The Man Who Took on Nielsen

PrecisionDemand's Jon Mandel

Photo: Elizabeth Lippman

It’s about 9 p.m. New York time, and Jon Mandel is in Seattle, on the phone, telling a story about the story the Nielsen ratings weren’t telling.

“It was Danny Abraham,” he says, speaking about billionaire Slim-Fast magnate S. Daniel Abraham. “I was presenting a buy—I’ll never forget this—it was a daytime network buy,” Mandel says, rapidly shifting into high gear. “It was ABC, CBS and NBC. What are they trying to do? They’re trying to reach young women. NBC was more expensive, but it made sense because it was women 18-49. But Danny always looked at the unit cost.”

Mandel pauses for breath. “I wish you could type in one of those New York Jewish accents: ‘There you go, confusing me with that ratings shit,’” Abraham said to Mandel. “‘If the cash register rings, we’ll do more. If it doesn’t ring, we’ll do something else.’ That’s what the business is about, and we’ve cluttered it up with GRPs and all these proxies.”

Mandel, who spent his career as a media buyer before joining forces with Nielsen for a time, is now the CEO of PrecisionDemand, an analytics company that breaks down several different data sets into recommendations on which network to buy ad space, how much of it to buy and for which time slot—all with the goal of making, as Abraham put it, the cash registers ring.

The process, for those unfamiliar with the purchase of TV advertising, goes something like this: Advertisers buy airtime from networks in the form of gross ratings points (GRPs) measured by Nielsen, which break down viewership by age, sex and other broad segments. “Here’s X-million dollars,” you tell the network. “Run my ad on your new show every week at 7 p.m. until it’s been seen by at least 4 percent of women 18-49 watching TV at that hour, since that’s the consumer set market researchers tell me buys my product.”

As with other companies (including TRA, Simulmedia and Invidi), PrecisionDemand gives advertisers a data set to use as an overlay, telling them which of those GRPs is more valuable to the client’s specific needs—because there are enormous differences.

Women watching Bravo, for example, have far more money than women watching soap operas, though they fit into the same Nielsen demographic. If a retailer doesn’t have stores on the West Coast but half of the network’s viewers are in Los Angeles, then clearly half the advertiser’s money is wasted. Without analysis to tell them which networks, programs and time slots are most likely to reach and appeal to a client, then marketers are simply buying points for “women 18-49,” measured with a yardstick Mandel maintains is only “40 to 60 percent effective.”

Industry grousing about Nielsen ratings has gotten louder in recent years as TV viewership has become fragmented and smaller demographic measurements have become more valuable. One Nielsen executive, who asked not to be identified for this story, extols the virtues of the company’s ratings panel, which tracks the behavior of 22,000 households and projects statistics down to the thousands for the 111 million homes with televisions in the U.S.

“The mistake, I think, that’s made is that consistent is accurate,” says the exec, who admits that “as the ratings get more and more dispersed, we need a larger sample size,” adding that Nielsen has several initiatives planned to increase GRP accuracy.

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