Advertisement

Hollywood Brawl Intensifies: Michael Kassan Plots New Venture as Insiders Weigh MediaLink’s Future Without Founder

MediaLink founder and CEO Michael Kassan is determined to set up a new company to take on the juggernaut consultancy he built now that he is out at United Talent Agency, he told TheWrap.

But whether he will be able to do that is at the heart of the bitter dispute between UTA and the powerhouse strategic adviser.

UTA, led by CEO Jeremy Zimmer, is accusing Kassan of “wasting millions of UTA’s dollars” and says Kassan has a noncompete for two years, while Kassan’s lawyer says that doesn’t hold because he quit — freeing him to poach clients and employees from the Hollywood agency.

“I didn’t walk away from $10 million in severance, I walked away from Jeremy’s hope I would be beholden to a noncompete,” Kassan told TheWrap as he boarded a private plane to Cabo San Lucas late Thursday. “Whatever I decide to do next will be successful, it will deliver high value to the clients and the community I love to serve, and I’ll be doing it with a martini in my hand, I promise you that.”

The 150 staffers of MediaLink, a powerful strategic consulting firm, will stay at UTA unless they leave with Kassan, one UTA insider told TheWrap. “There are four or five managing directors at the company who are being groomed to take Michael’s position,” the insider said. “We’re going to be fine without him.”

Some of Kassan’s friends told TheWrap that the mogul has been stoic about the split from UTA, which they say exploded after he and Zimmer had a fundamental disagreement over management style.

Kassan has denied charges that he misappropriated UTA funds and filed his own lawsuit on Wednesday accusing UTA and Zimmer of breach of contract after the $125 million marriage of the two companies soured.

Whatever I decide to do next will be successful…and I’ll be doing it with a martini in my hand.

Michael Kassan

News of Kassan’s exit — his team says he resigned a day before UTA fired him — has rocked the advertising and media world because of his popular profile and deep connections in media, advertising, tech and entertainment.

He has received messages of support from a host of business leaders including Omincom CEO John Wren; Carolyn Everson, the former global ad chief for Facebook; and even Martin Sorrell, the British founder of WPP Plc, the world’s largest advertising and public relations group, one person close to Kassan told TheWrap.

The Lew Wasserman of media consultancy?

Without Kassan leading MediaLink at UTA, the future of the agency is uncertain, a handful of industry insiders told TheWrap, especially if prominent MediaLink clients decide to desert the Hollywood agency to follow Kassan to his next venture.

“MediaLink without Michael, my own opinion is I don’t think it will prosper,” Wren said. “That’s how important he is to it. He’s unique.”

Wren compared Kassan to Lew Wasserman, the legendary studio head and talent agent. “What Lew Wasserman was to the talent business, Michael is to the media consultancy business,” he said. “The success that MediaLink had is attributable to the relationships that he has.”

Kassan has a “unique skill of matching people who have a particular need and putting them in contact with somebody that they may be able to work with in resolving that need. That’s his magic dust,” he added.

WPP Chief Executive Sir Martin Sorrell (L) and Michael Kassan in 2015
WPP Chief Executive Martin Sorrell and Michael Kassan in 2015 (D Dipasupil/Getty Images for AWXII)

MediaLink boasts clients from AT&T, Salesforce, General Motors, Adobe and a plethora of ad agencies and holding companies.

Wren and other industry figures told TheWrap that the dispute over Kassan’s spending seems out of proportion compared to his importance to MediaLink.

UTA’s lawsuit alleges that Kassan “has run rampant” with his “special expenses” budget, which pays him up to $950,000 a year after taxes, to fund a “lavish personal lifestyle…with the goal of leaving no trace behind.”

The agency also claims in its complaint that Kassan “spent hundreds of thousands on private airfare for his entire family for trips that [he] acknowledges were personal in nature and had no rational business purpose.”

The idea that UTA has four or five executives they could stick into Michael’s shoes, I say good f–ing luck with that.

Ad industry veteran Lou Paskalis

UTA retained law firm Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, which obtained Kassan’s flight manifests and allegedly found that some of the private jet flights were actually for family vacations to locations including Cabo, Westhampton, NY, and Europe with no clients on board, according to one UTA insider.

Kassan and his wife, who had a MediaLink credit card, also showered gifts over staffers and clients including Universal Music Group Chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge, another person close to Kassan told TheWrap.

UTA’s lawsuit also says that in 2023 Kassan used nearly $500,000 in company funds to pay off his personal credit card debt. “In short, Kassan erased any line between his personal and business expenses,” the suit adds.

The marriage between MediaLink and UTA, which stemmed from UTA’s purchase of Kassan’s firm from Ascential Plc in 2021 for $125 million, appeared doomed from the start. Kassan agreed to the deal with the stipulations he would be paid a $2 million base salary, get the special expenses budget, be named a UTA partner while retaining his MediaLink CEO title, and be given a high-profile role running UTA’s entertainment and marketing group.

