Ascential sells Michael Kassan’s MediaLink to talent agency giant UTA for $125m

Cannes Lions owner bought media consulting firm in 2017

Dec 16, 2021 05:16:00 PM | Article | Gideon Spanier

MediaLink, one of the leading strategic advisory firms in the advertising industry, is changing ownership after Ascential, the owner of Cannes Lions, agreed to sell it for $125 million in cash to Hollywood talent agency giant United Talent Agency (UTA).

Michael Kassan, who founded MediaLink in 2003 and sold his business to Ascential in 2017, is known as one of the best connected figures in the global ad industry and has run pitches for brands such as AT&T, Disney and Walgreens Boots Alliance.

Ascential bought MediaLink for $69 million, with earn-out payments likely to have taken the total consideration to an estimated $110 million, according to stock broker Peel Hunt, and its decision to sell now appears to underline its recent strategic shift towards digital commerce and data services.

Ascential said MediaLink made profits of $10 million on sales of $44 million during 2020, when it was hit by the pandemic, and has “grown very strongly” in 2021, generating an annual “internal rate of return” of 14% during four and a half years of ownership.

Kassan told Campaign that UK-based Ascential had been a good owner of MediaLink but it made sense to join UTA, which represents talent across the entertainment industry and works with big brands.

He will continue as chief executive of MediaLink, which remains a standalone brand, and his 150-person team will add about 30 staff from UTA’s marketing division.

MediaLink will keep its offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and London, and UTA stressed there should be no job losses.

“The combination of UTA and MediaLink creates an unparalleled offering, operating where strategy, culture, entertainment, marketing and technology intersect,” Kassan said.

“We will optimise our complementary strengths to the benefit of our clients and exponentially expand the opportunities available to them. What’s more, MediaLink will be deeply immersed in a creator culture represented by UTA – one that pivots on entrepreneurship and an unwavering passion for artists, entertainment and media.

“Our two companies operate at the same intersection and share the same vision. It’s a perfect fit.”

Kassan added: “MediaLink has been propelled by our proximity to Ascential for the past four years, and I thank Duncan Painter [the chief executive] and the entire Ascential team for being a great partner and ally. We will continue our deep partnership with Cannes Lions under our new ownership.”

Painter said: “We are pleased that MediaLink has found an excellent home in UTA that will leverage its uniquely talented team, while further developing its specialist advisory services in the media and marketing eco-system.

“For Ascential, this transaction will enable accelerated investment in data-driven, subscription revenue streams, while also continuing to simplify the focus of the group overall."

It is understood MediaLink, which is known for its major networking presence at Cannes Lions, has agreed a new, long-term partnership with the annual global advertising festival as part of the sale.

Kassan will also stay involved in Hudson MX, a digital media-buying services platform, owned by Ascential.

Jeremy Zimmer, chief executive of UTA, said: “We have watched Michael Kassan steadfastly build his company over the years. What seemed at first to be an amazing one-man band has become a first-class, global consulting firm with powerful colleagues, deep expertise and unparalleled relationships.

“I know UTA will benefit from their insights, relationships and expertise. And, this acquisition is a clear signal that UTA sees its work at the intersection of entertainment, brands and marketing as a core pillar of the future growth opportunities we are able to provide for our clients.”

UTA unveiled plans to launch a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) on the US stock market to invest in the video gaming sector earlier this month.

Ascential owns a range of businesses, including in specialist information, analytics, ecommerce and live events.

Haymarket, the owner of Campaign, and Ascential jointly run Spikes Asia.

(This article first appeared on CampaignLive.co.uk)