Fearless - Ep 31: "The Connector" - Michael Kassan

Michael Kassan Headshot.jpg

"The Connector"

Michael Kassan is perhaps the best connected person in the creative industries. As the founder Chairman and CEO of Medialink, he creates and unlocks relationships at the intersection of Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Wall Street. I talked to Michael about the criteria he looks for in people he wants to interact with, about what he’s learned about doing deals on the back of a napkin and about what he loves about being in the room when it happens.


Three Takeaways

  • Make everyone feel important
  • Maintain a clear set of values
  • Show up

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 31: "The Connector" Michael Kassan

“I think I've got a pretty good handle on the things that I'm good at and the things that I'm less good at. I don't have too many things on the list that I think I'm bad at, but I think there are things that I'm good at, and there's things that I'm less good at.’

If you want to be a dramatically better leader tomorrow - a more fearless leader - follow this simple suggestion. ‘Do the things that only you can do.’ 

Leadership is about impact. Great leaders create more of it. Things happen. Businesses improve. People grow. The future is confronted and sometimes even defined. Change takes place that is meaningful and positive and valuable.

Leadership is also about time management. There is never enough of it. I’ve come across some leaders who are literally triple booked, their calendars awash in accepted invitations to meetings they physically can not attend. I once had a leader tell me that they decided which meeting to go to based on a mental calculation about which group they could least afford to upset. A strategy built on minimizing disappointment is a tough way to lead. Actually, it’s not leadership at all. It’s reactivism - if there is such a word.  There should be!

Managing your time in order to maximize your impact requires two things. First you need to define what you’re trying to create. Too few leaders do that with enough rigor and precision. And second, you need to know what you can do that no one else can do.

Leaders have access to doors that no one else does and credibility when they first walk in the room. They can shape conversations and make decisions in ways that no one else in the organization can even come close to. 

When leaders allow their calendars ti be filled with meetings and conversations that others could be handling it says one of two things to me.

They don’t know what they’re good at or they’re worried someone else might be better than them at something and they’re afraid to risk other people realizing that too.

We are all human beings. We are fragile and we are afraid. Often of being found out. Most of us can go from the success we are experiencing today to living alone under in a bridge in five steps. Sometimes less.

And we are so afraid of that, that we fixate on the things we’re not great at and dismiss the things we’re better at than anyone else around. 

Human being assume that if something comes easy to us that it must be easy for everyone. I’m sure Mozart assumed everyone could write and perform symphonies at five years old. It would take someone else to tell him that wasn’t true. 

Leaders need to know what they’re brilliant at. And they need to build their companies around those skills. And find other people who are brilliant at all the other things that need to get done.

Do the things that only you can do. Then help everyone else around you do the same. You’ll be amazed by the confidence and courage that surges through your business. And you’ll create possibilities you can only dream of today.

Michael Kassan is perhaps the best connected person in the creative industries. As the founder Chairman  and CEO of Medialink, he creates and unlocks relationships at the intersection of advertising, entertainment, technology and finance. Put another way he connects Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Wall Street. 

I talked to Michael about the criteria he looks for in people he wants to interact with, about what he’s learned about doing deals on the back of a napkin and about what he loves about being in the room when it happens. 

Charles:                               

Okay great. Michael, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for being here. It's such a pleasure to have you.

Michael Kassan:               

Well it's my pleasure to be here, and I've always wanted to be fearless.

Charles:                               

Well, and I think we'll get into this. And I think many people would regard you as being fearless. We'll find out whether that's in fact true or not. I'd like to start by taking you all the way back. What was your first relationship with the media growing up?

Michael Kassan:               

Music. I am somebody who subscribes to the soundtrack of my life approach. I was very annoyed with a friend of mine once, who for a important birthday, created a DVD of the soundtrack of his life. And I was annoyed because I wanted that to be my idea, and he beat me to it. But it was a wonderful way to celebrate life, and I've always looked at music ... And film and theater, but milestones and things that I can relate to in my life, interestingly enough, I oftimes will relate them to particular song, a particular show, a particular movie. I'll remember where was I when. That'll be a benchmark for me.

So I guess yes, I've always been a big consumer of media in that context. As you use the term media reflecting on what I do for my day job, which I actually don't really have a job. I was unemployable, but we'll get to that. I certainly began that relationship as a buyer of media, but as a customer. I didn't grow up in the media business. I grew up as a tax lawyer, focused in the entertainment industry. That was my first profession. The media side came later in life, so I didn't get into the media game if you will, until I was in my early 40s.

Charles:                               

What would the soundtrack of your life sound like, today, as you play it back in your head?

Michael Kassan:               

There'd be a lot of Sinatra. There would be a lot of Sinatra. My musical taste is very eclectic so it would really [00:05:00] range from everything Sinatra to probably the heart and soul of Broadway musical theater, and lots of things in between. But I'm prideful of the fact that the mix that I listen to on a regular basis, my custom mix, my playlist, is as eclectic as you will find.

Charles:                               

As you think back to your childhood, what music do you hear playing over that?

Michael Kassan:

Interesting. Depending on which stage of my childhood, obviously in the 60s, it would be what you'd expect. It was the British invasion, it was The Beatles, it was all of that. In fact, we had a company meeting yesterday, our annual company meeting, and one of the conversations at our dinner, people said, "What was your first concert?" And so we literally, so you're asking me something that's fresh in my mind, because I had to think about it, last night at dinner. And I said, "Well it depends how you define a concert. The first concert I remember going to, in the traditional concert sense, was The Beatles in 1964."

Charles:

Oh wow.

Michael Kassan:

That being said, my childhood, I spent a lot of time in Las Vegas. We moved to California in the early 50s, and my dad liked to go to Las Vegas. And so as a kid, I went to Las Vegas quite a bit. And I'm, in one of the best name-drops I can ever give, I did see the Rat Pack perform live.

Charles:

Did you really? You remember that today.

Michael Kassan:               

I remember that today.

Charles:                               

What was the experience like?

