Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) (8 page)

Sometimes MediaLink, or just Kassan and Millard, have invested their own money and made a financial killing. Kassan as a personal investor and MediaLink in its role as strategic adviser were paid a bounty for steering the sale of two longtime clients—Maker Studios, a producer of digital video content, to Disney for $700 million, and Buddy Media, a company that creates an advertising infrastructure
across social media platforms, to Salesforce.com for $850 million. “Our role in that space,” Kassan explains, “has been enhanced because we are, fortunately, a very credible resource for people who have businesses that are premised on advertising as one of the primary revenue sources. It is good to have someone who is not just a banker but who can validate the business opportunities.”

A sixth division, the [email protected] group, performs a headhunting function for clients looking to fill positions, be they brands, publishing platforms, digital and traditional companies, or agencies. “We started seven years ago for GE,” Kassan recalls. They had advised the company on how to reorganize its global branding and marketing division, and the CMO, Beth Comstock, deputized MediaLink to lead the search to fill two new jobs. The next year, he says, “They wanted to build a Digital Centers of Excellence. What would it look like? Who would they hire? They wanted to ask Spencer Stuart. We said, ‘No, we'll do it.' Now executive search is almost fifteen percent of our business.” MediaLink has several advantages, he says. One, because his company is enmeshed in the industry, they offer “a scouting report from someone who has played shortstop while the other guy was at second base. We've done double plays together.” Two, because they often do strategic work for the same company, MediaLink has a leg up on their strategy and what best fits their corporate culture. And third, they earn gratitude. “It gives us an unfair advantage because often we're placing someone who becomes our client.”

By early 2017, managing director Laurie Rosenfield, an experienced recruiter who has held executive positions at CBS, TiVo, and 20th Century Fox and who reported to Wenda Millard, says that she and her ten-member team were engaged in fifty executive searches. When the 4A's on behalf of ad agencies in late 2016 sought a replacement for President and CEO Nancy Hill, who chose to retire from her $700,000-a-year job, they retained MediaLink. Jack Haber, longtime Colgate
marketing chief who retired in 2016, was startled that MediaLink's intelligence network provided an early warning system that reached into his organization. “One day,” he says, “my global VP of Marketing resigned. MediaLink already knew. They said, ‘We have a list.'”

Another division, Market Visibility, is overseen by managing directors Brett Kassan Smith, Michael's daughter, an experienced marketing and public relations executive, and Lena Petersen, who hails from the advertising agency world. Many of these divisions overlap at various points, but this one takes the lead in the promotional or connector role, including getting iHeartMedia or GroupM to invest in MediaLink events at Cannes or the CES, recruiting speakers for ad agency panels at conferences, making sure that the clients who come to Cannes or CES have scheduled meetings with agencies and brands. When Michael Kassan got Universal Music to gift Lady Gaga to perform at MediaLink's CES party in 2016, it was Brett Kassan who had to intervene to halt her father from violating the fire code by inviting more guests. Her group, more than the others, performs the convener function.

■   ■   ■

Kassan himself is,
of course, the ultimate convener at MediaLink.

Michael Roth, CEO of IPG, starts laughing when he describes Kassan as a “matchmaker,” and offers this example: “We hire him on a consulting basis. Or sometimes he wants us to sponsor one of his events, and he'll call me up and tell me, ‘John [Wren, CEO of Omnicom] and Martin [Sorrell] are going to do it. Are you going to?' Then he calls John and Martin and says ‘Roth is going to do it.' Then we'll all meet at the event and say, ‘Why the fuck are we doing this?'”

One gets a sense of Michael Kassan, connector, watching him confer with his chief of stuff, Martin Rothman, on the leased six-seat NetJet as it leaves Miami after a 4A's conference in April 2016. They
review a draft presentation he had dictated and the staff honed, which he's to present to a client the next day, suggesting how the client should market itself and what new media efforts it should undertake. “One of the questions the client asked,” Kassan says, “is how do we benchmark against what our competitors are doing?” He smiles. Of course, he doesn't say that “some of the competitors are also our clients.” Nor, he adds, do they share information with any of them. They review a list of potential speakers he will recruit to attend client Alan Patricof's Greycroft Partners annual June conference in Montauk. They review a staff-drafted memo to a bevy of clients for his signature. They review and he prioritizes from a long list of phone calls he needs to make, and breakfast, lunch, cocktails, and dinners he needs to schedule. Although Rothman lives in New York, when Kassan is in Los Angeles or traveling elsewhere, he is usually at his side, taking notes at his meetings, briefing Kassan before his hundred or so daily phone calls, listening in on them and taking notes, and being copied on what he describes as up to five hundred “actionable e-mails” Kassan receives daily.

