Make or Break

How a famous 'Hamilton' lyric propelled MediaLink's CEO to become the ultimate power broker

This media exec uses a famous 'Hamilton' lyric to guide his leadership style
Key Points
  • Michael Kassan's business advice is sought after worldwide by media moguls, Hollywood visionaries and technology pioneers.
  • As CEO of MediaLink, Kassan leads a global team of more than 165 specialists that provide counsel for navigating the age of digital disruption.
  • One of his guiding principles is 'Talk less. Listen more' — a doctrine Kassan said he derived from his favorite hit musical, "Hamilton."

As one of America's key forces shaping the global entertainment industry, Michael Kassan is sought after worldwide by media moguls, Hollywood visionaries, technology pioneers, advertising holding company heads and Wall Street investors to help them solve their most complex business challenges.

One of his guiding principles: Talk less. Listen more — a doctrine Kassan derived from the hit musical "Hamilton," he said.

"God gives you two ears and one mouth, which means you're supposed to listen more than talk. And you know, at some point I can't have a conversation like this without referring to my obsession with all things Hamilton. It's kind of the advice Aaron Burr gave to Alexander Hamilton early on in the show and in the lyric 'Talk less. Smile more.' I would have edited that to say, 'Talk less. Listen more.'

"But I understand the importance of smile more," continued Kassan, who admitted seeing the play six times. "You know, I don't agree with Aaron Burr's advice, which is 'Don't ever share your opinion; keep it to yourself and just smile.' I do think it's important to share your opinion, certainly in our business, but it's also critically important to listen."

This principle, among the many others the MediaLink founder, chairman and CEO steadfastly lives by, has propelled Kassan to the top of the marketing sector, a trusted advisor dubbed as the industry's ultimate power broker.

Michael Kassan, founder, chairman and CEO of MediaLink
Ethan Miller | Getty Images News | Getty Images

In 2003 Kassan launched his strategic advisory firm, known for its high-profile relationships with Cannes Lions and CES. It evolved, he said, around an intersection that was forming between marketing, media, advertising, entertainment and technology.

"Those words kind of roll off my tongue," he said in an interview with CNBC. "Because continually that's how I've described MediaLinks' position in the marketplace. ... And I think one would argue it's one of the most chaotic intersections that exist today.

"We were fortunate to be able to bring some order to that chaos," he said.

To explain this, Kassan uses the analogy of a meeting going south. "If a meeting's not necessarily going the way you'd like it to, or there's a fork in the road or a speed bump you hit, sometimes it's good to create some chaos over the right or left so that you can rethink and regroup and take the meeting where you want it to go," he said.

"Find the chaos, and if you can see the opportunity and find solutions or answer the questions, there's a business opportunity there."

Keeping pace with the industry

Like most industries, the media and advertising business is constantly transforming to entice new customers.

Today, he said, people don't want too many choices.

He points to President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign as an example. "Think about our election three years ago, or two and a half years ago, as a skinny bundle," he said. "What Donald Trump identified was the three or four issues that everybody wanted. You can see where I'm going. The three or four channels that everybody's really watching were the five, not the 500. Focus on that and deliver your message directly to the consumer ... not through the traditional gatekeepers. Thank you Twitter."

God gives you two ears and one mouth, which means you're supposed to listen more than talk. It's kind of the advice Aaron Burr gave to Alexander Hamilton early on in the show and in the lyric 'Talk less. Smile more.' I would have edited that to say, 'Talk less. Listen more.'
Michael Kassan
MediaLink's founder, chairman and CEO

In 2017, to propel Kassan's U.S.-based company into Europe and Asia, MediaLink was acquired by UK-based Ascential for $69 million; the final valuation will become known in 2021, based on MediaLink's adjusted EBITDA. Staying on as chairman and CEO, Kassan now leads a global team of more than 165 specialists that provide counsel for navigating the age of digital disruption. This year he was inducted into the American Advertising Federation's Hall of Fame.

Besides his takeaway from the musical "Hamilton," Kassan has acquired many leadership strategies along the way. Here are just some of the ones he shared with CNBC.

Count to 10 before responding. "The time I spend in L.A., in Monterey, in Los Angeles has always been 'Instant gratification isn't quick enough.' And as a result of that, we all tend to move sometimes too quickly. And sometimes because of, again, the nature of text and email, you find yourself oftentimes forced to answer too quickly. So the thing that I did was I learned how to count to 10 before I respond. I don't have a knee-jerk reaction. When you take a moment to reflect, and I do think you need to in this day and age — it's not about smelling the roses, although we all need to do that; it's about thinking before you act. The speed of information today sometimes doesn't allow you to think as much as you should.

Don't kiss and tell. "If you listen and you apply your own experience and try to understand the surrounding circumstances that a particular solve requires, and if you are ... transparent and trustworthy and if you don't kiss and tell, then you get a lot of opportunity to help people solve problems.

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If you presume you're going to give advice and be right 1000% of the time, you're wrong. "If you can say that you've given advice and counsel and direction and strategic help to and you've been right at least one out of three times, not so bad. You know I would say yes, of course, you'd like it more. But I don't want to say that I had a better batting average than the top players in the history of Major League Baseball."

When you ride on a highway, know when to take the exit signs. "You may not choose to take them, but it's good not to be on a road to nowhere and to know that should you choose to get off the highway, metaphorically, that there's an opportunity. I wasn't looking at MediaLink in terms of my selling it; I was looking at MediaLink in terms of my building it ... and what are the opportunities that might present themselves and what are those potential off ramps."

You should be focused but not too narrow. "I don't think a narrow approach is, you know, necessarily the answer. But I think a focused approach is an answer. I think you can be focused and broad and not just be narrow. You have to look at what Disney's doing. You have to understand that they've made gigantic bets but with what appears to be a pretty clear focus. Content matters."

Remember the four T's. "There's a word that begins with cluster that we can all figure out what the end of that sentence might look like. It seems to be the case right now, so it is time for people to take seriously the need to reimagine, reanimate, reconsider structure and organization and talent. I've been consistent on one thing: that I think our industry — and again, when I say our industry I mean our collective industries — all seem to be revolving around words that begin with the letter T. Transparency ... trust ... technology ... talent."

Have a lot of mentors — or people you can trust. "I've been fortunate over the years to have lots of mentors in different aspects of my life and lots of people that I trust and people to whom I would share my thoughts, my aspirations, my insecurities — whatever they might be."