Meet the Most Important Company in the Online Video Business

A portrait of Frank Sinatra hangs in Michael Kassan’s office in New York City.

On its own, a tribute to the showman is not out of place in a Park Avenue office. I’m sure many advertising and media executives up and down the street — and on the adjacent Madison Avenue — style themselves after the Chairman of the Board.

But if you know Michael Kassan, or even know of the chairman and CEO of MediaLink, then a portrait of Sinatra makes perfect sense.

“About four years ago, at an industry conference, we happened to sit at the same table. I look at his name, and it said Michael Kassan, and go, “Who the hell are you? Everybody keeps talking about you, and says we should talk.” Michael looks at me and goes, “Who the hell are you? Everyone keeps talking about you, and says we should talk.” We ended up talking for three hours that day.” — Robert Kyncl, global head of content and business operations, YouTube

One thing is clear: MediaLink knows how to put on a show. Go to Las Vegas during the annual Consumer Electronics Show,3) Daily Doseor Cannes during the annual Cannes Lions advertising festival, and MediaLink is not only omnipresent, but at the top of many people’s itineraries. Their evening parties are tentpole events.

Why? Because everyone — and I mean everyone — in media who matters will be there.

That sounds over the top, sure. But there are very few events with a guest list that rivals anything hosted by MediaLink. Where else do you have the chance to see Bob Pittman, Chuck Townsend, Steve Burke, Sheryl Sandberg, Dick Costolo, Maurice Levy, Sir Martin Sorrell, John Wren, Michael Roth, Tim Armstrong, Marissa Mayer, Les Moonves, Marc Benioff, Philippe Dauman, and Rupert Murdoch in the same place? A conference produced by an investment firm maybe comes to mind, but those don’t exactly have the flavor of what you get with MediaLink.

Because MediaLink has carved out a space that makes them invaluable to those who they do business with — and they do business with everyone.

Consider this: A traditional media giant, whether its business is in television, films, newspapers, magazines, or radio, attempting to adapt as new technologies change how people access its content.

Or: A brand or ad agency, which has long been comfortable reaching consumers with the help of that traditional media giant, now sifting through a seemingly never-ending array of platforms and metrics to determine who exactly is consuming what and where.

Or: A media and technology startup, hoping to disrupt that traditional giant and get in bed with the advertiser, but having difficulties in attracting the attention it needs to build a sustainable business.

Or: That same startup, which has a cool idea or product, but needs the right investors to back its growth.

There are a few companies that can help any one of them; MediaLink helps all, and at an unmatched scale.

“They are very important because they know all of the players. They are not bankers, they are not agents, and they are not media — they are kind of all three. They are not solely a hiring agency, but they do that as well. They are not solely a consulting firm, but they do that as well. It’s just important to be in business with them.” — Zach James, co-founder, Zefr

The quickest way to describe what MediaLink actually does, is that they know everyone and therein lies their real value — but that’s not the whole story.

MediaLink was founded in 2003 by Michael Kassan, a longtime media and advertising executive. Six years later he partnered6) Wenda and Michael_Cannes with Wenda Harris Millard, a digital media pioneer in her own right having been on the founding team of DoubleClick and chief sales officer at Yahoo during its heyday. The two have since built the firm to a team of almost 90 people, all of whom are also pretty well-versed in media, marketing, and technology. Combined, their knowledge and access is indeed unparalleled.

When Kassan and Millard joined forces, Deep Focus CEO Ian Schafer (who has since become a MediaLink client) tweeted: “Between she and Michael Kassan, they officially own your Rolodex.”

In other words: Game over, nobody else should try — and that was before the company even started to scale.

“It’d be hard to start today and say, ‘Hey, I am going to compete with MediaLink,’” says Jed Simon, CEO of finance technology firm FastPay (and another MediaLink client). “You would need a lot of capital, and you would need to attract amazing people. Not saying that it can’t be done, but…”

But you probably shouldn’t try.

MediaLink’s services span strategy development, partnerships (which can range from brand deals to investments), education, executive search, and event planning and production. Ask clients, and they’ll say the value extends beyond making connections.

“Some people come to MediaLink and say, ‘I just want access to their access’ — that’s never been the business of MediaLink,” says Kassan. “From my perspective, one of the unique aspects of MediaLink is that we have the database, but we also know what we’re talking about, and we know how to talk to others about it. That’s what makes it all work. Otherwise we’d just be a list.”

This is reflected in the work that MediaLink has done for its clients through the years.

The company played a “key role” in a deal Conde Nast Entertainment, the original video arm of Conde Nast, landed with GroupM, according to CNE president Dawn Ostroff, who calls them “a partner in the truest sense of the word.”

