Showdown on the Croisette: Michael Kassan to Take on His Ex-Firm MediaLink at Cannes Lions

Will it be pistols at dawn on the Croisette?

Former MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan has confirmed he will attend the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in June despite his messy departure from the firm he founded, now owned by United Talent Agency — all but guaranteeing the event will be a showdown between him and his former company.

The annual high-powered advertising conference attracts virtually every major brand to the French Riviera to make deals. Kassan and his company put the event on the map over the past two decades, transforming it into a buzzy gathering of top tech CEOs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos which also regularly features top-flight entertainers like Sting and Lady Gaga.

Kassan is heading to France, in part, at least, to make deals and talk about plans to set up a new company after his acrimonious exit from UTA in March. And he also plans to whip together alternative networking at a hotel in Antibes, which threatens to upstage UTA in Cannes.

“Michael is going to be holding court at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, and that will create an alternative Cannes Lions universe,” an ad industry insider told TheWrap. “It will be very awkward because many people attending Cannes Lions are clients of MediaLink, mostly because of Michael, and at the same time, Michael will be there.”

Michael Kassan, Meg Whitman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Marc Pritchard at Cannes Lion 2019
Michael Kassan, Meg Whitman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Marc Pritchard at Cannes Lion 2019 — Richard Bord/Getty Images

Advertisers and clients may have to choose between UTA’s $850,000 meeting slots or a martini, a cigar and a meeting with their longtime friend Kassan at the Hotel du Cap.

“If you want to find Michael late at night, you will find him on the roof or by the pool of the Hotel du Cap, which is basically his enclave,” Lou Paskalis, a veteran advertising industry executive and longtime friend of Kassan, told TheWrap.

Paskalis, who is chief strategy officer of news media accountability company Ad Fontes Media as well as Founder and CEO of marketing consulting firm AJL Advisory LLC, said Kassan may also decide to work out of the “Sean Connery suite” — the largest penthouse suite at The Carlton hotel on the Croisette.

Before decamping to the MediaLink beach a few years ago, Kassan had previously hosted fireside chats with industry leaders and mingled with many others at the famed suite. “It would be just out of nostalgia, but many would appreciate that,” Paskalis said.

“I can see people going back and forth between the Eden-Roc and the Croisette,”  the insider added. “I’m trying to decide where I’m going this year because of this awkwardness.”

In a statement to TheWrap, UTA and MediaLink said of the legal battle over Kassan’s departure and whether he can start a new rival firm, “Our focus is on supporting the great work MediaLink has always done and continues to do on behalf of its clients, and we look forward to unlocking new opportunities together. Separately, we will continue to pursue this matter through legal channels and are confident that the facts will prevail.”

A spokesperson for Kassan declined to comment.

Kassan and UTA are engaged in a messy divorce after UTA accused Kassan of stealing millions of dollars from MediaLink, which the talent agency bought from British media company Ascential Plc in 2021 for $125 million — with Kassan and his vast Rolodex central to the deal. Kassan has responded by claiming he quit before UTA could fire him, strongly denying any financial wrongdoing and insisting he intends to take his clients with him.

Despite UTA contending that the exec is bound by a non-compete clause, a source close to Kassan told TheWrap: “Consistent with Michael’s past, he will create the room where it happens at Cannes Lions and he will be there, as he has for the last 20 years.”

Cue uncomfortable seating at dinners and cringey moments at the many cocktail parties on the beach and corporate yachts.

The insider added that Kassan remains close with Ascential, which owns Cannes Lions. The British company is expected to invite Kassan onstage at the Palais to deliver a keynote or to interview an industry heavy-hitter, as he has often done in the past.

“He’s going to be front and center whether UTA likes it or not,”  the insider said, adding that the rivalry could certainly be the talk of the event.

The staging ground for Kassan and UTA to test their staying power will not only be in court. It will also be in Cannes.

An American in the south of France

Kassan is used to strutting down the Croisette with the confidence of a kingmaker, greeting advertising titans like Omnicom’s John Wren and WPP CEO Mark Read. His annual keynote conversation is always packed. Like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, the Cannes event is where his power is on display.

