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The Man Who Took on Nielsen

PrecisionDemand's Jon Mandel

Indeed, even the prospect of analytics-driven media buying is a great relief to many of Mandel’s clients. “Saying that people who look alike act alike—it’s borderline offensive, right? You people all act alike!” cracks Sean Baenen, CMO of ClearChoice, a company that makes and sells pricey dental implants. Baenen says he’s impressed chiefly because he sees a lot of analytics firms claiming to be tech companies but having the same culture as Madison Avenue when what he really wants is Silicon Valley.

It’s important, he says, for new thinking to come from outside, because too much of the ad business has grown complacent. He points to the music world as an example. “The record industry had to be changed by the tech business,” he points out. “It was never going to be changed by the record industry.”


But what’s so special about the numbers being crunched at this one company? To start, where other companies mine data and then apply it, PrecisionDemand is agnostic. It uses material from everywhere. It has a partnership with data-gathering giant Acxiom and uses information purchased from Experian, Personix and Rentrak, set-top box stats bought from several smaller cable companies, vehicle registration information, loyalty card data—pretty much every source of purchasable information its researchers can get their hands on. How those data sets are weighted depends on which of them best identifies the customer base for a given client. The company also handles media buying for its clients, obviating the need for the industry’s endorsement of its methodology.

Sifting through that data is punishing, but Mandel’s team (“my nerds,” he calls them) is holed up in Seattle, spreadsheeting away.

“I [had] a guy who works for NASA—that’s one I always work into a new business pitch,” he says. The NASA guy’s commitment to precision stands in contrast to how derelict in their duties TV researchers have become, Mandel says. “You Snoopy-dance if you’re within 10 percent in this business,” he gripes. “If my guy was off by one-tenth of 1 percent [when he was working on the Mars Rover project], he’d have blown right by Mars.”

WHAT BROUGHT HIM BACK

Interestingly, Mandel says he didn’t even want to join PrecisionDemand. He had quit Nielsen in a rage. (Here’s the quote he gave the press when he left: “I don’t want to say anything negative about the Nielsen Company, but I never understood the humor in Dilbert cartoons before, and now I think they’re the funniest things I’ve ever seen.”) Instead, he embarked on something like a permanent fishing trip on his beloved boat off Long Island, away from people who annoy him and stuff he didn’t want to deal with.

Eventually, his pal Doug McCormick, former CEO of Lifetime and NBCU’s iVillage, called asking for a read on a company in which his firm was looking to invest. That company was PrecisionDemand (McCormick sits on its board). After he signed off on the methodology, Mandel was asked to be CEO.

It was his daughter who talked him into it. “You’re an old fart and you’ve been talking about this for years,” Mandel recalls her saying. “You get a cocktail in you and you talk about GRPs and all this stuff. What have you done? Nobody’s going to remember you. You bought media; now you want a legacy.”

So this, Mandel decided, would be it.

The jury’s still out on whether Mandel’s so-called legacy is in fact the Holy Grail of media research.

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