A vice president of Applebee’s, looking to make some viral content out of those signature mozzarella sticks, met privately in a conference suite at the Wynn hotel with half a dozen ad tech and marketing companies in Las Vegas last week.
I sat in on the meeting, and afterward asked Darin Dugan how he would describe MediaLink, the hosts of the gathering.
“Who?” he said. “Who’s hosting this?”
MediaLink is a strategic advisory firm that a lot of companies use — and that almost no one understands. Run by the professional networkers Michael Kassan and Wenda Harris Millard, MediaLink’s clearest public-facing activities are its evening parties at Cannes and International CES, but the company is just as active during the day. Its 80 employees set up more than 400 events and meetings (“interactions”) across CES, a weeklong festival for gadgets and, increasingly, deal makers.
Their job: To grease the wheels of communication between old media and new tech (i.e., help Conde Nast figure out how to deal with Snapchat), make introductions, headhunt for executives and advise on strategy.
As one observer said at CES, they’re paid to introduce people to people they already know.
Consider: MediaLink works for J.P. Morgan Chase, GE, Unilever, Kraft, AT&T, the New York Times, Conde Nast and Time Inc., among others. Prices for their services range from the lowest end of $500,000 a year to many millions. “You will find we are much lower than most consulting firms,” Millard told me one night. “Very reasonable, given what we do.”
They’re the media world’s shadowy overlords, puppet masters behind almost every deal in the modern media landscape — and every viral mozzarella stick on your Facebook feed.
“I would call them the human routers,” said AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong, who arrived at MediaLink’s Monday and Tuesday night CES parties along with his “digital prophet,” Shingy. “They route more information around in our industry that any other single organization.”
Dawn Ostroff, president of Conde Nast Entertainment said: “Somehow they have their tentacles in every facet. MediaLink takes over CES. They set up the meetings. They’re the hub. The tech, the media, the ads.”
Though MediaLink’s services aren’t really much different from firms like McKinsey or Bain, they inspire a sort of brand loyalty among their clients, in part because they pair consulting with a new executive search business. If you’re an executive in their full service, MediaLink hires you, plans your parties, guides your strategy, introduces you to your friends, and then finds you your next job.
MediaLink can also fire you. Among media executives, fear of MediaLink is real. Their clients even jokingly call MediaLink the “mafia,” and Kassan the “Godfather.” Some executives seem to hire the consultants mostly because they’re worried something bad will happen if they don’t.
“We will compete with McKinsey and Bain, but everything we do is through the lens of the operator,” Millard said. “We don’t do theory. We don’t do ‘perfect world.’ It’s not about the deck.”
Millard and Kassan have certainly been around a long time. Millard, MediaLink’s president and COO, says there’s virtually no one over 35 in the sales business who hasn’t worked for her. She was on the founding team of DoubleClick before joining Yahoo as chief sales officer, and became co-CEO and president of media for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
Kassan, the founder and CEO, has a more varied background. He was a very large franchisee of El Pollo Loco and Rally’s Hamburgers (a part of his career that contained some level of controversy), became president of home video company International Video Entertainment, practiced law, and joined Western International Media (which later became Initiative Media Worldwide) as president. Later, he left and sued its parent company, Interpublic Group for defamation, a dispute now settled (and IPG has since been a client and partner, in fact), before setting out on his own and founding MediaLink in 2003.
“They led our media agency review, and did a workshop on Big Data and marketing — standard consulting, really, but you trust what they say because, and it sounds odd, but because they just know everyone,” said Andrew Markowitz, who leads the Global Digital Strategy Group at GE.
What is MediaLink, though?
“My people have been trying to explain it to me for seven years, and I still have no idea,” CES President Gary Shapiro said. “They’re just everywhere.”
“What do they do? Who are they? I don’t even know!” said Michael Perlis, president and CEO of Forbes, who has known Millard for 30 years and calls her “a juggernaut,” buttonholed as he was walking in to one of the MediaLink events. “All I know is they had a party for 3,000 people last night, and it’s all anyone’s talking about today. And now we’re here! It’s just getting to the critical mass of people wondering what they really do.”
