Michael Kassan, Ad World’s Ultimate Fixer, Faces Broken Down Relationship With UTA

To know Michael Kassan is to know the people in his Rolodex. At least, that’s the promise.

The Madison Avenue impresario, who once ran a media-buying operation and parlayed his experience there into a role as the ultimate go-between among ad agencies, big-spending clients and the media outlets that crave them, finds himself — at least for now — without a base of operations.

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In an explosive arbitration filing that surfaced Tuesday, Kassan alleged UTA, which snatched up his marketing consultancy, MediaLink, for $125 million in late 2021, had undermined the business since his arrival. Executives including UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer and the newly-christened New York chief Julian Jacobs “secretly concocted a scheme,” Kassan’s attorneys alleged, that siloed off MediaLink from the rest of UTA’s business with advertisers and marketers, then pressured Kassan to cut costs and raise fees on existing clients. “After two long years of Kassan battling Zimmer’s repeated broken promises, and UTA and MediaLink’s long line of employees complaining about Zimmer, Kassan had enough and submitted his resignation,” the filing states.

For its part, UTA said in a statement Tuesday that it had fired Kassan following “an exhaustive third-party investigation into misappropriation of company funds,” and indicated it was about to take legal action against him in Los Angeles. Among the allegations: Kassan used company funds to pay for personal expenses, including an apartment for his driver, personal credit card debt, and private airfare for his family; wrote checks to himself from MediaLink accounts; and diverted $700,000 in MediaLink funds to his personal corporation.

“Michael Kassan was terminated by UTA on March 7 and made aware well before that that UTA had grounds to fire him,;” says attorney Bryan Freedman, who is representing UTA, in a statement. “His claim against UTA has no merit and is an attempt to divert attention from the misappropriation of company funds that led to his termination.”

At stake is a little-known but savvy business operation, MediaLink, that has for years served as a sort of behind-the-scenes advisor to executives in the technology, media, entertainment and advertising sectors. Kassan’s consultancy might, at any given time, be involved in an executive search, or advise a company where to assign a critical advertising account. Kassan could call in favors from those he helped get jobs, or from companies whom he helped win new business.

Such an operation might have value to UTA. With rivals like CAA growing larger through its $750 million acquisition of ICM in 2022, and Endeavor dipping its toes into the world of sports and the public markets, UTA needs a differentiator. Gaining fees from advising advertisers on how to deploy marketing spend or placing executives in new roles would add to the revenue that comes in from representing actors, anchors and producers, among others.

Besides, UTA already has a sizable business helping big brands navigate Hollywood. UTA fields a team of about 40 executives who work in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and London, all under the aegis of Jacobs. Clients include Amazon, Ancestry.com, The Coca-Cola Company, Delta Air Lines, General Motors, Google, Hulu, Hyatt, LinkedIn and Lyft. UTA played a key role in helping General Motors devise two standout Super Bowl commercials in 2022 that relied on contributions from actor Michael Myers and “Sopranos” creator David Chase. Last year, the agency helped pair GM and Netflix in a single ad that featured actor Will Ferrell and the streamer’s popular “Squid Game.”

Integrating them seemed to be a non-starter, for whatever reason. Indeed, Kassan’s case goes to prove that it’s hard for experienced pirates to walk astride the same ship.

Kassan has been in similar straits. In 1999, he found himself terminated by Western Initiative Media Worldwide, a big media buying operation owned by ad giant Interpublic Group, where Kassan had been president of U.S. operations. Kassan had earlier sued Western for $63.5 million, alleging breach of contract and defamation of character. The legal imbroglio was seen as a contretemps over Interpublic hoping to force Kassan out in favor of another executive — not an uncommon gambit in the maneuverings of Madison Avenue. The two sides eventually settled. And Kassan once had his wrist slapped in 1995 when he was suspended from practicing law in California following a conviction for grand theft by embezzlement. The charge was subsequently reduced to a misdemeanor and expunged from his record.

He may have exited Interpublic, but Kassan has never left the ad business. To be sure, he no longer works for Interpublic, or rivals like Omnicom, Havas, WPP or Publicis, but he has remained a presence in their halls for years. He has been involved in bigger issues about the state of the industry. Author Ken Auletta called him “a charming man who relies on relationships to link the artists and managers and clients and scientists,” in his 2018 book “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else),” and suggested Kassan’s demeanor belied the power he wields, portraying him as “a pear-shaped teddy bear of a man with a soft, round, tanned face, the sunny smile of a practiced politician, and the jokey shtick of a stand-up comedian.”

It’s not entirely clear what UTA’s MediaLink will look like without Kassan. The executive has followed the company to new owners in the past. In 2017, Kassan sold MediaLink to Ascential, the owner of the Cannes Lions advertising festival, in a deal that included a cash payment of $69 million, but that could reach $207 million over the course of three years if the company achieved certain targets. With the pact completed, Kassan had a massive gathering to use for networking and meetings.

But Kassan without UTA? Chances are he will be just fine — as long as he still has his connections.

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