Michael Kassan:               

It was 1961. Excuse me. It was 1961, and they were filming a movie called Ocean's Eleven. And my parents took my sisters and I to see Vic Damone and Juliet Prowse, two names that most of the listeners would have no idea-

Charles:                               

Wow. Yeah, icons.

Michael Kassan:               

Juliet Prowse was famous. She was a beautiful actress and dancer, and she, at some period of time was engaged to marry Frank Sinatra. So, the connection. And Vic Damone obviously was somebody that they all thought was one of the great ballad singers. They were there. They, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin ... Excuse me, the whole group of them. And they all came to see that show.

And in the old days in Las Vegas, you'd have a dinner show and you'd have a late show. It was two ... And people were dressed. You'd wear a suit and tie, you'd ... Properly attired. We were there for the early show, for the dinner show, because I was ten years old. There never had a late show that night. The Rat Pack took over. Excuse me, and they performed two hours. What is most memorable to me about that was Peter Lawford, part of the Rat Pack, a name that again, many listeners would have no idea who he was. He was a wonderful actor in the 40s and 50s, 60s. But he was also John F. Kennedy's brother-in-law.

Charles:                               

Oh that's right. I'd forgotten that.

Michael Kassan:               

And there was a moment, and I laugh when I think about it. He walked across the stage at the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas in his boxer shorts, with a white towel over his arm like a waiter. And he walked over with a drink, and served Frank Sinatra. And the comment was, "Imagine what we'd have him do, if his brother-in-law wasn't the President."

So, if you think of a memorable moment, for me ... And so when I had this conversation last night about whether or not that's a concert, I don't know if you consider cabaret in Las Vegas being a concert. To me, somebody's up and performing, it's a concert of some sort. So I had to answer the question in two parts. I kind of remember the Rat Pack, and I kind of remember The Beatles, as being those two memorable moments for me in terms of music performance live. Not theater,  but concert.

Charles:                               

I would classify that as a concert. Ironically I was at Jazz at Lincoln Center last night watching a cabaret performance. And it's magical, isn't it? It just takes you into a different mindset, and different time-

Michael Kassan:               

It's a different mindset.

Charles: [crosstalk]

your blood pressure dropping.

Michael Kassan:               

It's a lost art.

Charles:                               

It really is a lost art.

Michael Kassan:               

It's a lost art.

Charles:                               

You watch people who are good at that, it's extraordinary. So you grew up in-

Michael Kassan:               

That's my fantasy, by the way.

Charles:                               

Oh is that right?

Michael Kassan:               

You haven't ask me my fantasy. My fantasy is to be a lounge lizard and just sit at a piano and bang out Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

Charles:                               

Is there anything stopping you from doing that?

Michael Kassan:               

Yeah I have a terrible voice. Other than that, anything's possible. I can't carry a tune very well, but I know all the words.

Charles:                               

And the words are extraordinary, aren't they? There's talent to those lyricists was really something.

Michael Kassan:               

It's words and music.

Charles:                               

Yeah it really is words and music. So you grew up in California?

Michael Kassan:               

I did. We moved to California in 1953. As I like to say, we loaded up the Conestoga and went across the plains. Actually it took a 12-hour airplane flight as I remember.

Charles:                               

And you have brothers and sisters?

Michael Kassan:               

I do. I have two older sisters, so my sisters always determined that I was the sun, S-U-N, which might explain a bit about my personality.

Charles:                               

Did they really?

Michael Kassan:               

Yes. See that? I was the only boy in the family, so-

Charles:                               

So they were fans.

Michael Kassan:               

And the baby. So I was the only boy and the baby, so there you go.

Charles:                               

Wow. That's so interesting. And are they close to you now?

Michael Kassan:               

Unfortunately one of my sisters passed away, but yes.

Charles:                               

Oh I'm sorry.

Michael Kassan:               

My other sister and I are very close.                         

Charles:                               

What did your parents do?

Michael Kassan:               

My dad started in New York, in the liquor business actually, working with my grandfather, right here in Kips Bay, at Second Avenue and 32nd Street. And then when he didn't want to do that anymore, it was working for my mother's father. We packed up and went to California.

Charles:                               

So how long did the law keep your attention?

Michael Kassan:               

I practiced actively for ten years, although to keep my bar membership current, because I have this little voice in the back of my head which is my mother, saying, "You never know." So I continue the current education that's required, so I do consider myself a card-carrying lawyer even though I haven't, as I say, actively practiced in more than 30 years.

Charles:                               

It's always interesting to me how even the most successful people feel the need to have that backup plan, that lifeboat.

Michael Kassan:               

You never know.

Charles:                               

You just never know, right?

Michael Kassan:               

You never know. And again, it's that wonderful message that's drilled into your head, and hopefully, it's what we try to do with our kids. You just remind them of the basic principles, and you hope it stays. In my case, I guess it stayed.

Charles:                               

What took you away from the law? Why did you make the move?

Michael Kassan:               

What was interesting, I always looked at law as a means to an end. I never thought it was the end. I just didn't know what the exit would be. I'm a big believer that if one rides on a road, you always want to make sure there are exits. You may not choose to take them, but it's good to know that there is an exit somewhere. I thought I ultimately wanted to be the client, not the lawyer, because I thought candidly more like a businessperson, than a lawyer. And that's unusual, because most lawyers, and good lawyers, think like lawyers, not like businesspeople. And there's a difference.

Charles:                               

You must have learned a lot about business watching through the lens of your father.

Michael Kassan:               

I did, I did. We had a lot of good experience, a lot of good conversation, a lot of good father-son ... And my mother was in business as well, so I watched her become a very successful businessperson in her own right, in residential real estate, as a real estate broker. So I grew up in a home where my mother was very active in the business, separate from my father and then together with my father. So lots of dinnertime conversations.

Charles:               

So what was the first off ramp you took?