It was responsible for a brand deal that WIGS, the YouTube-funded, News Corp-backed drama channel from filmmakers Jon Avnet, Jake Avnet, and Rodrigo Garcia, secured with advertisers such as American Express and Unilever. “You have multiple parties that need to collaborate around a deadline and a budget — creatives, digital video distribution [YouTube], a multi-national multi-platform media company [News Corp], two major brands, and their agencies — [that] is MediaLink’s unique value,” says Jonathan Miller, the former digital chief of News Corp.

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One of the biggest announcements to come out of the 2014 Digital Content Newfronts was Maker Studios’ eight-figure upfront marketing arrangement with Omnicom Media Group — a “transformative opportunity” according to Maker’s head of sales Jason Krebs. MediaLink had a hand in that.

Zefr, another giant within the YouTube ecosystem, credits MediaLink in the successful launch of its BrandID YouTube marketing tool at last year’s Cannes Lions festival. The firm helped strategize and execute all aspects of the product demo, including getting the “right” clients to preview it, says co-founder Zach James.

“MediaLink knows how to activate a strategy — they have helped us bridge the gap between major marketing and media partners,” adds Michael Green, founder and chairman of Collective Digital Studio.

“Michael is a good friend and a loyal partner. He was the first person to congratulate me on the move to Los Angeles, ahead of my own mother! He is omnipresent and in the know – always making connections.” — Ynon Kreiz, executive chairman, Maker Studios.

Within the world of online video, MediaLink is arguably even more indispensable — perhaps that’s why the firm inspires 2) DCNF 2013such loyalty and support among the industry.

This is especially apparent during the NewFronts, the annual New York-based series of showcases where the big digital companies hope to convince more advertisers to shift budgets from TV to online video. That’s not an easy task.

In 2015, 33 companies, ranging from Maker Studios to The New York Times, plan to host official NewFront events. MediaLink represents nearly 70% of them, and lends a hand in developing and producing the events. For these sales presentations, the company provides a range of support services for clients, from choosing the right location for the event, to the invite list, to the messaging that best fits that presenter.

“Two years ago, you walk into a MediaLink party, you’d see Vice, Maker, AwesomenessTV — all of the up-and-coming players. You can see that [they] all very big, important companies now. There is something about that — when you can continuously pick and bet on the right horse, and [MediaLink] has definitely proven that over the years. They have the uncanny ability to not only determine who’s going to be successful, but also how to then propel them there.” — Zach James, co-founder, Zefr

The digital video industry is coming off of a pretty big year. There was a lot of investment activity in the space in 2014, just as TV ratings and the domestic box-office experienced noticeable declines.

And yet, even in an environment where companies like Maker Studios, Vice, and BuzzFeed (two of which are MediaLink clients) are attracting huge levels of interest, there are many that still don’t know who they are, what they do, or how to do business with them.

“When get a knock on the door from these video leaders — the Makers, the Awesomenesses, the Vevos, the Vices, and down the list — the first request we generally get is: ‘We want to get to the TV dollars.’ So the Sisyphean task they’re facing is getting TV dollars to move to online video. It’s moving but its not moving as fast as everybody wants them to because it’s still an educational process.”

“One of the things we’re known for is ‘picking the players in the space,’” adds Millard. “When we recommend digital video companies, our partners they know we’ve hand-picked our client base. That’s why we can ‘endorse’ them. The trust that people have in our team allows us to do that.”

Of course, Millard, like Kassan, argues that her company’s services go beyond that initial pairing of the right client with the right other client. “When you are a consultant, you’re not necessarily activating with your clients,” she says. “Our differentiator is that we have all birthed, fixed, and run companies. So we can strategize with the best of them, except our strategy is strategy you can implement, because we help our clients execute.”

“They are truly the information epicenter of the ecosystem,” – Executive at a major distributor

Beyond its immediate work for clients, MediaLink has made a few other investments in the effort to grow the online video business as a whole.

Case in point: the Making Measurement Make Sense (3MS) initiative, which is attempting to create industry-wide standards and practices for digital measurement. There’s also the Digital Citizens Alliance, which is focused on making the web a safer 1) Brand Matters Keynote_CESplace for advertising. Both are tackling issues that are vital to bring more advertisers on board with digital content and advertising, and both are organizations that MediaLink was “integrally involved” in launching, according to Kassan.

The company is also known for producing both public and private events focused on educating the industry on the latest opportunities and disruptions in media, marketing, and technology. Unsurprisingly, these are also pretty well-attended.

So yes, when it comes to MediaLink, many immediately think of its events at gatherings such as CES and Cannes. But if that’s all you think, you might be on the outside.

“I think one of the things that is so exciting to me is in doing what MediaLink does, we are sitting at the nexus of where Madison Avenue meets Silicon Valley meets Hollywood meets Wall Street,” says Millard. “That’s a pretty fabulous place to be.”

Ring-a-Ding-Ding.

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