Read Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) Online
Authors: Ken Auletta
A Google search for Michael Kassan finds mention of his felony conviction and near disbarment only if one is willing to scroll through many pages; his Wikipedia profile is silent about it. Understandably, it is something he would prefer not to dwell on, and yet it's never entirely gone from his thoughts. For much of his adult life since, he says, he has glanced up at the rearview mirror, fearing that he was being chased. His shame has remained dormant, but ever since there have been two Michael Kassansâthe cheerful charmer and the sinner. Most see Michael Kassan the successful optimist; few see the self-conscious man fearful that his humiliating past could somehow come back to haunt him.
Dennis Holt, who had been a law client of Kassan's, knew of his legal tribulations and in 1994 offered him an outstretched hand. Holt had founded Western International Media in 1970. At a time when agencies sold themselves as one-stop shopping places, offering clients a full range of creative, strategic, and media-buying services, Western successfully unbundled media buying. With thirty-seven offices and a thousand employees, Western became the world's foremost buyer of local TV, radio, and out-of-home advertising like billboards or supermarket promotions. “He was the equivalent of what Irwin Gotlieb is today,” standing atop the most powerful media agency, Kassan says. “He was the largest independent media agency in the world.” Holt says he chose to ignore Kassan's prior felony conviction. “I was the one who restored him,” Holt says. The business had outgrown Holt's managerial style, which was to personally sign every check. “We had gotten so big and did so many different things that I wasn't having
fun anymore,” Holt says. He was determined to hire Kassan. At Nate'n Al's in Beverly Hills, Holt looked him in the eye and said, “I'm not offering you a job. I'm offering you a life.” He was offering a way to regain his self-confidence, his swagger. Kassan's prime mission would be to sell Western. Within six months, Kassan succeeded, consummating a sale to the Interpublic Group, then the world's largest advertising holding company.
Kassan remained as president of the company for five years. By 1999, he was clashing with Holt, who had stayed on as chairman, as well as with senior executives at the parent company. Asked if Kassan did a good job, Holt did not answer for several seconds, then said “No,” adding, “he did a good job with the process of selling the company.” The clash with IPG became ugly. In August 1999, the firm locked Kassan out of his office and Kassan filed a $63.5 million lawsuit against them, alleging that IPG defamed him by claiming financial misconduct, and also breached his five-year employment contract. Days later the company announced that Kassan was “terminated.” IPG executives won't discuss the matter. Kassan will only say, “What I am allowed to say is we amicably resolved our differences.” Dennis Holt, who remained with the company until 2000, says, “IPG wanted to fire him many times, but I defended him,” a claim that causes Ronnie Kassan to roll her eyes. IPG was offended by Kassan's steep expenses, Holt says, including massages and charges on the New York City suite he maintained at the St. Regis hotel. Baloney, says Kassan's friend Irwin Gotlieb, who first got to know him as a Western competitor. Because Michael was paid a handsome annual bonus from IPG as part of his five-year payout from the sale of Western, his jealous IPG boss “wasn't the kind of guy who could watch someone else make a lot of money.”
The lawsuit was settled out of court, with IPG stating that it had conducted an audit and was satisfied there were no irregularities. But
for the second time in less than a decade, it wasn't “ALL GOOD” for Michael Kassan. “He was depressed,” Ronnie Kassan remembers. “We have a very close friend”ânow Cerberus Capital Management vice chair, Lenard B. Tesslerâ“who called Michael every day and said, âI'm calling you because I don't want you to think no one calls you.' Michael didn't want to go back to law. He just didn't know what he wanted to do.”
Another close friend, prominent attorney Howard Weitzman, who is known in Los Angeles as an attorney for Hollywood celebrities, had participated in the launch of a software digital rights business, Massive Media, and in late 1999 Kassan was recruited. Kassan was enthused about the media and marketing business and intrigued because he saw Massive Media as a vehicle to broaden his expertise. “It gave me exposure to what was happening in the digital sphere,” Kassan says. His task, Weitzman says, was to boost sales and help shape business strategy.