Michael Kassan:               

The first off ramp was a company I represented in the home video business, a company that many would know by the titles that they produced. And they were the real leader in children's home video at the beginning of the cycle, as the video business started. And that was a company called Family Home Entertainment. And Family Home Entertainment had bought the licenses early on, for some of the most important kids video product of the era. Things like G.I. Joe, and Transformers, and Strawberry Shortcake, and Inspector Gadget, and Care Bears.

So if you think back to the early 80s as the home video business explosion was occurring, VHS and Beta and all of that, it really started with the kids business, because you weren't seeing theatrical releases coming out quite like they do now.

Interestingly enough, and particularly interesting in the context of the current TV season, we sold that company. I was the lawyer. I came in to help the founder get that company sold. We sold that company to another company called Carolco. Carolco was famous for producing the original Rambo, First Blood, True Lies, Basic Instinct, pretty, some well-known movies. Inasmuch as I had not ever run a company, and I was in my mid-30s and I was a lawyer, they wanted me to stay involved when we sold the company, so they asked me to be president and chief operating officer, and they brought in a chairman CEO. And that chairman CEO was Jose Menendez.

Charles:                               

Oh good grief.

Michael Kassan:               

So NBC's running the Menendez murders on this season. I actually worked for Jose Menendez, in the mid-80s.

Charles:                               

So when you looked at that move, when you were offered that opportunity, what was your mindset? Were you thinking, "Great, no problem, I know how to do this"? Were you thinking, "There's a lot of stuff I don't know how to do and where am I gonna get that knowledge from?"

Michael Kassan:               

Well I always thought of myself, as I said earlier, more as a businessperson than as a pure lawyer. I tried to look through the lens of what the business decisions should be, obviously steeped in the guardrails we talked about being there relative to what's right and wrong, obviously, and what's gonna lead to a good result. I fancied myself more that person than ... And so this was the opportunity, and so the opportunity to go in and help run a company ... And I felt like I had the capability to do it, but I didn't have the experience yet. But I felt I could get the experience on the job, and that's really how it happened.

Charles:                               

So you weren't nervous about this. You saw this as a natural progression.

Michael Kassan:               

Gosh. Nervous is a funny word. I try to be thoughtful, but I try not to be nervous. I try to be thoughtful, but I have a ... Anecdotally I'll tell you that I have a nephew who's a lawyer. I have several nephews who are lawyers, actually. But one particularly says to me, one day, "I don't ever argue in court. If a case doesn't settle, I'll have someone else stand up." And he said, "And the reason for that, is I'm afraid to stand up and talk in front of a crowd." And he looked at me and he said, "  Uncle Michael, you do it all the time. You speak all over the-" I've been fortunate that people invite me to address audiences, shapes and sizes, all over the world, on a pretty regular basis. He says, "How do you do it? Aren't you nervous?" And I looked at him and I said, "If I'm not nervous, that's when I do a bad job. I'm always nervous when I get up. I'm always ... There's always that moment of, 'Okay, catch your breath. Go for it.' There's always that sense. But maybe I'm using the word wrong, but I don't know that it's nervous, but it's thoughtful, and it's focused. And probably a bit of, 'Okay. Take a breath. Get those first couple of words out, and you'll be fine.'"

Charles:                               

When you walk into a situation like that, what are you thinking about? Are you thinking about how the audience is gonna react? Are you thinking about the message that you're trying to deliver? What's your focus in a public speaking situation?

Michael Kassan:               

First thing I like to focus on is why am I here? What is it that this audience is interested in? What is it ... It's what I learned as a lawyer. Look at the call of the question, when you're given a set of facts, what's the real question you're being asked? If I've been invited to speak to a group, why am I here? What is it that this group is interested in? I guess that's reading the room, and so I think the first thing I do is try to read the room. Understand where the strengths and weaknesses are in that room, and where the opportunities are in that room. Because I think you have to know the audience you're speaking to.

Charles:                               

And clearly you do that unbelievably well. We'll get into this a little bit later. But where do you think that instinct and that ability came from?

Michael Kassan:               

I was always a ham. I can't help it. I was ... I'll go back to the Rat Pack and tell you one of my favorite anecdotes is Sammy Davis, Jr., was once asked, on some album, it's in the opening sequence on one of his albums from the 60s. And someone said, "Sammy, I got a question. When you go to a party, and somebody imposes on you and asks you to sing a song, does that bother you?" He said, "Bother me?" He said, "Let me tell you." He said, "I walk into the kitchen. I open the refrigerator door. The light goes on. I do 20 minutes." Okay?

                                               

Charles:                               

There are not that many people that don't know you. But for those that don't, it's ... One of your standout characteristics is that you walk around with a pretty ready, or very ready smile on your face, which is both unusual I think, for the business world in general, and somewhat unusual for the media creator world that you and I tend to live in. Where does that come from? Where does that natural spirit ... You seem to clearly like people.

Michael Kassan:               

I clearly like people, and I actually, I was taught in life to try and find the high road wherever I can. And then-

Charles:                               

Taught by who?

Michael Kassan:               

By my parents. And by my grandparents, and by the people that I was surrounded with, when I was young. And I think, to me the high road also translates into the positive side of the equation. I'm a positive thinker. I don't have a lot of time for negative energy. I channel it, where it needs to be because life is not perfect, never will be, never has been, and certainly I've not enjoyed a perfect life. I've enjoyed a life that's been interesting and full of texture. So I say, from that perspective, I just think you have to really look at the power of positive thinking, and it's a real way to live your life, and I've subscribed to that for my whole life.

Charles:                               

The video company took you where?

Michael Kassan:               

To an interesting place. It took me into the entertainment business, purely. Again I was a lawyer representing people in the business. I wasn't in the business. It took me into that business. It was shorter than I expected it to be, and yet in Hollywood jargon, I had the good fortune of, I guess the expression is failing upwards a little

They bought my contract out, and I found myself in my mid-30s at a position where I had a real decision to make. Do I want to go back to the full-time practice of law, or do I want to do something different? And I did a hybrid for a while. I went back to the practice of law, but more of an of-counsel relationship, and stayed involved in the business. But I had a moment, which was a privilege, in my mid-30s, to make a decision which way do I want to go?

