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The Man Who Took on Nielsen

PrecisionDemand's Jon Mandel

IF YOU CAN'T BEAT ‘EM…

Mandel is familiar with the selling points for Nielsen’s GRPs—after all, he used to sell them.

Long before PrecisionDemand, Mandel made his living off the Nielsen ratings. A longtime national TV media buyer for Grey Advertising, he ultimately became CEO shortly after Grey funneled its media buying and planning business into MediaCom. Over that 30-year span, Mandel acted not merely as the middleman preaching the virtues of Nielsen ratings to clients but as head middleman.

Mandel ultimately grew disenchanted with the inadequacies of TV measurement and in 2006 joined Nielsen, where, he says, he hoped he could effect change at the research giant (Nielsen gathers all manner of data beyond TV ratings; recent reports say it is now incorporating consumer banking data into its mix). There, he headed an internal division, NielsenConnect, designed to generate new and deeper research by fusing data from disparate parts of the company. “They were really just a bunch of fiefdoms that didn’t work together,” Mandel relates. “What they wanted to do was put together the data … I thought they wanted me to save Nielsen, and it gave me a chance to tie the purchase data into the ratings data, to tie it all to the cash register.”

What he found, he says, was a mess. Mandel claims to have identified 14 different healthcare subsidiaries within Nielsen, all operating independently of one another. (A source close to the situation says that number is improbable.) Added to that, the methodology bothered him.

“I’m talking to the consumer side,” he says, “and they’re insisting to me that the use of menopause products among boys 6-11 are spiking, and I said, ‘That’s not right.’ And they said, ‘No, look at the data.’” (A source could not confirm or deny the account but says Mandel may be conflating two separate incidents). Ultimately, the time came to present a report featuring findings about menopausal grade schoolers to one of the company’s higher-ups. Rather than fix the data, Mandel recalls, somebody said, “Just take it off the chart. Don’t show him that.”

“They were doing things garbage-in, garbage-out,” he says. “If it came out of the computer, it was great! I couldn’t live with that. And I realized, wait, I’m here to save Nielsen and God can’t save this place.”

Dave Thomas, a self-described Mandel fan who worked with him at Nielsen, argues that the company’s problems are complicated by clients (read: the networks) that are leery of change. “Everybody wants a bigger sample size, but nobody wants to pay more,” Thomas says. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

A BETTER BRAND OF DATA?

Mandel’s beef with Nielsen, one industry vet points out, is something of a self-serving pitch—the old I-was-blind-but-now-I-see gambit. Mandel, onetime champion of Nielsen ratings and a veteran of the advertising world, is here to tell you that he used to sell you snake oil but has discovered something better. In person and over the phone, Mandel does not come off as gleeful or disingenuous, though; he sounds tired, and even a little angry.

Is this all part of a new con? Some may think so. But there’s also the matter of his new product actually working. Adweek called as many PrecisionDemand clients as we could find (many of them in the direct response business), and they generally believe this is the way of the future. “They’re changing the landscape of media buying,” says Jessica Abramson, senior director of consumer marketing at streaming music service Rhapsody. “I wouldn’t doubt that in several years, the entire industry is revamped.”

Abramson says her company was involved with PrecisionDemand back when it was Proceed Media—just a few rocket scientists (literally—we’ll get to that in a moment) crunching some data—and was very happy with it. “It’s a legitimate and trackable channel for us to grow our business,” she explains. “No one really truly knows the effect that TV has, whether it’s moving product or digital subscriptions.”

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