The Entertainer of the Year award at the Cannes Lions festival this year went to the comedian and actor, and brand-friendly entrepreneur, Kevin Hart. The festival’s other ubiquitous celebrity is Alex Cooper, host of the NSFW Call Her Daddy podcast.
It’s not entirely clear how you get the Entertainer of the Year award, or how a hot podcaster winds up in front of all the big spending ad execs. But the two have one thing in common: They’re clients of the United Talent Agency. Eighteen months ago, UTA acquired the ad industry consulting firm MediaLink. And MediaLink, famous for having the ad industry wired, really has Cannes wired.
The firm’s paying customers, including many of the biggest ad spenders in the world, held more than 700 meetings at MediaLink Beach. Clients also have access to the festival’s dominant Tuesday night party at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc (Hart and Cooper in attendance), which is sponsored by another MediaLink partner. The firm seems to get paid by everyone — brands, tech companies, and media companies, one of which pays for the privilege of hosting the party.
“MediaLink is constantly accused of having hands in everybody’s pockets,” its founder, Michael Kassan, reflected in an interview Monday. “We’re proud of that. Because we do it with transparency, and full disclosure. And therefore I don’t think it’s a conflict.”
Or, in the words of a favorite Kassan aphorism: “No conflict, no interest.”
UTA, one of the three remaining big Hollywood talent agencies, has found itself in a private-equity-fueled race to keep up with CAA, which recently acquired rival ICM, and with Endeavor, Ari Emanuel’s agency-turned-conglomerate which owns everything from the creative agency 160over90 to WWE. (Endeavor also bought, then sold, a share of a top creative agency, Droga5.)
UTA has pushed beyond Hollywood to sign influencers like The D’Amelios, musicians like Post Malone and Lizzo (who performed at the Tuesday night party) and athletes through Rich Paul’s KLUTCH. The $125 million bet on MediaLink is a wager that the convergence between Hollywood talent and advertising — anticipated at least since Michael Ovitz’s CAA won the Coca Cola account in 1990 — is finally being consummated. And here in Cannes, at least, where MediaLink’s power is widely acknowledged — and at times resented — the bet seems to be paying off.
Kassan told Semafor that UTA was partially responsible for the buzzed-about 2023 General Motors Super Bowl ad, bringing GM (a UTA entertainment and culture marketing client), Will Ferrell (a UTA client), and Netflix together for the ad.
For UTA, MediaLink’s connections to CMOs has helped give the talent agency’s clients closer access to high-level executives who can greenlight bigger, more lucrative deals.
“As the creator economy continues to explode, and as brands want to lean more and more into creators and influencers, it gives us a much bigger seat at the table,” UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer said over coffee at Le Majestic on Tuesday. “And because Michael is such a trusted name in that world, the ability to talk to people and the ability for him to talk to our clients about what brands are looking for and how you work with brands — it’s not as transactional of an experience as it is a real relationship build.
After a decade in which figures from Reese Witherspoon to LeBron James built companies, not just personal brands, in the media business, Zimmer’s clients, like Hart, are increasingly looking to operate as business figures, not just corporate spokespeople.
“What we’re really trying to accomplish is a lot of creating relationships that go beyond the 30-second-spot and the endorsement into real creative partnerships between creative people and brands that really can drive value for both sides,” Zimmer said.
Room for Disagreement
Kassan is “the supreme power broker in the advertising and marketing industry,” as Ken Auletta wrote in his 2018 book on the advertising business, Frenemies. It’s hard to find a parallel in other industries for Kassan’s central role, but in the relationship-based marketing business, his power also breeds quiet resentment. Media companies that don’t pay the MediaLink piper worry about being shut out from deals. And agencies both rely on Kassan and widely resent what one agency executive Tuesday called “the MediaLink situation” — that is to say, the firm’s role in between corporate executive and the agencies they hire to make and distribute their ads.
- MediaLink brought in $44.5 million in 2020 and had more than $13 million in profits when it was still part of a public company, Ascential, according to Ascential’s annual report. Kassan parted on good terms with his former owner, which operates Cannes Lions, and its executives are working this week from MediaLink Beach.
- The acquisition was “part of UTA’s ongoing strategy to diversify its business at a time when its traditional revenue streams are under pressure from changing industry economics and consolidation,” The Wall Street Journal reported in 2021.
- UTA’s shopping spree continues. This week it acquired a U.K. executive firm, James & Co, Deadline reported.