Does Michael Kassan single-handedly control the advertising and marketing industries?
Now, I don’t shuttle between New York City, Cannes, CES, and AAAA conferences, but apparently Kassan does. As CEO of MediaLink, a “strategic advisory and business development firm,” he’s a svengali/consigliere/media whisperer-type guy who’s a conduit between the biggest players among ad agencies, media buying firms, holding companies, brands, publishers, and platforms. And curiously, he’s at the center of New Yorker writer Ken Auletta’s new book Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else).
Auletta takes a big-picture look at the forces that have rocked the advertising, marketing, and media worlds, and covering it all is no easy feat. We get a inside look at the contentious spat between the ANA and AAAA over media kickbacks and rebates, the voluminous media account reviews that occurred in 2015 & 2016, the rise of publishers producing brand content to replace ad revenue, the impact of consultancies, PR firms, and platforms like Google and Facebook getting in on the ad action, the prominence of outlets like Netflix, and more.
The book gets its title because all of these entities are portrayed as frenemies — simultaneously partnering and competing for revenue as well as the consumer’s attention. Oh, and the consumer is a frenemy too, throwing the media world into chaos by demanding content for next to no cost without those pesky, interruptive ads while leaving valuable personal data breadcrumbs with every click. Through all these disruptive changes, Auletta puts Michael Kassan at the center of all the machinations.
Auletta spent lots of time with industry bigwigs, so the book is filled with quotes from a cross-section of figures. In addition to Kassan, he spends a lot of time focused on WPP’s Martin Sorrell, and Frenemies went to press before Sorrell left the holding company he started. (Don’t worry, they’re scheduled for a one-on-one conversation in Cannes this year). It’s clear the book’s paperback edition will have some juicy updates.
But despite Auletta’s mostly straightforward writing and reporting style, he drops many asides that reveal how feckless he finds the whole nature of advertising.
As a copywriter and someone with a deep knowledge of ad industry history, I was struck by how dismissive and disdainful Auletta is about creatives and creativity. He’s very snarky about the pursuit of “big ideas” and “brand stewardship.” His constant references to the fictional world of “Mad Men” and Don Draper, which get old quickly, show how little patience or respect he has for the actual advertising product and the people who make it. This extends to editorial sloppiness, too: At one point he refers to CP+B as its outdated moniker “Crispin Porter.” And other than a few Jeff Goodby, Bob Greenberg, and Jerry Della Femina quotes, we don’t hear much from the creative side of the industry.
That may be the biggest lesson of Frenemies: Auletta, as he himself admits, is following the money. As an outsider to the ad industry, he focuses on the intrigue at the top of the corporate ladder, which largely takes place in private suites at conferences and Manhattan dinners. It’s a valid perspective — by keeping a birds-eye view throughout the book, he gives us an accurate picture of the massive shifts in spending and power taking place. Because that is what’s affecting all of us, no matter what we do in the advertising and marketing industries or where we do it. (Incidentally, there’s not a ton of gossip in the book, but perhaps the juiciest tidbit comes when Auletta reveals that upon leaving her role at President/CEO of the AAAA, Nancy Hill walked away from a $700K annual salary.)
Auletta wrote Frenemies in a way that reads like an extended magazine profile, personality-driven with Kassan at the center and countless others swirling around him lending their quotes. You don’t have to be working in the advertising or marketing industries to understand the picture Auletta paints of an industry gone haywire, and I suspect the book will gain more traction among curious outsiders because of that. So if you’re truly wondering what it looks like at the top of the advertising, marketing, and media industries from a keen reporter with a nice expense account, Frenemies makes a worthwhile read.
Frenemies will be published on June 5, 2018.