Charles:                               

You used the phrase a couple of times, fail upwards. Did you look at that time of your career as a failure, or were you just put in a set of circumstances that was gonna work out that way?

Michael Kassan:               

No, I didn't look at it as a failure. I looked at it as a great opportunity, because I did want that transition out of the full-time practice of law. So for me it wasn't a failure at all. It was a great success.

Charles:                               

So as you were starting to think about what was next, what were the characteristics or criteria that you were looking for?

Michael Kassan:               

I didn't think I wanted a job, because I hadn't fared well in a traditional job. I chafed against it a bit, to be honest. So I wasn't actually looking for a job, but I certainly was looking for something that would challenge me, and the intellect, and allow me to take what I'd learned, and my spirit, and put it against something where I thought I could effect change.

Charles:                               

Were you conscious of your strengths, at that point, do you think?

Michael Kassan:               

I think I've got a pretty good handle on the things that I'm good at and the things that I'm less good at. I don't have too many things on the list that I think I'm bad at, but I think there are things that I'm good at, and there's things that I'm less good at.

Charles:                               

What do you think you're good at?

Michael Kassan:               

Analyzing a situation. Getting right to the heart of a problem. I think one of the great lessons you learn as a lawyer, I said look for the call of the question, but I think the best lesson that I learned as a lawyer was how to analyze a situation. Solving the problem is gonna take a lot of different colors, and a lot of different shapes and sizes, but looking and understanding what the problem is, what the question is, what are you looking to solve for, I think I'm pretty good at that. So the analytical side of it, I think I'm pretty good at.

Charles:                               

And casting, I imagine, right?  Bringing the right people together?

Michael Kassan:               

That's a key element for everything we do. You gotta put the right people on the right places. But I also like to think of the opportunities for people who might not necessarily look like the right person, but actually, if you can draw that capability out of somebody, you end up sometimes even in a better position.

Charles:                               

How do-

Michael Kassan:               

But yes, I think casting is critical in life.

Charles:                               

How do you look for that unlocked potential in people? What are you looking for? How does that show up to you?

Michael Kassan:               

Well I have three criteria that I apply against decisions on who I want to interact with in business and personal. And they're pretty straightforward. The first one is integrity. Critical. Table stakes. Gotta have integrity. Second one, and maybe this'll be a bit snobbish, but is intellect. I want to hang around with people that are intelligent. And the third one, I learned recently. My wife and I were fortunate enough to go on the national board of the Whitney Museum here in New York, and something that we're passionate about, and it's a phenomenal institution, and a great group of people that have brought this to its current form. And as a result of being invited to be on that national board, we now get to vote on new members.

And one of the great things about the Whitney Museum and this national board is they do these amazing trips all around the world and you get to visit the best art collections in the great museums of the world and you get to do it in a very curated way, and a very private way. So you're going to, again, some of the great museums, but you get to do it privately. And you go to the best art collections in these respective cities, because what does one art collector want to do? They want to show off their art collection to somebody else, who cares and who knows.

So you do these amazing trips. But when you're on those trips, you spend a fair amount of time on a bus, because you gotta go from this place to this place. So the criteria that the Whitney applies is, in addition to gee, is that person gonna be ... Are they interested in art? Are they gonna add value to the conversation? Are they gonna support the institution from philanthropic standpoint? And most importantly, are they fun on a bus?

So my three criteria are, intellect, integrity, and are you fun on a bus? If you can satisfy those three things, then we'll be great friends.

Charles:                               

So you're walking away from the video ... You're leaving the video company. You're thinking about what's next. You don't want a job. How does that turn into the next stage?

Michael Kassan:               

So I represented as a lawyer, a gentleman by the name of Dennis Holt, who founded what was at the time, the most important and largest media buying company in the world. Company known as Western International Media. And Dennis was the founder and chairman CEO of that company, had built it to quite an extraordinary level. And we'd worked together.

And it was a perfect time for him, and it was a perfect time for me. It was serendipity, that I was in a decision-making mode about my next steps, and he was at an inflection point in terms of the business having reached a certain point, realizing that there might be potential exit for that business, and growth on a global stage, and all the things that he was thinking about. And he was honest enough to say he needed the help, and I was honest enough to say, "Well I don't want a job." He said to me ... This was magical. He said, "I'm not offering you a job, I'm offering you a life." And I said, "Well that's interesting."

Charles:                               

Isn't it?

Michael Kassan:               

And we had a series of three or four meetings, about that topic, all around meals. It was a lunch, a breakfast, and a dinner. Again, a wonderful LA part of the story. Dennis was a regular at a restaurant called Chasen's in Beverly Hills, and there was a booth there, and it was red leather booths, and very famous restaurant, and certainly in the Hollywood royalty. And Ronald Reagan had a booth at Chasen's that was his booth. And when Ronald Reagan was no longer around that booth, it became Dennis's booth.

So one of those meetings was sitting in the Ronald Reagan booth at Chasen's with Dennis. Another was at a restaurant, I remember this well, Chardonnay, somewhere in West Hollywood. But the pivotal one was at a deli in Beverly Hills called Nate'n Al's which I've been going to my whole life. So that was our pivotal breakfast. And in that breakfast, I took a napkin, and I said ... He was talking to me about coming in to join him at Western.

And I said, "You know what? What we should do is we should actually write this down." And I took a napkin, and across the top I wrote, "Michael Kassan." And then I made an old-fashioned T chart, one that you'd look at pros and cons, or ... But that kind of a T chart. What are the pros, what are the cons? But I didn't do that. I said, "Okay, here's what I want to do, Dennis. It says Michael Kassan across the top. I'm gonna make one column on the left that says 'Responsibility,' and I'm gonna make another column on the right that says, 'Authority.' I'm keen to continue this conversation, but with one condition. You need to be honest with yourself, and look at it and say, if you're asking me and offering me the privilege of joining you at this amazing company that you've built, what are the responsibilities you want me to undertake, in the role that we're describing here." Which turned out to be chief operating officer at the beginning.