So I followed them around during CES, bird-dogging their executives to find out what the MediaLink operatives actually do in the suites and back rooms and behind those red ropes.
Fairway Villas at the Wynn: Discussions of whether feminine products can go viral
In a converted bedroom of the Wynn’s Fairway Villas in Las Vegas during CES, over a bowl of Hershey’s mini chocolates, Applebee’s Dugan and other MediaLink food-industry clients, including Tyson, the frozen-chicken company, met with ad tech companies I had never heard of (NewsCred, Sharethrough, Unified Social). The execs wanted to know how to use Facebook ads and viral campaigns to make people buy their food or come to their restaurants.
“When social started, there were mistakes — you had Coke and all that, and it freaked everyone out,” said Dugan.
“The big thing is not to get paralyzed by all the content streams,” said David Ives, the chief revenue officer at NewsCred.
On what works best, Ives said: “Listicles, freaking listicles, man. Top 10s.”
“Snackable content?” someone asked.
“Snackable,” Ives said.
“Some brands are inherently viral because they’re funny. But what about feminine products? Will those go viral? Probably not,” said Sharethrough chief revenue officer Mike Gaffney.
The Applebee’s rep asked how much all this social media really translates into traffic.
The ad tech guys fell silent. Did he mean foot traffic, one asked?
Yes, foot traffic, he said.
No one was exactly sure.
C Space at the Aria: Google teaching J.P. Morgan about hair-ombre starlets
In the MediaLink-controlled C Space at the Aria, the “war room” was stocked with a table full of cold cuts, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Tylenol.
Next door, 30 representatives from J.P. Morgan were taking careful notes as they listened to Lucas Watson, VP of global brand solutions & innovations at Google. This was the meat of the MediaLink programming — a special lesson for the old world (J.P Morgan) on the new world (Google).
Watson had paused his presentation on a YouTube ad for Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day. He pressed play and a video about ombre hair dying, made by DulceCandy87 and featuring L’Oreal’s Féria Wild Ombré kit, started up. It is a “trend to brand success” story — young women posted DIY ombre videos to YouTube, and L’Oreal made a product for the trend (in which the highlighting increases toward the tips of the hair).
“Okay, so I’m just going to pause right here,” he said, on a still of the young woman showing off her newly dyed hair. “What you find if you go back in time is all these girls dying their hair ombre and posting to YouTube. L’Oreal developed a product for the trend. And 50 percent of the buyers for this product didn’t even color their hair before.”
Next Watson cued up a Weight Watchers video called “My Butt.” I ducked out.
36th floor of the Aria: Private meetings, and what is money?
Upstairs, in the Aria suites, MediaLink staffers introduced executives to each other in smaller, intimate meetings.
As soon as I got out of the elevator at the 36th floor, Grant Gittlin, heir apparent to Kassan, was in motion. And I was following. In skinny jeans, with black Nikes and long curly hair that he pushes back behind his ears, he cut through the luxury suite and popped into a meeting where two people (the founder of Tone and someone from a larger company) are talking about a deal. Then he moved on, his bright blue eyes roving.
I asked him which person, in that meeting, was MediaLink’s client — like, who exactly was paying MediaLink.
“Money is a base concern,” he said. “These two men are not meeting about media and marketing, they’re meeting about business and creating opportunity.” Still, who’s paying? No answer.
(Later, when I asked someone at the big MediaLink party who was paying, he said, flatly: “Everyone.”)
He power-walked along and into the hallway and back downstairs. He was texting, handing things to people, high-fiving as we spun past the slot machines. Someone shouted, “Hey Grant, are you free for a quick second?” “No,” he shouted back, “I’m in three meetings.”
