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Zimmer vs. Kassan: ‘Complete Lies’ and M&A Gone Bad

Michael Kassan
It's all pretty tawdry, and a bit rich coming from one of the major Hollywood talent agencies, which often take lavish spending and decadent expense accounts to absurd heights in pursuit of better optics. Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images for Xandr
Matthew Belloni
March 15, 2024

Are you Team Zimmer or Team Kassan? The agent or the operator? Tough to pick, I know, after United Talent Agency and its C.E.O., Jeremy Zimmer, traded particularly nasty lawsuits this week with Michael Kassan, the ad industry impresario whose MediaLink consultancy was purchased by UTA back in 2021 for $125 million in cash. Like so many arranged business marriages, this one did not go well.    

I’m not gonna rehash the exhausting lists of allegations here—except to note that fighting over which helicopter rides from Nice to Cannes were warranted is both funny and gross. UTA basically says Kassan played Willy Wonka with his nearly $1 million-a-year expense account to fund a “lavish personal lifestyle,” and he paid himself millions in phony reimbursements that had no “rational business purpose.” They say Kassan—who, remember, was convicted of corporate embezzlement in the ’90s, and temporarily disbarred for violating “a most fundamental rule of honesty”—was essentially running the same scam with UTA’s money. And when they caught him, they say, he quickly resigned and brought an arbitration claim to cover his ass.   

It’s all pretty tawdry, and a bit rich coming from one of the major Hollywood talent agencies, which often take lavish spending and decadent expense accounts to absurd heights in pursuit of better optics. (Remember, Mercedes and Armani allowances were the norm for most agents not that long ago.) For decades, way before UTA bought MediaLink, Kassan was promoting himself as the Svengali-slash-Michael Clayton of the ad industry by gleefully spending millions of dollars on private jets and gifts and boondoggles. If you’ve ever been to C.E.S., or the Cannes Lions ad festival, or the Upfronts or NewFronts—basically anywhere Kassan could position himself and his deep Rolodex—chances were that he was throwing an eye-roller of a party or moderating some circle-jerk panel. 

I hate the word “connector,” but the only reason Kassan would gather C.E.O.s or pay Sting or Mary J. Blige to perform for paunchy ad execs was because they would think of him as the ultimate connector—a business lubricant and problem-fixer without whom they couldn’t do business. Are those legitimate expenses? Maybe not the housekeeper, as is alleged by UTA. What about all his personal accouterments of success and generosity and connectivity? They did eventually trickle down to his 125-person company and, at least since early 2022, UTA as well.    

Still, the Kassan side isn’t that much more compelling. He essentially argues that he was perfectly happy running MediaLink under Ascential, the owner of Cannes Lions. But then Zimmer lured him to UTA with $125 million and, most importantly, the promise that he’d run all of its entertainment and culture marketing group, thereby elevating his profile, his purview, and, ultimately, his business. Then, when he got there, Zimmer pulled a switcheroo, keeping MediaLink siloed, letting lesser marketing partners report to someone else, and eventually bringing no additive value to the partnership, as promised.

That seems… strange. UTA, fueled by private equity cash and insecurity after watching Ari Emanuel and Bryan Lourd turn WME and CAA into much more than just talent agencies, has been on a growth spurt by acquiring nearly 20 companies in the past decade. Plenty of C.E.O.s do a bad job integrating assets, but why would Zimmer intentionally sabotage a company he paid nine figures to acquire? And if Kassan did play inappropriate games with MediaLink funds, as UTA claims was unearthed by a Skadden investigation, that’s grounds for termination.    

Of course, there’s zero chance this dispute actually goes to trial, or even a full arbitration. As we saw with the recent Verve agency fight, which featured all the vitriol of a boardroom showdown without any of the stakes, ousted C.E.O. Bill Weinstein filed a bombshell lawsuit only to withdraw it a week later and settle. Clients like writer-producer Brian K. Vaughan were leaving, and neither side benefited from a protracted fight.  

Still, I wanted to know what was really going on here, and why it spilled into public view. So I got on the phone with Kassan, who hasn’t spoken to the media, preferring to let his lawyer Sanford Michelman and publicist do the talking. Michael was at home in L.A., texting with friends and former colleagues, and he was game to chat, given the barrage unleashed by UTA and its go-to litigator, Bryan Freedman. They filed suit in Superior Court, rather than the private JAMS venue called for in Kassan’s contract, a familiar tactic when the goal is to publicly smear and embarrass. It worked.   

Kassan vs. Zimmer

Kassan insists UTA and Zimmer knew exactly what they were buying in MediaLink, including the million-dollar “special expense” account, the continued existence of which he says was highly negotiated. The Brunello Cucinelli gifts, the personal reimbursements, his wife, Ronnie, using a company credit card, the lifestyle—all of it was known. “This is like Claude Rains in Casablanca: ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you had a casino here,’” Kassan told me. “I mean, to clutch your pearls when Jeremy Zimmer has been on seven, eight, nine plane rides with me—his wife, other partners. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute. Are we kidding here? This is gonna be an investigation?’ And by the way, yes, Ronnie had a MediaLink credit card. She’s had it for 18 years. She bought company gifts for clients. That’s what I do. This is an investigation?”