"And what's the authority you're prepared to give me to carry out those responsibilities? Because you've run this company and built this amazing company, but you've done it, never single-handedly, but you've done it without a lot of hierarchy. There was 1,500 employees and you. And now you're asking me to get in between that, and so I need to make sure that, if you want me to take on responsibility, you're actually prepared to give me the authority to do it. Because I'm a big believer that the greatest cause of ulcers and heart attacks in business, and in life, is people who sometimes have to undertake responsibility but don't have the authority to deliver on that responsibility." And I didn't want to get into that cycle. And again, that's why I was nervous about having a job where I was responsible for this but I couldn't be the ultimate decision-maker.

And he actually took that napkin home, and that napkin served as our contract. And that's a true story.

Charles:                               

It is amazing, isn't it, I think, how many people's lives have actually been ... The direction's been changed based on, truthfully the back of a napkin, right?

Michael Kassan:               

This was truly the back of a-

Charles:                               

Truly the back of a napkin.

Michael Kassan:               

This was truly the back of a napkin. And until the time that we sold the company to Interpublic in 1994, my contract was that napkin.

Charles:                               

I think your point about the difference between responsibility and authority is really powerful. As you look around today, how often do you think that is still the case? That people get hired and they're given a set of responsibilities for which they do not have sufficient authority?

Michael Kassan:               

Way too often. Way too often. And it's a challenge, and it's a problem, and it's got an unbelievable dampening effect on productivity I think.

Charles:                               

Absolutely. And clearly some part of that comes from the insecurity of the person offering the job. But do you think that candidates need to do a better job in terms of providing that delineation back, and holding the potential employer to a higher standard?

Michael Kassan:               

I think so, but that's not always easy to do when you're in the subservient position. What's interesting though, I want to go back to the T chart for a moment and to that napkin. What I did say was, "Look. Nobody's confused. I don't know this business well enough yet to get the authority. The commitment I'm asking you to make is that when I do, and we'll both know when that happens, that I do get the authority. You shouldn't give it to me on day one. I'm not entitled to it. And I haven't earned the right to it. But when I earn the right to it, you need to be prepared to give it to me." And I think that's a ... You can't have it on the way in. You've got to earn it.

Charles:                               

You clearly are comfortable now, it goes without saying, working with, speaking to, having relationships with people with real influence and real power. Has that always been true? Because that conversation for somebody still at a relatively early age, was A self-aware, but B also just, has a level of self-confidence.

Michael Kassan:               

I like whenever I can to make sure I leave no stone unturned. And that goes to those kinds of conversations. You better say it now because if you don't establish the ground rules at the beginning, it's hard to do it on the fly. So yeah, I'm not intimidated by title. I'm not intimidated by any of that. I'm pretty confident in terms of, if I'm in a conversation, I'm confident that I'm able to hold my own. Now, I'm surrounded by people that are way smarter than me every single day. And so it's not a question of that. It's just a question of confidence. Not overconfidence, but confidence, and the willingness to be able to have a conversation with people, high or low.

I'm a firm, firm, firm believer in the fact that it's as important to establish a relationship with the receptionist, as it is with the CEO. My week was made when one of our clients at MediaLink told me how much they enjoyed the relationship that they had built, just with the person who's our receptionist in our New York Office. That to me was a resounding success, of the team we've built, because if that client felt that when they went to our office, and Diana, the young lady at the front desk, is a good representative of MediaLink and somebody that he has established a relationship with, I'm extraordinarily happy when I hear that story. That's more important than him having a relationship with me in many ways.

Charles:                               

It's interesting to listen to this story, to this history. Because you can see, at least from my perspective, you can see the foundations of what became MediaLink, and what MediaLink has become, in a lot of these places. The willingness to speak truth to power, the willingness or the recognition that talent doesn't always show up in obvious ways, the understanding of the ability to identify what's the real problem we're trying to solve here.

As you moved through your career, were you consciously assembling these different pieces? Where did MediaLink come from as a concept? Was it in the back of your head in some fashion or did it just show up one day to you as an inspiration?

Michael Kassan:               

It just showed up-

Charles:                               

Did it really?

Michael Kassan:               

It just showed up one day. I wasn't sure what I was gonna do in that next iteration, and when I left Interpublic in 1999, I was again fortunate. I didn't need a job, but I certainly needed to work. And I'm always careful how I say that, because I ... A lesson I learned from that same gentleman, Dennis Holt. We were interviewing somebody for a very senior job at Western International Media, and this guy said, in his meeting with Dennis, in his interview, he said, "Well I don't really need to work." And Dennis looked at him and said, "Well good, because then you're not gonna not work here."

So I've always been thoughtful about saying I don't need to work. Because I don't want to hang around with people who don't need to work. I want to work ... I don't mind hanging around with people who don't need a job, and I'm putting air quotes against that. Because work is different than a job. Work, my dad taught me that if you enjoy what you do, work is not a four-letter word. And I love what I do. So I want to be mindful when I say that.

But MediaLink didn't ... I didn't sit down and write a business plan for MediaLink. I don't know that I've ever written a business plan in my life, and I don't know that I could have written a business plan for this. This kind of grew like topsy. And what I mean by that is, it was just the incoming. People started to call and ask questions, that I was, in some cases, maybe uniquely situated to answer, because I had a interesting experience base. And-

Charles:                               

What kind of questions?

Michael Kassan:               

Profound questions around where the world was going. We were coming off the back of dot-com 1.0 and what does all this mean for the traditional marketing decision matrix and the traditional publishers, and all the different constituents around the table. And I had enjoyed something which just happened in life for me, a pretty broad base of relationships, across industries. And that was where it was unique.