We swung into the Jean Philippe Patisserie for more walking handshakes, and then through the Aria Cafe just off the casino floor. He pointed to one guy: “This is the the man, the man, the man,” he said. He stopped in at another table, he was introducing Metamarkets to Hulu — it’s a get-together that Gittlin set up, and they’ve saved him a seat. He couldn’t stay for lunch, though, he said. Maybe he can intro them, though, they asked? Standing and swaying by the table, he introduced them all.
“They’re like LinkedIn, but in the flesh,” said Mike Driscoll, founder and CEO of Metamarkets, before diving into the meeting.
Back down the hallways we went. I ask for Gittlin’s bio: He’s 29 years old, from Florida, and previously worked in a hedge fund “where everyone was very sad.”
“I wanted to find someone who loves what they do. I asked to basically carry Michael’s umbrella,” he said. “I was the third admin when I started.”
Now he’s now CXO (Chief Execution Officer) and Kassan’s right-hand man.
You’re based in LA?
“I’m wherever I’m told to be,” he said.
I noticed that one of his shoes was unlaced, and I thought our interview was continuing, but he must have been texting with my media handler, because when the elevator door opened, Watson hopped out and she hopped in. “Wait, wait,” I shouted. I wanted to ask him what MediaLink was, and to tell him that his shoe was untied. “Gotta go,” he said as the doors closed, and I was already going down.
Foxtail at the SLS Hotel: This is not a party
MediaLink goes to great pains not to be thought of as a party planner, but it does plan the most powerful party at CES — many people fly in for this event alone. The Tuesday night party for more than 250 guests is their most exclusive event.
“They throw the most coveted party at Cannes every year, at the Hotel du Cap. Nobody will mess with their night,” said Desiree Gruber, the producer of “Project Runway.” “Every other night is negotiable but theirs.”
Millard stood by the rope, greeting people.
“I stand out here because I’m 5′2″, and otherwise I get dozens of emails the next morning — ‘Where were you? I didn’t see you!'” said Millard, in pearls and a glittering pink, almost metallic Kate Spade dress. “See and be seen!”
Salesforce founder Marc Benioff walked past. Millard undid the rope to let someone in past the line. “Just this once,” she said in her southern drawl, “because you have the best hair in the business.”
“My idea of a great party is five tables of eight, so 40 people,” she said. “I showed up, and Michael had added a zero!”
Inside, she ran into Jim Dolan, the president and CEO of Cablevision Systems Corporation, and then Greg and Jill Peters, the co-founders of NDN, a digital video and advertising distributor.
The Peterses had just talked to Business Insider head Henry Blodget, but would love to get lunch with him. Could Millard set that up?
“Yes, yes! Absolutely!” she said. “It would be my pleasure.”
What this means: They had met Blodget already, and knew him. They were just talking to him. But they needed Millard to set up the lunch. This is exactly the MediaLink business model.
“Relationships have become more important with technology, not less,” Millard said, as explanation. “It’s people who know how to build relationships who will always win over people who think the whole world will turn into one giant algorithm.”
“Are you behaving yourself? Well, you shouldn’t be!” Millard shouted to Bob Sauerberg, the president of Conde Nast.
Kassan walked around the event with a perpetual smile and raised eyebrows, his forehead marked in thick lines from his perma-laugh.
“Kassan is kind of a god in this world,” said Shapiro, the president of CES, who was having a drink with Benioff. “He’s like a Bill Clinton.”
Kassan, who once wrote a chapter in a book called “The Strategy of Meetings,” explained his role: “We live in an intersection of media, marketing, technology and entertainment and at that intersection, there was enormous chaos. Where there is chaos, there is opportunity.”
He said people don’t recognize their importance: “The advertisers are not a sliver of the CES story — it’s the fuel for the whole damn thing,” he said.
As the evening wrapped up, some guests (who happened to be clients, of course) wondered how much it all cost. Adding up the Aria C suite, the sky suites, the cars, the logistics, the crab legs, they guessed MediaLink spent about $2 million just on their CES rollout. MediaLink declined to comment.
“It’s hard to talk about a price,” Millard said, when I asked why no one wants to give specifics. “This is a party, but it’s not just a party.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.