One of the other partners in the company, former Viacom CEO Frank Biondi, who had never met Kassan before, was impressed by him; Kassan struck him as “a huge personality.” Biondi was shaken when a lawyer friend phoned to say he was representing a potential investor that Kassan had approached, and when the lawyer did his due diligence he discovered that Kassan had been convicted of fraud and almost disbarred. Weitzman assured Biondi that Kassan was of good character. And Biondi says that for the first year Kassan did a good job. “But the firm needed to raise more money, and Michael volunteered to lead the raise. The Internet bubble had begun to burst.” The money dried up. “In the end, Michael was totally unsuccessful in raising funds. In fairness to him, I'm not sure God could have raised money at that point.”
“He was home a lot,” Ronnie Kassan says, and people would call seeking his advice. “Michael, why don't you charge them?” she asked him.
He listened to her.
Over the next three years he performed a variety of consulting jobs for companies in the U.S. and Europe, mostly smaller companies asking him to help them strategize and to connect them to other companies.
Kassan saw a void he could fill. The advertising and marketing world was in turmoil, soon to be disrupted by the Internet and digital upstarts like Google and Yahoo. Clients who paid for and media platforms that sold advertising sought guidance, but couldn't turn to agencies for neutral advice. Sellers wanted to be introduced to buyers, digital companies to brands. His experience with brands and media companies at Western and with digital companies at Massive Mediaâplus the insecurities of an industry seeking a life raft, plus his charm and connections and the three years he spent as a consultantâconvinced Kassan he could build a unique service company. He and MediaLink would serve as both a connector and a hand-holder.
He set out to recruit a financial partner to help him quickly scale the business, and thought the Hollywood talent agencies would be a natural fit. “I walked up Wilshire where the talent agencies were located with my hat in my hand,” he recalls. “I didn't need a job. My consulting business was doing well. But I wanted to do it with a team. The agencies gave me a lot of âYa, ya. No, no.'”
Undaunted, he launched MediaLink himself in 2003, expanding over time to perform an array of related functions. MediaLink's purpose, Kassan said, “was to provide adult supervision in the midst of chaos.” His friend Irwin Gotlieb sees a perfect match between a warm, capable personality and a frightened industry. “He knows everybody. My special talent is, you show me a number and I'll remember it forever. Introduce me to three people, and I will have forgotten their
names in five seconds. Michael will remember their names forever. He would be a natural politician.”
This time, Kassan monitored his appetite, growing MediaLink slowly. The fifth employee, Karl Spangenberg, was not hired until 2007. An experienced ad sales executive with a wide range of media and digital companies, Spangenberg says that when he was a senior marketing executive at AT&T he “hired Kassan and MediaLink to open doors for me.”
A New York office with a creaky freight elevator and little furniture was opened in 2008. Kassan gained a measure of fame when he was hired by Microsoft in 2008 to galvanize the digital community in opposition to Google making a search deal with Yahoo, and succeeded.
“When Wenda joined in 2009, the business exploded,” Spangenberg says. Wenda Millard's rÃ©sumÃ© displays the laurels of thirty-five years of traditional publishing and digital media jobs, including publisher of
and group publisher of
magazines; chief sales officer for six years at Yahoo when that company was an Internet darling; and chief Internet officer at Ziff Davis Media and executive vice president of DoubleClick. She had also chaired the Interactive Advertising Bureau and was former president of the Advertising Club of New York. Millard and Kassan had known each other for years. When he approached her she was president and co-CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, a company whose mercurial owner could be unsettling. Like Kassan, Millard knew most people in the business. Unlike him, she was fastidiously well organized. She mentioned that she was about to leave as co-CEO of Martha Stewart and was thinking of setting up her own marketing consultancy.
“Don't do that,” he exclaimed. “We might end up as competitors. Let's do this together and have some fun.” He then owned 100 percent of MediaLink, and offered her one-third ownership and the title
of president and COO. He gave her the pitch: “MediaLink lives where Madison Avenue meets Silicon Valley, meets Hollywood, meets Wall Street. We live at that nexus.” She was intrigued, though some of her friends were not. One close friend says she told Millard she thought his slickness didn't mesh with her sincerity, and mentioned a vague recollection of a rumor that some people in the industry whispered: Wasn't he once convicted of something?