But once he arrived at UTA, according to Kassan’s suit, the agency’s marketing heads, Julian Jacobs and David Anderson, were promoted so they didn’t have to bow to his authority.

MediaLink turned a profit for the agency, earning $16.5 million in 2023 according to a source close to Kassan. A UTA insider responded that the talent agency makes “more than 10 times that much in a year.”

Media and advertising executives express support for Kassan

Michael Kassan and Carolyn Everson in 2021.
Michael Kassan and Carolyn Everson in 2021. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Many in the advertising and media world say MediaLink clients are shocked by Kassan’s departure. He would be impossible to replace, said former Facebook ad chief Carolyn Everson.

“When you have somebody that is as well regarded, well-known, connected in the industry as the pinnacle….that’s hard to overcome,” said Everson, who now sits on the boards of Walt Disney Company, Coca-Cola, and Under Armour. “I’ve got to imagine that there’s a lot of dialogue going on with clients. Should we continue with the business we were going to do with MediaLink? How does it change? This isn’t what we signed up for. You cannot underestimate the enormity of the change to have Michael not be part of MediaLink.”

Everson expressed doubts about UTA’s allegations against him. “The way I look at it is he was very clear when he did the deal that he had a special expense account exactly for $950,000,” she said. “And so to now rake him over the coals and try to destroy his reputation and question his integrity over something that was actually disclosed, it is just wrong.”

Jon Miller, the former CEO of digital media at NewsCorp and the current CEO of TPG-backed investment firm Integrated Media Co., also questioned the nature of the split: “I don’t get this as a business issue, UTA paid $125 million for that company,” Miller said. “And I got to tell you, I don’t know what it’s worth without Michael.”

Miller added that he believed UTA’s move to cut Kassan was part of a trend where Hollywood agencies are being forced to retrench while feeling the pressure to reduce costs following the strikes and challenging economic headwinds. In the back half of 2023, both UTA and CAA underwent layoffs.

Can Kassan really move on?

UTA counsel Bryan Freedman insists that Kassan cannot simply move on and start a new business. “Kassan was fired for cause for stealing millions of dollars from UTA,” Freedman told TheWrap, insisting that Kassan is still bound by a noncompete. “For him or anyone else to talk of a $10 million severance or setting up a new business is delusional.”

Kassan “abused his position” to circumvent the company’s control processes that ensure expense funds are properly accounted for, Freedman said. “He ignored repeated requests to explain and provide documentation for his expenses.”

Sanford Michelman, Kassan’s attorney, insists the circumstances of his exit — including turning down the $10 million separation agreement — mean the exec can fully compete with MediaLink, which means luring away clients and former MediaLink employees.

“Their agreement spells out that Michael can waive his severance in exchange for the right to solicit current MediaLink clients, current MediaLink employees and fully compete,” Michelman said.

[Kassan] may be the connector, and people may like him a lot, but it is those teams under him that do the real work.

An entertainment industry executive

Ad industry veteran Lou Paskalis also has doubts that MediaLink could continue without Kassan and believes UTA has thrown away its investment in the company.

“When UTA purchased MediaLink, they were really purchasing Michael Kassan’s access to the senior people in the marketing industry,” Paskalis told TheWrap.

Paskalis, founder and CEO of marketing consulting firm AJL Advisory LLC, said letting Kassan go “was an error in judgment” and that everybody in his business circle remains squarely behind the MediaLink founder.

He predicted UTA would try to operate MediaLink for the next 18 months without Kassan. “But I think eventually UTA will take a writedown on the asset and incorporate the MediaLink talent into the broader company,” Paskalis said. “UTA slammed the door in their own face with this really immature move … It could not have been handled worse.”

Paskalis compared Kassan to the “Pulp Fiction” fixer The Wolf, played by Harvey Keitel in the 1994 film. “The idea that UTA has four or five executives they could stick into Michael’s shoes, I say good f–king luck with that,” he said.

But other industry insiders insist MediaLink could continue without connector-in-chief Kassan because the firm boasts teams of experienced consultants.

One former entertainment advertising executive who has worked with MediaLink said the company has a significant practice in strategy consulting for media aside from Kassan’s relationships. “They’ve built a brand based on their competency and their work, which really goes to the credit of the teams and their leaders,” the former executive said. “If UTA continues to invest in that side of the business and retains those leaders, they’re going to have a bright future.”

A second industry insider and executive agreed. “It is an insult to MediaLink’s talented teams of marketing experts to suggest that the company is solely built on Michael Kassan,” this person said. “He may be the connector, and people may like him a lot, but it is those teams under him that do the real work. And it is very hard to set up a new company if you are in active litigation.”

Yet few doubt that Kassan will push to get back in the game – soon. One friend joked, “Michael is saying sarcastically he will be back on the Croisette at Cannes Lions in June 2024 with a martini and, after all this drama, his new company: MediaStink.”

The post Hollywood Brawl Intensifies: Michael Kassan Plots New Venture as Insiders Weigh MediaLink’s Future Without Founder appeared first on TheWrap.