Kassan did indeed show me some jet manifests with Zimmer’s name on them, as well as some gift logs. (Congrats to banker Aryeh Bourkoff, who got something nice from Bottega on Dec. 6, 2022, as well as Mattel C.E.O. Ynon Kreiz and Universal Music’s Lucian Grainge and his son, Elliot, for whom Gearys was more appropriate.) What’s really going on, Kassan says, is that Zimmer mismanaged the integration, and his people—namely his marketing heads, Julian Jacobs and David Anderson, also named in the arbitration—couldn’t stand to have an outsider running things. “It’s kind of like, they’re the mail-order bride. You can’t show up and say, ‘Yeah, well, I’m not gonna be married,’” Kassan analogized. “No, no, no, you’re married! Jeremy Zimmer made a deal with me that said, ‘These people report to you.’”

Kassan continued: “Maybe I should have known this before, but Jeremy has not done a good job on integration of anything,” he said. “And I was warned, but I was already in the door when I was warned. … Others [at UTA] would constantly come and say to me, ‘This makes no sense.’”

By February, the situation had become untenable, Kassan says. He woke up one morning and, in his “Peter Finch moment,” he resigned and offered to give up $10 million in severance in exchange for the ability to compete with his old firm. That’s when UTA freaked, he told me. Kassan says Zimmer initially begged him to stay, but then they got on a Zoom with the lawyers and, in the words of Kassan and his attorney, Zimmer threatened to “destroy” Kassan’s reputation, harm his legacy, and make the situation “uncomfortable” for his family.

“That’s a complete and absolute lie,” Zimmer responded today. (Yes, I talked to Jeremy, too, against the advice of his P.R. guy.) “What I said was that we had made a determination, after a thorough investigation, that we can terminate for cause. There was no trust anymore. This guy stole millions of dollars from us.”

This isn’t about the expenses, Zimmer continued. “Everyone knows about the jets and the Brunello. But I didn’t know he would lie to his own C.F.O. She came to us crying, saying ‘I don’t want to lose my job, but he’s not letting me tell the truth.’”

In Zimmer’s words, he tried to make the integration of MediaLink work, but Kassan was abusive and absent, and neither Jacobs nor Anderson would work under Kassan and his team. “Unfortunately, Michael was duplicitous to them,” Zimmer told me. “I begged them to work it out, and they said, ‘We can’t work for him.’ [Kassan] said, ‘Fuck them, they can work for me or they can get the fuck out.’ But that’s not what we do at UTA.”  

Kassan says that’s all pretext, ginned up to sound sinister after it was clear that he was planning to leave and waive the $10 million to compete. He says that Zimmer is just afraid of going up against the guy who is synonymous with MediaLink and who ran a business for more than 20 years with more than 20 percent margins. The expenses might have looked uncomfortable, but they were legit and accounted for, he insists. UTA was already audited each year, and everything, including MediaLink, was kosher. “Every year, a grossed-up amount of $1.5 million went to Michael Kassan Inc.,” he said. “When we made the transition [to UTA], consistent with past practices, instead of doing it in one lump sum, we did it monthly, and it was paid to Michael Kassan Inc. Full stop. Not confusing. No controversy.”

And now, Kassan says all he wants to do is leave and start a new company—presumably with many of his MediaLink colleagues, which means that, barring an injunction, the litigation may play out as the two sides fight for employees. “I’m not going to be bound by any restrictive covenant that says I can’t do this or that,” Kassan told me. “I traded $10 million for that. I have a clean piece of paper right now, and that clean piece of paper is going to get written on in very interesting ways. Okay?”   

As only-in-Hollywood nasty as this is, the fundamental problem will feel familiar to most top business executives. M&A is about more than closing the deal; the integration of companies often goes horribly awry, with either clashing businesses or cultures, or via hidden facts or agendas. From AT&T-Time Warner to Disney-Fox, even the biggest companies feel that pain.  

What is MediaLink without Kassan? Zimmer and UTA want to find out. But at a conference in Palm Beach yesterday, I asked a couple investors and top executives that question, and they weren’t sure. There may be many great consultants and corporate advisers in the advertising business, but one noted that ad executives and buyers just tend to feel more comfortable with Kassan onstage. He can fill a room, solve a problem, and, yes, connect people.  

Despite all the vitriol, I talked briefly to Freedman today, and he argued that Kassan owes UTA about $3 million in expenses. Kasan’s arbitration filing asks for at least $25 million, but he wouldn’t tell me how that was calculated. At 73, Kassan wants more than anything to continue to work. My guess is, he pays something to untether himself, UTA agrees to drop the non-compete subject to some key restrictions, and by June, Kassan is helicoptering to the Croisette with a new company, working the crowd at Cannes Lions just like he always does. “Matt,” he told me, as we ended the chat. “You can count on me showing up.”