Kassan's day is usually broken up into somewhere between five- and twenty-minute increments, and it begins around 7:40
A.M.
and ends every day before or after dinner. Every meeting has a purpose, an action. “The only thing Michael has is his time,” says Grant Gittlin, his first chief of stuff and today MediaLink's chief execution officer. Kassan is overwhelmed by a torrent of e-mails, calls, meetings, he says. “You get to a point where you're so busy it's hard to actually delegate. Having someone who can listen in lets him play jazz” while the chief of stuff takes notes and follows up. “My job was to be the steady rhythm man.” Of course, playing jazz is instinctual, improvisational. Kassan often drives his coworkers mad as he flits from meeting to meeting, subject to subject, unable to sit down for a meeting or to allow them to
pry a definitive answer from him. “Michael invented ADD,” Millard says. “It is very difficult for him to focus on any one issue”—until he has to, she adds. Even his beloved Ronnie remembers how angry she was with him in August 2015, when they rented a home in the Hamptons. “The first two weeks in August he left me in the Hamptons and worked in New York.” When they rented a house in the Hamptons the following summer, she issued an ultimatum: “I made a deal with him. If he went to New York City I would fly back to LA.”

Kassan's network of relationships grants him immense power. He is advertising's Dolly Levi, the matchmaking lead character in the musical
Hello, Dolly!
, whose score he loves to hum. When Wendy Clark was being wooed by Omnicom to leave Coca-Cola and become North American CEO of DDB, she says he negotiated her contract, serving as “my attorney, my counsel,” and would take not a penny. “I have only paid MediaLink one time, when I was at Coca-Cola and he arranged an executive tour at CES,” she says. Facebook's Carolyn Everson says of him, “He's kind of like the Godfather of this industry. When Michael likes you and respects you, you become part of his family. He treats me like his niece. He invited me to his first grandson's bris.” Dana Anderson, former senior vice president and CMO of Mondelēz, who joined MediaLink as its CMO in mid-2017, still marvels how with just two days' notice he was able to deliver Kim Kardashian to a Mondelēz gathering.

While few fail to mention Kassan's charm and intelligence as reasons for his success, Rishad Tobaccowala of Publicis has known Kassan for many years and offers this explanation of his power: “What he has managed to do is to play on all sides of the party. I don't know how he did it, but hats off. I would feel somewhat squirrelly because I wouldn't know whether I could trust you. But what he has basically done is become a sort of synapse of the industry. And so now people are very scared that if they don't pay him they will lose something. No
one opposes him, and the reason no one opposes him is because he runs pitches like the Bank of America agency pitch.” This feeds into Tobaccowala's underlying explanation for Kassan and MediaLink's power: “This industry is full of deeply insecure people who don't know what is happening and are buying hedges.” Over the years, when agencies discussed with Kassan the possibility of acquiring MediaLink and mentioned that under them it would be a conflict for MediaLink to conduct agency reviews, Kassan knew that would neuter MediaLink, because agencies would no longer fear what he whispered in the ear of advertisers. Often, he is retained by agencies as well as advertisers and platforms that sell ad space. Tim Andree, executive chairman and executive vice president of Dentsu's operations outside Japan, said his agency retained MediaLink for certain projects. So too, chimes Havas CEO Yannick Bolloré, does his agency.

Veteran advertising observer Jack Myers, chairman of MyersBizNet, which provides a steady stream of marketing and other data to companies, says of Kassan, “Michael is a maestro at convincing people they can't do business without him. He is the most powerful of the power brokers in that business. No one comes close.” Bob Pittman, chairman and CEO of iHeartMedia, the largest radio company in the U.S., likens him to nineteenth-century Chinese compradors, who built trading bridges to the West. Les Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS, describes him as “a wheeler-dealer” who “represents everybody. He was always a player, but in the last six, seven, eight years he's definitely become a power broker.” Kassan regularly solicits CBS executives under Moonves, suggesting they meet one of his clients. “He's a little slick. But he gets stuff done,” Moonves says.

