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IQ News: Profile - Steve Coffey's Keeping Track

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Media Metrix exec followed path of fate.
Steve Coffey helped build one of the Internet's most influential companies--a global business that's become the premier index of what's hot and what's not in the online world. So how did Coffey, executive vice president and vice chairman of Media Metrix, get such a big jump on his well-heeled competitors?
By accident.
As a kid in Grand Marais, Minn., and later as a Russian translator in the U.S. Air Force, Coffey had never even heard of market research. But when he left the service in 1979, fate landed him in Pillsbury's research department in Minneapolis, typing forms for the cake mix category.
"We'd set up these tests," Coffey says. "People would come in, taste a cake and talk about it." The tests illustrated the power of research: If testers loved a cake, it could lead to "a $10 million decision to build a plant in the suburbs," Coffey recalls. "That's when I got the bug."
He went on staff as an analyst and found it to be a powerful training ground. In 1981, he joined the Chicago office of NPD Group, a market research firm. Four years later, Coffey moved to NPD's Port Washington, N.Y., facility to head up its panel research for packaged goods, directing a joint venture with Nielsen Marketing Research to measure consumers' viewing, reading and purchasing habits.
When Coffey became head of NPD's advanced R&D team, he came up with the idea of building a device to meter the actual usage of software on the PC. "We were looking at ways to exploit technology for custom and syndicated research," Coffey says. "NPD was tracking software sales by point of sale. We [wanted] to enrich the sample of data we could offer."
In 1994, the Web was mostly a collection of grad students' home pages; proprietary dial-up services ruled online. "Our list of priorities at the time was, first, forge a relationship with Prodigy; second, put out feelers to America Online; and third, find out what this Internet thing is," Coffey says.
In January 1995, Coffey and team members Karen Fore and David Pinsley installed the first PC Meters on the company's computers to see whether they'd work. There was one unexpected, paradigm-shifting discovery. Not only did the PC Meter tell what software was used, it also told what Web pages Prodigy users viewed.
Coffey still remembers the moment. "The light went on. We were like, 'Oh my God!' I went running up to [NPD owner] Tod Johnson's office and said, 'Look, I need a million bucks, I'll explain later.' "
Coffey has been running like that ever since. Media Metrix launched in 1995 as PC Meter with majority ownership by NPD. (The name was changed to Media Metrix in 1997.) Coffey talked up the service at conferences and trade shows. Most of the big New York ad agencies and media companies bought preliminary subscriptions. The first Internet ratings were published the following January; when Coffey unveiled them at a conference, he says his audience was amazed. "Everyone was convinced that Pathfinder would be No. 1--the hype had been incredible, but there was no data." Instead, AOL topped the list. Coffey was as stunned as anyone else, proving how important standardized tracking could be.
Since then, Coffey has concentrated on building out the Media Metrix service, which now has 50,000 "people under measurement" in the United States and 15,000 outside the country. Only this month did the company get around to changing the meter's name to MMXI Meter, to better reflect its purpose--and the company's rather volatile stock.
He skates to work through Manhattan, and has been known to arrive at a meeting with tire tracks on his pants. He doesn't wear a helmet, to the horror of his staff. "At this job, I can't take risks," he says. "There's so much riding on the quality of our data that we scrutinize it every step of the way. So in those few moments when I'm not working, that's where I can get my thrills and swim with the sharks--or at least skate with the cabs."
Coffey has a mellow side, too. In the right mood, at the right cocktail lounge, he'll sit down at the piano and croon a few tunes. His favorite song: Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me."