Cannes Lions Clash: Michael Kassan to Launch Competitor to UTA-Owned MediaLink at Adfest | Exclusive

Former MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan will launch a new company at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity next week to compete with MediaLink, the firm he founded which is now owned by United Talent Agency. He also plans to mark his presence at the global advertising conference with a slate of private gatherings with highly connected followers to compete with his former company.

“It feels like I am going to Cannes Lions this year and competing with myself,” Kassan told TheWrap in an exclusive interview. “I am not going after MediaLink and UTA clients. But I’ve had many, many calls from important people in the industry who say they will follow me to wherever I go.”

Kassan, whose messy departure from MediaLink earlier this year roiled the advertising world, all but guarantees Cannes Lions will be a showdown with his former company and UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer. He plans to set up shop and an alternative networking universe at his favorite haunt, the luxury Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, where he will host a series of VIP events and cocktail parties.

This year’s event figures to get uncomfortable for Zimmer, who is in a legal battle with Kassan over the terms of Kassan’s separation and potential noncompete restrictions. Even more awkward for UTA, Kassan’s daughter Brett Kassan Smith, who still works for MediaLink, plans to be at the festival running events for UTA and MediaLink. “I am unlikely to make any of her guest lists this year,” Kassan joked.

Kassan plans to announce his new firm and hold court on the French Riviera from June 17-21. Until the new company is fully incorporated, he is working under Michael Kassan Incorporated. But sources confirmed to TheWrap that Kassan has already signed nine clients, making his yet-unnamed firm worth millions. He is expecting to sign more during and after the festival.

The talk of the town will be the evening of June 18, when MediaLink throws its annual hot-ticket Cannes Lions party at the Hotel du Cap for powerful execs in the ad and marketing, media, entertainment and tech industries. Attendees fought in previous years to get an invite — A-list stars have been turned away.

Kassan and his close friend, iHeartMedia’s Bob Pittman, traditionally hosted the party on behalf of MediaLink, with performances from the likes of Sting, Mariah Carey and Coldplay’s Chris Martin. But this year, Zimmer and iHeartMedia will organize the event, with Lenny Kravitz performing.

Rich Bressler of iHeartMedia, Sam Smith and Michael Kassan at Cannes Lions 2022
Rich Bressler of iHeartMedia, Sam Smith and Michael Kassan at Cannes Lion 2022 (Toni Anne Barson)

On the same night, on an upper terrace at the du Cap, Kassan is planning a cocktail party with a group of VIPs, where he’ll be upstairs from the MediaLink party, he told TheWrap. Insiders predicted that could prove awkward for UTA and MediaLink because some of their guests will likely pop upstairs to convene with Kassan.

“The rivalry between Zimmer and Kassan will be the talk of the town, and a potential for huge awkwardness,” one industry insider told TheWrap. “Who do you invite to the big dinners? Do you invite them both and place them at opposite ends of the event? Who gets to walk on the most exclusive and intimate yacht parties? There’s a very strong chance Kassan and Zimmer will bump into each other somewhere along the way — which would create more noise at the festival than the time Kanye West showed up and went on a rant about his wedding to Kim [Kardashian].”

A UTA spokesperson said of Cannes Lions, “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.” Related to Kassan and the legal dispute, the spokesperson added: “Separately, we will continue to pursue this matter through legal channels and are confident that the facts will prevail.”

“Divorce, Hollywood style”

The Cannes Lions yacht scene (Photo courtesy Emily Smith)
The Cannes Lions yacht scene. (Photo courtesy Emily Smith)

Kassan and MediaLink, which he founded in 2003, put Cannes Lions on the map over the past two decades. They transformed it from a niche advertising conclave into a buzzy gathering of top tech CEOs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Snap’s Evan Spiegel, along with entertainers like Sam Smith, Bon Jovi and Lady Gaga. Ascential PLC, the company that owns Cannes Lions, previously owned MediaLink before selling it to UTA in 2021 for $125 million — and Ascential still maintains a good relationship with Kassan.

Confirmed speakers for this year’s Cannes Lions include Elon Musk, John Legend, Kara Swisher, Kenan Thompson, X’s Linda Yaccarino, Deepak Chopra and top executives from Google.

Who do you invite to the big dinners? Do you invite them both and place them at opposite ends of the event?

Industry insider

MediaLink will be back at Cannes Lions at its regular space adjacent to the Palais de Congres, called “The MediaLink Beach,” which doubles as a space for its clients to hold meetings and also features a stage for live discussions and programming from UTA and MediaLink talent and clients.

UTA talent planning to participate include Jessica Alba, Golden State Warriors’ star Draymond Green and Wilmer Valderrama.

Former WPP Chief Executive Sir Martin Sorrell (L) and Michael Kassan on the Cannes Lions stage in 2015
Former WPP Chief Executive Sir Martin Sorrell (L) and Michael Kassan on stage at Cannes Lions in 2015 (D Dipasupil/Getty Images for AWXII)

UTA has been attempting by legal means to prevent Kassan — known as the ad and marketing industry’s connector-in-chief — from setting up a rival firm as part of the companies’ arbitration. Kassan insists he turned down $10 million from UTA when they separated to avoid a noncompete.

When UTA acquired MediaLink, it promised to place the well-connected mogul at a top role at the Hollywood agency. But things turned sour in early 2024 with ugly mudslinging from both sides. Kassan quit on March 6 before being terminated by UTA the following day, according to legal papers.

What followed was an acrimonious flurry of lawsuits, with UTA claiming Kassan wildly overspent millions of dollars of the company’s money on private jets and other expenses, while he contended UTA had reneged on its promise to promote him to the head of its marketing division and to honor his previous MediaLink arrangement to have a “special expenses” budget of nearly $1 million a year.

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

“As a friend said, this is just divorce, Hollywood style,” Kassan said. But he added that he believed UTA and Zimmer hadn’t treated him like talent. “My biggest regret was I was agented by someone who turned out to be bad at agenting,” Kassan said at a recent keynote address at the Out of Home Advertising Association of America.

Further thumbing his nose at UTA, Kassan will be taking part in discussion panels, moderating others and appearing on the main stage at the Palais for one of the big presentations of the festival. “He’s back in business,” the insider said.

The legal clash between UTA and Kassan is far from over, even though the initial flurry of civil lawsuits have been withdrawn or thrown out to move the case into arbitration, as their initial contract specified.

Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc
The luxurious Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc where Michael Kassan will hold court during Cannes Lions

In May, a judge threw out a case in which Kassan had claimed that UTA attorney Bryan Freedman had defamed him by calling him a “pathalogical liar.” Kassan claimed that Freedman “crossed the line” when he made the “shocking and defamatory” statement. Judge Daniel S. Murphy ruled the comment was made in the context of a heated dispute and Freedman was offering his opinion on Kassan’s character.

Despite the combined power of UTA and MediaLink, Kassan, with his signature martini in hand, still will be a character not to be missed along the Cannes Croisette. His mantra for Cannes Lions this year comes from one of his favorite lines from an advertisement, from the lips of the famed Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man In The World”: “I am even the life of parties that I have never attended.”

The post Cannes Lions Clash: Michael Kassan to Launch Competitor to UTA-Owned MediaLink at Adfest | Exclusive appeared first on TheWrap.