So I had the good fortune of left coast, right coast. And I understood both worlds, and I also had done a fair amount of work in M&A as a lawyer, and as well worked with a lot of the financial sponsors. So in a very serendipitous but very fortunate moment, I realized I had relationships around the table. All the various constituents that mattered at the intersection, where I believe MediaLink lives, which is the intersection of marketing, media, advertising, entertainment, and technology, I was fortunate to know people at all places. And that knowledge base ... And I guess I had a moment of insecurity, at the beginning, because ... More than once, because I think insecurity is a wonderful thing, because I think insecurity keeps you on your toes. So I'm a wildly insecure guy, at the same time as being confident, and I don't think that's an-

Charles:                               

I suspect not many people would perceive that, of you.

Michael Kassan:               

But I think insecurity is a sword if you use it right, not a shield. And so I think that that's a good thing. Because again if you're too cocky, and too confident, you don't think about what might go the other way. And so I think the insecurity keeps you honest, and keeps you on your toes.

Charles: 

And a sword stuck into ourselves actually, pushing ourselves forward.

Michael Kassan:               

Yeah, I always use that distinction between a shield and a sword. It's like ego. I think people who say they don't have an ego are kind of ... Well, great. I think you need an ego. And-

Charles:                               

Don't try leading without one.

Michael Kassan:               

Yeah, don't try leading. But, and I have a couple of old-fashioned philosophies, but one of them is, you need an ego to get to the door. But once you're in the room, you gotta leave your ego outside. Whatever the door is, whatever the room is. And you never get there if you don't have an ego of some sort.

But I want to go back for a moment to how MediaLink came together, and that insecurity that I felt at the beginning. Because as I started to answer questions, and started to receive more calls from different constituents as I say around that table, the way I was introduced in so many of these circumstances, whether it was a speaking opportunity or a business referral, people would say, "Oh Michael Kassan. He's got the best Rolodex in the world." I don't know what that means, but I was insecure about that at a certain point in time because I thought, "Okay well, so is that what I've achieved in my life? That I have a Rolodex?"

But what I realized at some point was, that's not necessarily what they were saying, although those might be the words. But what they were saying, at least my optimistic approach to what I thought they were saying was, I had a very deep relationship base across industries, and I had experience that made those relationships more meaningful because the experience is what makes them meaningful. The fact of knowing people, that's great. And if you're keeping score I guess that's meaningful for something. But for me, it was the experience and the strategic visibility and strategic view of things, coupled with relationships, that was the unique sauce that formed MediaLink.

But it happened as organic as anything I've ever done. It happened without, as I say, without a plan. I didn't sit down and say, "This is what we're gonna do." Opportunity ... I guess, let me back up for a second, and say, I look at myself as being good at three things. I think, again, if you put the right spin on this word, I think it's a good thing. I think I'm opportunistic, and I think that that's not a bad thing. I do remember one of my favorite interviews was Walter Cronkite interviewing Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968. And he said, "Senator Kennedy, people have referred to you as an opportunist. How do you respond to that?" He said, "I take that as a compliment." So I think it's okay to be opportunistic. Not at the expense of others, but somebody's gotta see the opportunity, and if you're fortunate enough to see it, what you do with it then matters. So I think the second stage of what I might be reasonably adept at would be being a capitalist. So if I see opportunities, I'm generally pretty good at capitalizing on those opportunities.

But I think where I get to be even better is in merchandising it. So I think if you look at that progression, seizing the opportunity, finding a way to capitalize on it, and then merchandising it, on a step and repeat basis, that's what MediaLink was about. I saw the opportunity at that intersection. There was chaos. I knew different constituents around the table. So that was the opportunity. I figured out, as long as you weren't shy about asking for the order, there was a chance to capitalize on it. And then once I capitalized on it, there was a way to merchandise it, and build a business.

Charles:                               

How do you describe merchandising it? What does that look like to you?

Michael Kassan:               

Trade marketing is a great example. We're in an industry where people go to conferences all the time. We stumbled on something at MediaLink that was an accident waiting to happen. When you look at the tentpole events of Consumer Electronics Show and the Cannes Lions and dmexco and all these different events, when I grew up as a lawyer, I would never go to an industry conference. I thought it was a supreme waste of time, because I never thought I was gonna have anybody teach me anything at a conference that was valuable, because why would somebody if you're a lawyer, why would somebody stand up and tell you their secrets?  First of all they can't, because of confidentiality, and third of all they're not gonna give you any of their strategic thinking, because that's proprietary.

So I never was a big conference goer. In the advertising media and marketing industry, the conference circuit is actually different, because people do share thinking, and they do share good ideas, and they do share ... And in a very efficient way, you bring the industry together. Where I saw the merchandising capability was around trade marketing. And I saw an efficiency play at Consumer Electronics Show and Cannes, as two of the leading examples, where MediaLink could establish a position, and end up at the center, or close to the center of both events, and realizing that maybe it was through curation. So for CES, the example was around curation. 150,000 people go to Las Vegas, in January, and you can get lost.

What we saw was an opportunity to bring brands and marketers to that conversation, earlier, because we saw the opportunity based on the need for consumer electronics to reflect marketing, because as the world is changing, and you're gonna conduct much more of your business through a device, whatever it may be ... A smartphone, a iPad, a computer. The device manufacturers, and the consumer electronics manufacturers, need to be thinking of marketing differently. And how marketing and how purchase activity and purchase funnels are gonna play in the devices that you're designing.

And so having a conversation earlier, can make a difference. And so we saw that opportunity, and, being somebody who believes in efficiency, if you can bring the entire ecosystem together, in one place, you can be efficient. And we planted a flag in two of those places, honestly. Cannes and CES. And it helped build the MediaLink brand at the same time, because people started to think of MediaLink as ... And I believe this is the case even to this day, and I'm proud of this, so I'm not bragging, I'm just sharing. MediaLink's brand is actually well beyond the size of MediaLink as a company. And so I think that came from merchandising, and I think that came from trade marketing.

