UTA and MediaLink Go Big on Digital Creators, Gen Z Marketers at Cannes Lions as New Leaders Take Reins

UTA and MediaLink are making a splash on the Croisette at Cannes Lions with a big presence that will focus on the growing clout of social media creators, understanding Gen Z and the importance for top-tier brands of being a part of big pop culture moments.

The expansive MediaLink Beach installation on the sand and numerous other events during the June 17-21 festival in Cannes also designed to reinforce to Madison Avenue and global marketing mavens that MediaLink’s brand consulting business is moving full steam ahead after a messy split with founder Michael Kassan in March.

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UTA, which acquired MediaLink in 2021, also has a big contigent from its own marketing division as well as its creators division that represents hundreds of social media stars and influencers.

Donna Sharp and Christopher Vollmer, MediaLink’s new promoted managing directors and newly named UTA partners, told Variety in an interview on the eve of Cannes Lions that the annual in-person gathering is more vital than ever at a moment of massive transition for media, entertainment and marketing. Cannes Lions puts the spotlight on creativity in global advertising with awards in a range of categories.

“What we’re very focused on is understanding the changing role of the CMO and the pressures they are under,” Sharp said. She points to the growing trend of big brands looking to leverage their marketing dollars and digital footprints by stepping up the volume and production value of their own branded content to drive e-commerce sales. Suddenly, marketing departments are running mini studios.

“For many of our CMO clients, they’re not just asked to do marketing, planning and optimization anymore. In many retail and financial service sectors, CMOs are now P&L owners of media businesses in their own right,” Sharp said.

Another big subject of discussion will of course be the steady march of generative AI tools into the discipline of advertising, promotion and branding. These areas are seen as prime targets for innovation in the labor-intensive process of turning out trailers, key art and all manner of other materials for the technical needs of dozens of media platforms, not to mention copy in dozens of languages.

“We’re going to see more and more examples of overall optimization and how AI can affect the creative process in general,” said Vollmer. MediaLink is unveiling research that underscores how marketers expect AI to contribute to much “higher quality work” in the future, he added. As business needs change, the technological jolt of AI will be a tool that companies need to understand how to use.

MediaLink Beach is back on the Croisette at Cannes Lions this follow a bumpy period for the company.
MediaLink Beach is back on the Croisette at Cannes Lions this follow a bumpy period for the company.

“The timing of Cannes Lions this year takes place at a really interesting moment in the media eco system,” Vollmer said. “We’re on the precipice of more consolidation [among media conglomerates] and the major streaming platforms are on the offensive for ad-supported streaming.”

Vollmer expects another hot topic of conversation this week will be around the ever-increasing value of live sports.

“Sports features really prominently at a level that it never had before, which speaks to its strategic value of the most premium IP for consumers and for advertisers,” he said. “A lot of companies are going to be placing a lot of emphasis on the value of sports as a really important place to be.”

Under founder and former CEO Kassan, MediaLink helped put Cannes Lions on the map as an annual conclave highlighting the power of global advertising with big events and starry affairs. In March, Kassan and UTA parted ways amid a war of words and legal and artibration claims that are still pending. UTA terminated Kassan, accusing him of misusing MediaLink corporate funds. Kassan strongly denies any impropriety and claims UTA violated the terms of his employment contract. Kassan has since announced the launch of a new consulting firm, 3C Ventures.

After the mudslinging headlines, the newly restructured MediaLink team is eager to use the Cannes Lions pedestal to put the focus on the company’s work as a matchmaker for brands and talent and consultant for with brands. In addition to four days of activations and programming at MediaLink Beach, the banner has teamed again with iHeartMedia to host a nighttime bash on Tuesday night at Cannes’ tony Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, with Lenny Kravitz on board as headliner (last year it was Lizzo). On Thursday, UTA hosts ZCannes, a daylong track of Cannes Lions programming focused on reaching Gen Z audiences.

On the UTA side, the agency’s Creators division leaders are here in force with the goal of helping clients develop personal relationships with brands. The wild and often unruly world of influencers lends itself to building long-term partnerships – so long as both sides are a good match.

“The creator economy is continuously redefining the cultural landscape and it’s exciting to see brands recognize their ability to engage wide audiences and foster authentic connections,” said Ali Berman, co-head of the division. “Between UTA creators and the Next Gen team, we have more than tripled the number of creator clients on the ground this year.”

Berman’s fellow co-head Oren Rosenbaum pointed to “outsize influence” that influencers are exerting in marketing and advertising, where most DIY creators make most of their money. “Brands now more than ever are prioritizing creators, and their roles are vital in shaping narratives and driving engagement,” Rosenbaum said.

On the flip side of the creator equation, UTA’s corporate marketing consulting team is emphasizing the importance of brands keeping tabs on pop culture trends and rising stars.

At last year’s Cannes Lions there was much anticipation around Warner Bros.’ big swing with the live-action “Barbie” movie in the weeks before its box office debut. The runaway success of of the Margot Robbie starrer, helmed by UTA client Greta Gerwig, stands as a testament to how creative brand integrations can pay off, such as the fleet of General Motors imprints featured in last year’s blockbuster, said UTA Marketing co-head David Anderson.

“We’re helping corporate clients navigate this evolution of creativity — how they think about working with studios and creators and production companies,” said Anderson. General Motors’ big presence in “Barbie” has “really spurred questions from the brand community about what are those are those breakthrough projects that are coming that will move the needle in culture.”

More than ever, blue-chip marketers hope to see their products not just pitched during commercial breaks but woven into the fabric of content. It’s a tricky balance but those conversations are happening every day, Anderson said.

“It reflects the macro-trend in entertainment of a desire to be part of stories that matter and content that creates an emotional connection,” Anderson said. “That’s why we have so many [social media] creators coming to Cannes. There’s a desire to move past the transactional and have an ongoing relationship and activations with brands.”

(Pictured: Lizzo performs at the 2023 Cannes Lions event hosted by iHeartMedia and UTA’s MediaLink at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc)

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