Messy Michael Kassan Split With UTA Puts MediaLink Future in Question

Estimated read time 8 min read

News of a legal battle between advertising-industry impresario Michael Kassan and Hollywood talent giant UTA has the ad world assessing Kassan’s impact while speculating about whether MediaLink, the business he’s so synonymous with, can continue without him.

Ostensibly a media and marketing consultancy, MediaLink is best known for convening high-level executives for meetings and parties at events like Cannes Lions and the Consumer Electronics Show — with the larger-than-life Kassan always prominently center stage, hobnobbing with CEOs and celebrities. UTA acquired the company for $125 million in 2021, with the intention of marrying its roster of entertainment talent with MediaLink’s network of advertising clients.

But less than three years on, the partnership is headed for a messy divorce.

A UTA spokesperson said Tuesday Kassan was “terminated for cause” on March 7 “following a thorough and exhaustive third-party investigation into misappropriation of company funds.” The talent agency filed a lawsuit against him in the Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday, alleging constructive fraud, and breaches of a partner services agreement, fiduciary duty, and duty of loyalty.

Kassan’s attorney on Tuesday said he had filed his own claim with the Los Angeles Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, naming UTA and its CEO Jeremy Zimmer among the defendants and alleging they breached his contract by cutting his expense account and minimizing MediaLink’s role in overseeing UTA’s marketing division. The complaint, a copy of which was sent to Business Insider, claims Kassan wasn’t fired but instead resigned from MediaLink on March 6. Kassan is claiming breach of contract, fraud in the inducement, and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

Jeremy Zimmer at the Variety Cannes Lions Studio on June 20, 2023 in Cannes, France.

Jeremy Zimmer at the Variety Cannes Lions Studio on June 20, 2023, in Cannes, France.

Vianney Tisseau/Variety via Getty Images

MediaLink is deeply embedded in all aspects of the ad industry

MediaLink works with nearly every element of the media and marketing business — running agency reviews, providing consultancy to tech firms looking for customers and acquirers, headhunting C-suite execs, and linking publishers with advertisers. To some detractors, MediaLink’s tactics are described as like a “mafia” because it’s so deeply embedded and receives a paycheck from almost every part of the business. But Kassan, publicly at least, took that moniker as a compliment. “No conflict, no interest,” is Kassan’s motto.

Now, Madison Avenue is buzzing about whether the MediaLink mafia can continue without its Godfather.

“Half the value just walked out the door,” said Jon Miller, a veteran media executive who serves as CEO of Integrated Media, which specializes in digital media investments.

“It’s the end of MediaLink,” said an executive at a competitor firm to MediaLink, which expects to pick up business as a result of the UTA turmoil. “If there ever was a business that was completely tied to its CEO, it’s that.” The exec, like many people contacted for this story, asked for anonymity to speak freely on a sensitive situation or because they weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly.

A UTA spokesperson said MediaLink has a strong executive team in place that continues to carry the business forward. “There will not be any disruption for our clients,” the UTA spokesperson said. A spokesperson for MediaLink directed a request for comment to UTA.

Kassan’s attorney, Sanford Michelman of Michelman and Robinson, said in a statement that his client’s first priority is the success and continued growth of MediaLink.

“He looks forward to ensuring its continued success in the industry,” the statement said.

Michael Kassan

Michael Kassan.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Talent agencies are retrenching

UTA’s acquisition of MediaLink was one example of a long trend of talent agencies branching out to advertising services.

In 2013, it was Endeavor’s WME buying a 49% stake in Droga5 (which was later unloaded to consulting giant Accenture).

Before buying MediaLink, UTA already had a marketing arm, led by Julian Jacobs and David Anderson, which connects brands to Hollywood; it recently brokered a deal that put General Motors cars in Netflix shows, for instance. UTA also recently acquired JUV Consulting, an agency that helps marketers reach Gen Z.

“There was always the idea that if you have the connection to culture, you can extract a lot of money from Madison Avenue,” said a former creative agency CEO. “It’s just easier said than done.”

Lately, there are signs that the agencies are retrenching, however. WME is expected to sell non-core parts of its business after parent Endeavor said last fall that it was evaluating “strategic alternatives” for its assets. And the talent agencies have exited the content business to resolve a dispute with the Writers Guild of America.

After falling out with Kassan, UTA may think twice about buying another agency.

Who will run MediaLink now?

The media and ad industry will be watching to see what, if any, leadership changes UTA makes at MediaLink.

Kassan is 73 and was facing questions about his succession plans before this latest blow-up. A prior obvious natural successor, Kassan’s longtime right hand, Wenda Harris Millard, left in 2022. People familiar with the company were hard-pressed to come up with names of top lieutenants whose industry stature came close to matching Kassan’s. And the rift with UTA could complicate its ability to bring in outside talent to run it, should it try to do so.

One client noted that Kassan had built a strong bench of talent at MediaLink, and a former MediaLink executive said that while Kassan was a driving force behind the company winning new business, he wasn’t involved in most of the projects it works on.

As for what’s next for Kassan, speculation has run the gamut, with people imagining variously Kassan starting over on his own, settling with UTA, or buying his firm back. There’s also conjecture about the nature of the breakup between him and UTA head Zimmer, and whether there will be more juicy details to learn about Kassan’s alleged spending and the MediaLink acquisition agreement beyond what has already been reported.

Kassan has a loyal following, and it’s easy to imagine people giving him another chance, as they have done in the past. In 1999, he was fired by Western Initiative Media Worldwide, part of ad holding company Interpublic Group, after he sued the media buying company for $63.5 million, alleging breach of contract and defamation of character. The suit was settled. And in 1995, he was suspended from practicing law in California after a conviction for grand theft by embezzlement. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor and expunged from his record.

“It’d be easier for him to start MediaLink 2.0,” said Lou Paskalis, a former Bank of America marketer and the founder and CEO of AJL Advisory. “All of us are going to just move from MediaLink to whatever Michael’s new company is, because you’re buying Michael Kassan – Michael has access to the corridors of power that no one else in our industry does.”

The end of the ad industry schmoozefest?

MediaLink grew out of a time when mistrust between agencies and marketers was running high, and the media landscape was growing more complicated with the entry of tech giants. Over the years, the business of building community in the ad industry has attracted new players like Marc Sternberg’s Brand Innovators and Pttow, but they haven’t come close to supplanting MediaLink.

The tech companies have only gotten more powerful, and now AI is threatening to disrupt media buyers’ and sellers’ businesses even further. There still may be a place for connectors like Kassan. But agencies in particular are also frustrated about their reliance on MediaLink, especially because participating in the media agency reviews that MediaLink oversees comes at a high cost. One industry veteran said they saw Kassan’s exit as an opportunity to change how ad industry consultants operate and charge for services.

Kassan’s departure may mark the beginning of the end of the advertising industry schmoozefest. At the center of the dispute between UTA and Kassan is the MediaLink founder’s $950,000 annual expense account. Cannes Lions, where MediaLink is omnipresent, is the ultimate industry tentpole event, where deals are signed on yachts in the opulent setting of the French Riviera. MediaLink parties attracted big-name — and expensive — performers, from Lady Gaga to Elton John and Mariah Carey.

“Who else in the industry has the convening power of Michael Kassan?” said advertising industry veteran Rob Norman, the former global chief digital officer of WPP’s GroupM. “If you pull that bolt out, does the rest of it fall over? Then does it still matter to UTA?”

Correction: March 14, 2024 — An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that MediaLink had hosted a client dinner at South by Southwest this month. The reference has been removed.