Charles:                               

I'm sure that's true. I'm sure there are people listening to this podcast who are dying to have me ask you about the pushback at Cannes, and what that's gonna look like going forward. I don't want to spend very much time on this, because I'm more interested in other aspects of you, but 30 seconds on what will Cannes 2018 and beyond look like in light of what came out last year? This year?

Michael Kassan:               

So, I have to be very thoughtful about this answer, because whilst we're very proud to be part of the Ascential family for nine months now ... We closed our transaction to sell MediaLink in February of this year, so just about nine months. We are clearly a separate entity from the Cannes Lions organization, so when I speak, and I've written some stuff about this, I need to be clear that I'm speaking as MediaLink, not as the Cannes Lions.

Charles:                               

Yep. Absolutely, understood.

Michael Kassan:               

And certainly, as part of Ascential, when I speak now, I do speak as part of Ascential so I can't say I'm not, but I can say I'm not speaking on behalf of the Cannes Lions. And what I said in one of the pieces I wrote post-Cannes this year, I'm still a card-carrying delegate badge-buying person, at retail. So there's no intercompany wooden nickels on that. I pay my money and take my chances in Cannes, and will continue to do that.

Do I think Cannes needs to change? Yes. Do I think Cannes needs to continue to have creativity at its core? Yes. What I don't believe, however ... And again this is my opinion, not the opinion of anybody else, so I want to be extraordinarily clear about that. We can't ring fence creativity. Creativity is not the domain of just this group or that group. Creativity is open to the world, and if the platforms ... Google or Facebook or Snapchat, they have a right to a seat at the table in creativity, no different than the management consulting firms do, no different than the tech companies do, no different than the advertising holding companies do, obviously.

But again, nobody, I feel, has the right to ring fence creativity. What I think the challenges that Cannes ...  And I'll back up and say, when I'm talking about Cannes, I wrote this in a blog many years ago. Cannes is not any longer for me a place. It's a thing. And it represents a thing, not a place. What I think Cannes has been brilliant at, is opening that conversation to a broader base of constituents. What I think ... What I believe part of the challenge they have is, Cannes is representative of almost a microcosm of what's happening in the broader advertising, marketing, media, technology community. There's lots of people trying to get at the same dollars. And lots of people trying to get at the same clients.

Charles:                               

And worrying about their own relevance [crosstalk].

Michael Kassan:               

And worrying about their own relevance. And so that is what is happening. What I say is, it's playing out over four square blocks, for a week a year. It's actually playing out on a much broader basis, on a global situation. And that's what I think is happening. And do I think Cannes will look different in 2018? Of course it will. It has to. And it has to because the holding companies, and rightfully so, have been the most important partners of Cannes since its inception. And I think it's important for their needs and their desires to be satisfied, like you would in any customer relationship. You build the best relationships with your customers when you treat them as partners, not as customers. And I think the Cannes Lion organization has a real willingness, and I'm seeing it play out real, to embrace the holding companies as partners, not just as vendors, and customers.

But I'm also somebody who's been very responsible for, at the heart, this other Cannes, which is around partnership and around conversation, and you could argue moves a little bit away from the center of creativity. But I think you can apply creativity to how you enter into partnerships, and how you utilize technology. So I don't think that's separate from creativity. It's just a different expression of creativity.

Charles:                               

I think that's well said

Michael Kassan:               

We'll reimagine Cannes and MediaLink as Cannes reimagines itself.

We will be there in force. It's a very important time for us. I say to my team all the time, every year, "No pressure, at all. Just remember. Four square blocks, effectively four days. 100% of the revenue of our company is present."

Charles:                               

No pressure at all.

Michael Kassan:               

But I don't want anyone to be nervous-

Charles:                               

No worries.

Michael Kassan:               

Relax. And remind everybody, every year and every day, that that glass of rosé in your hand is merely a prop. You're not actually supposed to drink it. It's just a look.

Charles:                               

Keep a clear head, because that's-

Michael Kassan:               

Exactly.

Charles:                               

That's right. You work with ... I don't know whether it's most, but certainly many of the most influential leaders across the, what I would describe as the creative industries. What are the characteristics that you see among the best of the best? How are they showing up and what are they bringing?

Michael Kassan:               

Well, first of all, the who is a big question today. And if I'm the traditional advertising agencies, I'm very mindful of what's coming. The traditional creative agencies have a challenge coming that I think they're very well aware of, and I think they're rising to the occasion. But that challenge is everybody, brands included, think themselves capable of being creators now. Everybody wants to create content. The traditional publishers, the media companies, of course the traditional advertising agencies, everybody's a content creator. So you have a lot of competition around that campfire right now, as to where you're gonna get creative done, who's gonna produce it, where are the ideas coming from. So I think everybody has to realize that ... And again, MySpace is a company that didn't ultimately fare so well, but we've kidded around at MediaLink for many years, saying, "MySpace is your space. Everybody in the pool."

Right now I think everybody's in the pool. So if you're identifying who are the people that you're gonna get the creative ideas from, I think that list has changed. And so I think it's more around the idea, and that can be from anywhere. But you need people who have an aperture that's open, that's beyond what they traditionally thought was where creative would live. And I think it's also people ... Where creative would live, and where creative would come from. And I think it's also people who realize the importance in marketing, and in creativity, around serendipity, and around spontaneity. And I think it's a critical fact.                                              

Charles:                               

You've been described, among other things, as probably the best networker in the industry today, perhaps ever. I think, as you meet emerging leaders, people who are showing up and starting to run businesses for the first time, do you think networking is one of those skills that they're conscious enough of? When you were talking about people saying to you at a certain point in your career, you've got this amazing Rolodex. Was that something that you had developed consciously?

Michael Kassan:               

No. I didn't set out to meet people, but it just happened. But I do believe building that network of people is important, and I do believe showing up. I cannot tell you, because it would be impossible to count, how many times I was making that decision, do I go or do I stay? Do I got to that event? Do I go to that meeting? Do I cancel it? Do I not do it? Almost every time I've made the decision to go, some good comes from that. I meet somebody that I didn't expect. I re-meet somebody that I was looking for an opportunity to engage with.