Millard signed on. Their sail has not always been smoothâthey are indeed opposites in many ways, but measured by growth and reach, their partnership has been a success. Together, by the spring of 2017 they supervised 120 or so employees; most work with assigned clients in several divisions. Data & Technology Solutions under managing director Matt Spiegel, a digital entrepreneur who was Omnicom Media Group's global digital CEO, advises companies on a range of technological solutions they might pursue, from programmatic advertising to AI to cybersecurity. If clients want to meet key people at Google, Kassan will help introduce them. When Unilever, one of MediaLink's initial clients, was their first client to ask, seven years ago, for a tour of Silicon Valley, Kassan arranged it, including visits with Google, Facebook, and Twitter. “We were keen to understand what was going on,” Unilever's Keith Weed says. “I'm a great believer in what Woody Allen once said: âEighty percent of success is just showing up.'” Unilever, the world's second largest advertiser, is today one of Google and Facebook's biggest advertisers.
Marketing Optimization under managing director Lesley Klein, a former account director at Deutsch, offers consultation to companies on an ongoing basis; it is an influential part of MediaLink's business, for it provides a client base. Potential start-up clients usually are courted by Kassan. Once signed on, they pay a monthly retainer that can range from $35,000 to several hundred thousand dollars per month; more established companies spend more time with Kassan and
pay per project or place MediaLink on an ongoing retainer. The ninety-one clients serviced at the Cannes Lions Festival in 2016, for example, may already have been on retainer, or may have been billed just for this service. The Marketing Optimization division offers strategic or organizational advice, introduces them to people or ideas that might transform their business, and helps negotiate agency contracts. Lesley Klein and senior vice president Bernhard Glock also orchestrate the agency reviews for brand companies. The initial sales pitch is usually made by Kassan.
Business Acceleration, which each division has a hand in, services a bevy of traditional media clients like Hearst, the
New York Times
Wall Street Journal
, CondÃ© Nast, Time Inc., Comcast, and NBCUniversal. They turn to MediaLink to help devise a corporate growth strategy and to make them more visible by arranging meetings, or to consult by coming in and doing what a McKinsey would and help devise a corporate reorganization, as MediaLink did for CondÃ© Nast. “We advise these companies on chaos,” Kassan says. Like many traditional print companies, “they need to reimagine themselves as a media and not a print company. We try to help them reimagine their business.” Meredith Levien, executive vice president and chief revenue officer of the New York Times Company, says, “The landscape is complicated, and MediaLink helps us get in front of the right people.” Senior vice president Howard Homonoff, a former PricewaterhouseCoopers and NBCU executive who is part of this division, says their work can get pretty granular. Clients naturally fret about the speed of change and say to him, “âHelp me look at the next three to five years and help me define what it will look like and what are the best ways for me to succeed and grow in new areas. What are the new forms of advertising? And help me think through who my acquisition targets or partners might be.'”
A similar function is performed for digital publishing companies grouped in the Emerging Media division, which advises clients like
Twitter or Refinery29 on strategic and marketing issues. This division is overseen by managing director Sunil Kapadia, a former Silicon Valley software engineer and Boston Consulting Group executive. Philippe von Borries, the cofounder of Refinery29, described what Kassan does for a smaller company like his that hopes to bust out: “Michael is the great connector. We think of Michael as an adviser, someone who has the ear of everyone in this space, connecting us to brands, media companies, platforms.”
A fifth division, the Investor Strategy group, is supervised by managing director JC Uva, a former investment banker. It serves clients who want to explore an acquisition or investment, including corporations, private equity firms, hedge funds, and venture capitalists, as Disney asked MediaLink how it would affect their family-friendly brand if they invested in Vice Media. Without identifying Disney, MediaLink called twenty-five of their clients and asked if an established media company partnered with “an edgy” company like Vice, would it help or harm the established brand? MediaLink is often asked by clients whether to buy a company outright; whether MediaLink should act like a venture capital firm and invest its own money in emerging companies; or whether MediaLink should accept stock in a start-up in exchange for its services. In performing these roles, JC Uva says MediaLink competes with consultants like McKinsey, and sometimes investment bankers or venture capitalists. Because of their breadth of experience and contacts in advertising, marketing, and the tech space, “our advantage is that we have more detailed information.”