Jeremy Zimmer UTA
UTA’s Jeremy Zimmer (Getty Images)

The challenge for UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer is to prove that Medialink and UTA can make a strong showing at Cannes Lions without Kassan, selling MediaLink slots at its meeting hub adjacent to the Palais des Festivals for a shocking $850,000 each, according to Adweek.

Kassan, 73, founded the strategic marketing and media consultancy firm MediaLink in 2003. It grew to become a key advisory service to the advertising and marketing industries, channeling money between media and brand clients.

After selling MediaLink to Ascential in 2017, Ascential sold it to United Talent Agency three years ago. But things turned sour before Kassan quit as CEO on March 6, bringing the first round of bitter and reputation-damaging lawsuits between himself and UTA.

Kassan says he declined a $10 million severance offer from UTA in order to be able to set up a new firm and compete with MediaLink.

From sleepy ad gathering to power celeb event

The Festival of Creativity will be held in Cannes from June 17 to 21. Centered at the Palais des Festivals — the same venue as the Cannes Film Festival — the conference features speakers from the world’s top advertising, marketing and media agencies and organizations. Awards are handed out for top campaigns by a series of juries.

Tiffany Haddish at Cannes Lions 2023
Tiffany Haddish at Cannes Lions 2023 (Getty Images)

Kassan and MediaLink are credited with building Cannes Lions from a staid advertising conference into a tech executive-heavy power gathering. Google, Meta, Snap and Vice Media have thrown lavish and somewhat legendary events and beach parties for the cream of the creatives.

Media organizations lined up to attend the festival to wine and dine top advertisers, followed by celebrities looking to promote themselves and their brands.

Kassan has also annually hosted his own fireside chat series with industry leaders at one of the premiere hotels along the Croisette.

He also personally hosted the annual hottest ticket party of Cannes Lions on behalf of MediaLink at the Hotel Du Cap with iHeartMedia, where Chris Martin, The Weeknd and Mariah Carey have performed. Plus, he’s known for sipping martinis late into the night, smoking a cigar, and still getting up for the 8 am MediaLink SoulCycle session.

Jon Bon Jovi performing at Cannes Lions 2018
Jon Bon Jovi performing at Cannes Lions 2018 (Getty Images)

Meanwhile the legal war grinds on.

Kassan filed a demand for arbitration against UTA, claiming breach of contract and fraud, saying he quit a day before the agency said it fired him on March 7 and that UTA had not kept its side of the deal terms when MediaLink was sold to UTA. His deal included an annual net $950,000 “special expenses” account and a promise that he would run UTA’s marketing division.

UTA fired back with a civil lawsuit on March 13 alleging “misappropriation of company funds.” The agency says Kassan “abused his title and authority” and had “run rampant with his business expense accounts — wasting millions of UTA’s dollars on his lavish personal lifestyle,” which included personal luxury travel for him and his family, a credit card for his wife to buy gifts for staff and clients, and payments for a driver’s apartment and a personal housekeeper.

UTA withdrew its civil suit and refiled it as an arbitration claim, while doubling down on Kassan’s alleged financial misconduct.

The flurry of lawsuits has revealed much about Kassan’s broken working relationship with the usually private Zimmer.

Meanwhile this week Zimmer announced a mostly female led team of experienced managing directors who will take MediaLink forward into Cannes Lions and beyond.

Donna Sharp, Andrea Kerr Redniss and Lena Petersen of MediaLink
Donna Sharp, Andrea Kerr Redniss and Lena Petersen of MediaLink (UTA)

Donna Sharp, a 2022 Adweek 50 winner, will lead the marketing and consulting division, along with Andrea Kerr Redniss, who was named as one of AdWeek’s 12 smartest media agency execs in business today, and chief brand officer Lena Petersen, a top former Publicis Groupe exec. All three are managing directors at the firm.

Media and tech strategy consulting will be led by managing directors Devrie DeMarco, the former head of sales for BermanBraun and associate publisher at Condé Nast; Christopher Vollmer, former global leader of entertainment and media at PwC; plus Mark Wagman, the head of MediaLink’s data and technology solutions practice.

While those execs are accomplished, Paskalis insisted that Cannes Lions is still under Kassan’s sway. “It is Michael Kassan’s party, and we all want to be there with him,” he said.

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