deliberating over whether his medical license should be revoked, due to various ethical violations associated with the studies. Horowitz was one of nine character witnesses for Porter, who were said to have “strong ties to (Porter) and NXIVM,” according to the documents. Porter was found to have violated 40 state and federal regulations and his medical license was revoked in 2019.
Goldberg and Horowitz also appeared to continue to have connections to Linda Chung, a Columbia Business School graduate and NXIVM devotee who frequently appeared in court during Raniere’s trial to support him. According to an archived version of Chung’s LinkedIn, she was employed by Movers+Shakers from January 2018 to May 2019 in a “business development” capacity, though she has since deleted this listing from her page.
Chung is currently listed as a member of the Dossier Project, a group consisting of six former members of DOS who continue to defend Raniere and the underlying principles of the organization. Its website refers to media coverage of DOS as “riddled with scandal, celebrities and sensation.” A source familiar with Movers+Shakers says Chung no longer has any involvement with the ad agency; Chung herself did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
Though many advertising and marketing media outlets have devoted coverage to Movers+Shakers, particularly in the wake of the massively successful e.l.f. campaign, none of the coverage mentioned the agency founders’ ties to NXIVM, prior to the Spruce Point Capital report being published last week. The report asserts that while there is no evidence that Goldberg and Horowitz continue to be involved with NXIVM, the company harbors “grave concerns about (e.l.f.’s) continuing brand equity given its business relationship with Movers+Shakers.” It goes on to suggest that e.l.f.’s association with Goldberg and Horowitz may run counter to the brand’s “practices in support of women’s rights and health concerns,” before shorting e.l.f.’s stock by estimating a 45 to 65 percent downside risk to its share price.
The report by Spruce Capital also points out apparent similarities between Movers+Shakers’ marketing materials and those previously used by Raniere. The most prominent example, according to a source formerly close to NXIVM and according to the Spruce Capital report, is the use of the word “joy” in Movers+Shakers’ mission statement, with Raniere frequently using the term in his teachings.
“When you look at their website it’s got all the same verbiage — spreading joy, etc.,” says the source who was formerly close to NXIVM. “To me it sounds like NXIVM people who have not been deprogrammed.”
Three former employees of Movers+Shakers, who also requested to be anonymous for fear of adverse reputational or professional effects, also confirmed that such terminology was frequently used in the company’s internal and external materials, to the degree that on Zoom calls, staff members would be asked to change their backgrounds to the slogan “Spread Joy.”
“There was definitely this overwhelming sense of, ‘we’re a family, we’re spreading joy, joy is at the core of everything we do,’” one former employee says. “(Joy) was truly shoved down our throats at every possible point.”
The former employees Rolling Stone spoke with said they became aware of Goldberg and Horowitz’s former ties to NXIVM a few months into their tenure there. In one case, the former employee found out via an all-hands meeting Goldberg and Horowitz held on Zoom in 2021: “they told us that they took self improvement classes from people who ended up being in a cult and that there was going to be a report about them,” the former employee said. “(It) wasn’t even that they were involved, just that they took classes from these people. And that was pretty much it.” (A source close to Movers + Shakers confirmed this meeting took place but did not provide further details about what was discussed on the call.)
The former employees who spoke with Rolling Stone also said that, after learning about Goldberg’s and Horowitz’s former association with NXIVM, they were struck by some of the apparent similarities between the internal corporate culture and the group after watching the HBO documentary series The Vow. They cited the grueling hours, the fear of alienating Goldberg and Horowitz, and the overwhelming sense of “toxic positivity” within the corporation as examples of such parallels. “I felt like all you could focus on was work and you didn’t want to upset Evan or Geoffrey,” one former employee says.
A source close to Movers+Shakers characterized the Spruce Point report as an attack on the agency, pointing out that the company regularly issues such reports on large companies in an effort to “manipulate a stock price for its own gain.” In response, Ben Axler, the founder of Spruce Point, tells Rolling Stone it “regularly investigates companies that we believe operate with questionable integrity and ethics,” noting its concerns about e.l.f. Were linked to NXIVM’s “treatment of women.” He added that Spruce Point is “regulated by the SEC to disclose our financial incentives while letting the public and investors decide how to hold the companies we target accountable.”
Despite Spruce Point’s apparent financial incentive in publishing the report, it prompted attention from social media armchair sleuths, with one TikTok by creator YouKnowNat pointing out the alleged connection between NXIVM, Movers+Shakers and e.l.f. garnering more than 115,000 views. Estee Laundry, a gossip account on Instagram focused on the beauty industry with more than 200,000 followers, also posted about the report.
Reactions to that post were mixed: “did y’all stretch before that reach?” a commenter wrote on Estee Laundry’s page, referring to the claim that e.l.f. and Movers+Shakers used similar language to NXIVM. One of the former employees who spoke with Rolling Stone agreed that it is a “stretch” to connect e.l.f.’s marketing campaign, or any of the other campaigns Movers+Shakers worked on, to any tactics used by NXIVM. They did point out, however, that they were disappointed with the way Goldberg and Horowitz had failed to, in their view, meaningfully engage with their past and publicly denounce Raniere and his teachings.
“In my mind, if you want to be a business leader and a marketing leader, you really need to have some kind of reconciliation with that part of your past,” the former employee said. “I think not publicly addressing it in a way that’s remorseful and separating them from what that was, just feels (half-assed) to me.”