So I think being in the room, and this is a philosophy that I've lived my entire life on, in business, which goes to that opportunistic side. Get in the room. Use whatever door you can.  Don't do anything untoward, but whatever door you can walk through, get in the room, because when you're in the room, shit happens. If you're not in the room, you never had the opportunity.

And so often in my career, I've entered the room through a door I didn't expect. But I was in the room. And once you're in the room, you can see opportunity, you can make things happen. And so I think that's the best way that I've ever tried to describe to people what the value of that networking is. Be in the room. Be in the conversation.  And I've had so many people who've had stumbles in their career, and then they choose not to want to show up. I can't mention names, but I can tell you countless stories of people who I've said ... They've just lost their job, or some effect like that, and they're gonna go, "Well I can't go. I have no reason to be there." I said, "Yes you do. Because if you don't, life is funny. Self-fulfilling prophecies actually happen. If you choose to not show up, if you choose to be off the radar, you're gonna be off the radar. Stay on the radar. Don't be embarrassed."

I was once described, when I was in that transition between Interpublic and MediaLink, one of the hardest moments for me, and if you know me at all, and you know me a little, you'll appreciate this. Was when a particular advertising periodical, shall remain nameless, described me in a context of an event that I was at. MediaLink wasn't really started yet, and I was a man without a country. And I was described in an article as media man without portfolio.

And it was devastating. It was really like somebody took a knife and stabbed me. It was, what does that mean? Because I chose to show up, even though I guess I was media man without portfolio. So I didn't have a job. I didn't really have a company. But I still was a human, and I still thought I had value to add to a conversation, so I showed up at an event and I was described that way in print, and I thought, "Good to know."

So, those are all lessons one learns along the road, but I think it's important to be in the room. And one of the things that I've been obsessed with, back to my love of music and musical theater and film, I've been obsessed for the last two and a half years with all things Hamilton.

Charles:                               

Mm-hmm (affirmative). And be in the room when it happens.

Michael Kassan:               

And being in the room when it happens. In fact, we're taking our grandkids to see Hamilton in LA, in two weeks. It'll be my seventh time. So, I'm keen to share it with my grandkids. I force-fed them on the music, and now three of them are gonna go with us to see the show.

Charles:                               

That's fantastic. What an experience.

Michael Kassan:               

But I believe that our special sauce at MediaLink is that we are in the room where it happens, more than anybody else. That's a great opportunity. But I will also say in the spirit of knowing one's own joke, because I think it's important. If I know the joke, then you can't play it on me, because I already know it. And so in my case, I would say that there are people who will sometimes say it to me, but may not, say, "You know Michael, one of the things that you did in building MediaLink was you figured out a way to build a business on the back of introducing people to people they already know." And I say, "That's correct."

Except as Thomas Jefferson says in that lyric when he's speaking to Madison, about the meeting with Hamilton, he refers to the fact that he arranged the menu, the venue, and the seating. And I would submit to you that, even if you're introducing people to people they already know, if you have the right menu, the right venue, and the right seating, it renders a different result. Could be a totally different meeting. And I think that's what we're particularly good at, is understanding the needs of the various partners as I said earlier, and bringing those people together, around an idea, around a deal.

And I said I would come back to the word conflict. We're in a time in our industry where transparency and disclosure are so hyper focused right now and with good reason. Clients want transparency. They want to understand how their money's being invested and all of that. I get that. I'll take that transparency and apply it against the word conflict. My view has always been, and I've been very straightforward about this and very forthright about it is, conflict doesn't exist if you're transparent and fully disclosed. I don't think it's a conflict to represent two people in the same transaction, as long as they both know. Then it's a decision. Then it's not a conflict.

Now you can argue ... You go back, I was in a retail mode this morning because we were talking to a group of retailers. But I go back to Macy's and Gimbels. Could you represent Macy's and represent Gimbels? Could you represent Coke and can you represent Pepsi? Can you represent this guy and that guy? That's a different conversation. I do believe you can, because I think that's where the idea of the proper confidentiality and the proper respect for the sanctity of the idea ... And again, my training as a lawyer was steeped in confidentiality and nondisclosure of confidential information, but also steeped in understanding maximum amount of disclosure in that which you can disclose. And maximum transparency.

Charles:                               

And to your point, let people make a choice, as a result.

Michael Kassan:               

And then people have a choice to make.

Charles:                               

Last question for you. What are you afraid of?

Michael Kassan:               

Irrelevance.

Charles:                               

That's why you show up?

Michael Kassan:               

That's why I show up.

Charles:                               

I like to wrap every episode with what I've come to describe as three themes, or three takeaways that ... Just my observations in real time about what I think makes you a successful leader. So I'll throw these at you, and you can tell me I haven't heard you.

I think first, clearly is that you have this ability to make everybody feel important. It's very human, it's very connective. I think it's a rare gift, but it manifests I think in a number of different ways, and you just bring that quality with you. You seem very interested in the person.

Two is, and you've described this in a number of different ways today. You clearly have a set of values, and I think not enough leaders have actually sat down and said, "These are the three things that matter to me. These are the three ways that I show up. These are the three ways that I behave. This is how I judge people." And I think the more that that gets codified, the higher the standard that leaders hold themselves to.

And then three, and you've said this specifically and overtly, you show up. And I couldn't agree with you more. I think there are too many leaders who just don't, often enough, and who get too isolated in terms of what they're doing, and the world just doesn't work that way anymore, and people need to show up I think, and figure out what else is going on out there.

Michael Kassan:               

First of all I'm appreciative of that. I'm honored to be described that way, and so I guess all I should do is, taking another page from Hamilton, talk less, smile more.

Charles:                               

Michael Kassan, thank you so much for being on Fearless today. It's been fantastic.

Michael Kassan:               

Charles, my pleasure. I appreciate you inviting me.

Charles:                               

Thank you so much.

Michael Kassan:               

I don't know how [crosstalk] but-

Charles:

Wonderful. I loved it.