The sorcerer of adland - and why he casts his magic spell

23 Jul 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
The sorcerer of adland - and why he casts his magic spell

MediaLink's Michael Kassan works the triangle of CMOs, media owners and agencies like a sorcerer, waving away any idea of conflict of interest with a flick of his wand. How does he do it?

I can’t trace the source, but it was one digital publisher that framed its upcoming coverage of last month’s Cannes by posing five simple questions.

One caught my eye: “Will anyone ever understand MediaLink’s business model?”. I am not sure if it was intended with a sense of mischief or confusion.

Despite the fact that Cannes is essentially MediaLink’s home turf - so much so that Cannes owner Ascential last year committed to paying up to $200m for it, an eye-watering sum for a company with revenues of less than $60m - I suspect that many people will have left Cannes a few week ago not much the wiser about MediaLink.

Expanding now into Europe, MediaLink bills itself as an outfit that connects Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street, a magnificent claim (and one that obviously doesn’t translate to Europe) if only you could figure out what it means in real life.

In fact there is a much simpler way to understand MediaLink and that is to read Ken Auletta’s recently published book Frenemies: the Epic Disruption of the Advertising Industry (and Why This Matters).

It shows how MediaLink has, not just reach and influence, but also an interest in every industry game.

In the book heavyweight reporter and New Yorker media columnist Auletta unpicks the holy mess that is today’s advertising industry.

His goal is a simple one: to find out how media, for the most part completely dependent on ad revenues, can survive. To do this, obviously, he has to hack through the jungle (or hell, depending on your view) of adland.

While my admiration for Auletta’s interview legwork and stamina is large, his principal guide is Michael Kassan, founder of MediaLink. And thus it is that Kassan is able to insert himself into the narrative to such an extent that he dominates the book. And where he doesn’t directly, you get the feeling he does indirectly by facilitating many of Auletta’s interviews.

From ad blockers to celebrity endorsements, and from transparency issues to agency reviews, Auletta gives full rein to his views. And don’t forget the numerous mentions of MediaLink and its services. All the money in the world could not have bought Kassan and MediaLink better publicity.

How a hard-headed reporter like Auletta let himself become a victim of Stockholm syndrome I do not know.

When I put this to someone who knows and likes Kassan, they didn’t - after some hemming and hawing - demur. “You’ve got to understand he is immensely charismatic and he knows everyone,” they said.

Indeed, he clearly is, and it is off the back of these two qualities that Kassan struts his stuff across adland. He is variously described as a Svengali, a Godfather, a horse-whisperer, an orchestrator and a consigliere, but I think of him as a sorcerer supreme.

Magic it must be, because he works the triangle of CMOs, media owners and agencies (or quadrangle, if you include the platforms), waving away any idea of conflict of interest with a flick of his wand.

And such is the chaos and uncertainty dogging the industry, that you can easily see how someone like Kassan can exploit the uncertainties and insecurities of CMOs and agency and media owner CEOs.

Take, for example, last month’s Nielsen survey into US CMOs, where some of the marketer-side contradictions and confusions are laid bare (it is, by the way, a terrific piece of work, well worth reading).

Here’s one example. More than 80% of CMOs plan to spend more on digital next year, but 75% lack the confidence they can measure its ROI (and not surprisingly, 79% are going to spend more on analytics).

So how does that figure? This suggests they ‘think’ digital works but don’t know how or that they are measuring it properly - but they’re going to shovel more money in anyway. And while they’re still sceptical of digital ROI and measurement, they’re even more down on the relative merits of measuring ROI on digital - which flies in the face of multi-channel evidence such as that from Ebiquity.

Here’s another. The money keeps flowing towards the duopoly (social and search are rated the two most important channels) even though 34% of them have low or very low trust in their walled gardens.

And here’s a third (illustrating some of the dualities of adland life). Despite the climate of mistrust around media agencies, 43% of CMOs intend to increase the money going through their media agencies next year. One reason: 75+% are confident of their ability to deliver strong ROI. The paradox: two thirds of CMOs say media agencies are stuck in the past. Don’t ask me how to square that one.

Imagine, therefore, you are a CMO, a media owner or an agency struggling to make sense of the world. No wonder they call Michael Kassan to hold their hands, reassure, solve their issues or whisper soothing sweet-nothings.

And, by the way, I do not disparage either the need for this, or Kassan’s skill dispensing what the market clearly wants.

Oh, and do I recommend the book? It’s a page turner, no doubt. But other than an insight into Michael Kassan and MediaLink, readers of this column won’t find much they don’t already know about the state of adland as a whole.

I suppose, however, they might also take comfort from the fact that, even amongst the great and the good, the industry is riven by insecurity and doubt.

If you’re not client-centric, you must be...

Hacking my way through the PR drivel of a new-appointment story at Publicis, I paused for a moment. Yet again, the author had fallen for cliché #1 in adland - that everything and everybody must be angled as ‘client-centric’.

Here’s the offending phrase: "XXXX will head up the client-centric capability...identifying key Power of One strategic opportunities blah blah...”

Leave aside that most people won’t know what a ‘Power of One strategic opportunity’ is if it hit them in the face. Surely Power of Two, or squared, is better?

“FFS,” I said to the former senior network executive I was having a coffee with, “why do they insist on saying ‘client-centric’? What else could it be?”

He looked at me like I was a complete idiot. “What about ‘margin-centric’?”.

Doh. Sometimes I am too naive.

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