Michael Kassan is all business— and business is good. “Can you hold on for one second?” he tells this reporter, as his other phone line rings. With perfect timing, he jokes, “This is Hollywood; it could be a bigger name.”
A big name calling would hardly be a surprise. Kassan has one of the deepest Outlook Contacts boxes in advertising and media. Rare is the big industry event he doesn’t attend.
But while he’s well known among insiders, some might be unfamiliar with Kassan’s wideranging M.O. MediaLink, where he serves as chairman and CEO, operates in four areas: management consultancy, branded entertainment, media advisory and regulatory work. That makes Kassan, in a phrase, the ultimate mobilizer.
It also makes him the perfect refl ection of his company—and explains MediaLink’s success. “He encapsulates in one person, and in one company, all the things you’d normally find from fi ve or six sources,” says Scott Donaton, CEO of Interpublic’s branded entertainment unit, Ensemble, in which Kassan is a partner. “His real value is his ability to see the bigger picture by dealing across networks with brands, creative agencies and media agencies and lawmakers. He has the 30,000-foot view of the landscape.”
And after years of running MediaLink as a nimble operation, Kassan now seems poised to take the business wider, and he’s assembled an all-star team for the effort. Wenda Harris Millard, perhaps best known as the former Yahoo ad-sales chief and president of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, is now president and COO. Soon after joining MediaLink, Millard was then drafted by News Corp. to sort out the adsales operation at its MySpace unit.
Last December, Kassan also recruited Jeffrey Cole, then the director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, to serve as a senior advisor. And in late January, Kassan signed Sandy Grushow, former Fox TV Group head of entertainment, as chief creative officer. With Kassan, they all help manage a lengthy MediaLink client list that includes Microsoft, AT&T, GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever, Revlon, Viacom and NBCU.
One sphere of growth for MediaLink is in advising private equity companies that “made investments in firms that are now troubled,” Kassan explains. “At the time, these assets made sense, but people are asking, ‘How do we fix those?’ We built a team of quant jocks who can build financial models.” Kassan hopes to bring a leader on board for that area soon as well.
The firm is also a player in branded entertainment. “We’re advisors to Fremantle and Shine/ Reveille on how you should engage better and smarter with the ad industry,” he says. “We’re not a maître d’. We know how to cook the food.”
Regarding regulatory issues, Kassan helped kill a possible Google deal with Yahoo on search. Microsoft drafted Kassan, who was relentless in his efforts to build support for the initiative; he pushed the Association of National Advertisers to get members on board to prevent consolidation.
It’s no surprise, then, that Kassan still describes himself as a lawyer at heart. He started off specializing in tax law and later rose to head International Video and Entertainment, which later became Artisan. While at media agency Initiative, he oversaw the firm’s sale to its current owner, Interpublic Group. His own biggest challenges now are “matching client upside and agency upside, and managing the procurement of it all.” As a former head of Initiative, Kassan says it’s important to make sure procurement officers don’t become the lead violin: “Wholesale doesn’t always mean good.”
Kassan, who perhaps not surprisingly is reading Ken Auletta’s latest book, Googled, describes the ideal work/life balance as something split into three buckets: family, work and community. His geographic location is also split in thirds, between Los Angeles, New York and London.
Wherever he is, Kassan’s mobilizing efforts continue to add to his caché and infl uence. “In times of economic chaos, we’re fi nding our brand of adult supervision to be at a premium,” he says. Media- Link does much work on behalf of clients eager to get their agencies to work together: “We bring an unbiased approach to the conversation.”
Chairman and CEO, MediaLink
J.D., UCLA, 1972; post-graduate studies, NYU School of Law, 1976
Partner, Kassan, Kurtz and Cutrow, 1975-1985; International Video and Entertainment/Artisan Entertainment, president/CEO, 1985-1987; counsel, Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro, 1987-1992; Western International Media/Initiative, various posts including president/COO, 1992-1999; current position since 2000
b. Dec. 11, 1950; married to Ronnie; son Alex, 32, daughter Brett, 31, son Adam, 29