What surprises people is how little muscular competition MediaLink confronts. Beth Comstock of GE says, “I am shocked that MediaLink doesn't have more competition.” Yes, there are individuals like Shelly Palmer, whose Strategic Advisors serves advertising clients,
distributes a regular and smart blog post, and arranges tours and meetings at confabs like CES. But he lacks size. “No one else has scaled it,” Irwin Gotlieb says. “You can't scale if you're just an individual. What Michael did most successfully was he expanded from a one-man operation.” There are consultancies that headhunt or advise on management, but these are siloed efforts. After operating largely uncontested since 2003, MediaLink benefits from network effects.

Michael Kassan has his critics, though the fiercest criticism is usually volunteered only after the critic is guaranteed anonymity. “MediaLink is like the Mafia. You pay them for protection,” the CEO of one tech firm who retained them says. “I used to pay them twenty thousand dollars per month during year one. Year two went up to twenty-five thousand per month. At first I'd meet with Michael and Wenda. Then you're dealing with a kid. . . . You pay them money so you can go to their CES party. I no longer pay so I'm no longer invited.” Kassan counters, “Only clients are invited.” Aghast at what he sees as the contradiction between where advertising is heading and the P. T. Barnum character that Michael Kassan represents, one digital executive fumes, “We have an industry that says we are moving from art to science, away from the hucksterism and legerdemain of the last two centuries and into the era of definable return on investment that can identify who watched an ad and whether it registered a sale. And who is the character that is the connective tissue for the entire industry? It's a guy who is all legerdemain and hucksterism.”

This harsh critique dovetails with another criticism sometimes lodged against Kassan: that he blows smoke at people, too eager to be everybody's friend. When he conducts interviews onstage, as he does at confabs like Advertising Week, CES, and Cannes, he asks knowledgeable questions but only after unashamedly lacquering his guests with praise, telling the audience that Bob Pittman's rebranding of
iHeartMedia, which, he fails to mention, has to pay down huge debts and through the end of 2016 lost money over twenty-seven consecutive quarters, is “a great story.” He usually spares his real or potential clients uncomfortable but essential questions, as when he interviewed Les Moonves in Cannes and did not ask if he would support a merger of CBS and Viacom and whether he yearned to become CEO of the new entity, as the controlling shareholder, the Redstone family, desired.

There are several ways to look at Kassan's ingratiating manner. One, as the critic who compared him to P. T. Barnum does, is to label him a bullshit artist. Two, as his friend Howard Weitzman does, who when told that Kassan reached out and recently invited to dinner his nemesis, Dennis Holt, said, “I'm not sure I would have done that. Michael sees the good in people, and sometimes ignores the bad. He's a generous person.” Like Weitzman, Ronnie Kassan would not have gone to dinner with Dennis Holt. She agrees that her husband is a generous soul. But she adds this twist, which she means as a loving observation that others may interpret differently: “Michael has got some insecurities. He really wants to be liked.”

The other criticism aimed at Kassan centers on MediaLink's perceived conflicts of interest. How, critics wonder, can Kassan represent companies that are rivals—Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, or Disney, 21st Century Fox, and NBCU, or both buyer and seller—and wall off information from each side? How can Kassan personally invest in companies—Maker Studios, or marketing companies like Buddy Media—without being tempted to urge his brand clients to divert ad dollars to them? How can he represent all sides in a negotiation—the buyer of ads (the client and the agency) and the seller (the publisher or platform)?

Those who deal with Michael Kassan acknowledge his charm. Armies of friends attest to his capacity for friendship and loyalty. And
as to his alleged conflicts of interest, Kassan likes to say, “No conflict, no interest.” Even when he represents clients on opposite sides of the same table, he says, “our special sauce” is that they trust MediaLink not to betray them or their information. Although his is an unusual definition of neutrality, he insists he is “transparent” because everyone at the table knows he represents both parties. “We really do represent everyone. We're so conflicted that we're not conflicted anymore. There's an old joke about the lawyer who used to say, ‘Two clients in a category is a conflict, three is a specialty.'” He laughs, charmingly.

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