How Nielsen Is Shedding Old Perceptions, and Building New Businesses

CEO Mitch Barns leads evolution at research giant

Two weeks ago, Nielsen began phasing out its paper TV ratings diaries for the 140 local markets in which the antiquated system is still active. By the middle of next year, Nielsen says, it will provide electronic measurement across all of its 210 designated market areas.

How big a deal is that? Well, that depends on your point of view.

All told, Nielsen data underpins and informs a staggering $70 billion in annual ad sales, but these days the paper diaries account for less than 5 percent of the company's TV business. Nielsen's national ratings system and most of its local DMAs long ago adopted set-top-box data and other modern methods to calculate viewing numbers.

Given those parameters, industry watchers like Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser believe that Nielsen's move to trash its remaining logbooks "wasn't very important, considering how little of their revenue was associated with diaries." But others maintain the symbolic significance is profound, as pulping the diaries marks a key break with Nielsen's analog past and another stride toward its pervasively digital future.

Mostly, it's a matter of perception. Nielsen is often criticized as slow to change, sluggish to adapt its processes to suit the complex needs of clients across a media and marketing landscape in constant flux. The continued use of paper journals by any portion of Nielsen's 40,000 viewing households (encompassing 100,000 viewers) hurts the company's image. Indeed, a New York Times story reminding readers of the existence of the diaries this past February unleashed a fresh wave of scorn in the marketplace.

Nielsen CEO Mitch Barns believes such attacks are unfounded and ignore the sweeping transformation of the 93-year-old company under his guidance. Nielsen has built out its business in bold new directions, he says, offering increasingly sophisticated analytics and measurement tools to help media and marketing players compete at scale. "If you look at our business right now and at the markets we serve, they're changing at a faster pace than what has previously been true in our history," says Barns. "And so we've had to keep pace with that."


Nielsen's evolution is twofold, encompassing both sides of the company's operations: "Watch" and "Buy." Watch is the better known of the two, tracking media consumption in 45 markets and covering 80 percent of media spend worldwide. Flying somewhat under the radar is Nielsen Buy, which provides market analysis, retail measurement and sales insights to the packaged-goods industry in 106 global markets, representing 90 percent of the world's GDP.

Some might be surprised to learn that Buy is larger than Watch, and that's been true for quite some time. In the first half of 2016, Buy revenue was $1.65 billion, up nearly 4 percent, while Watch tallied $1.44 billion, a 6 percent gain. (Total revenue in 2015 was $6.17 billion.)

Barns views the continued growth and, to an extent, the convergence of Watch and Buy as essential to Nielsen positioning itself as an indispensable corporate partner, helping marketers boost sales and setting a new industry standard for determining ratings and ad prices.

What's more, he foresees increased automation driving that process. "As we continue to leverage technology in a bigger way … we move much more to a data-as-a-service and software- as-a-service model," he says, much as Adobe evolved from selling software in a box to providing a cloud-based suite of tools and services. Nielsen's implementation of this concept is called Nielsen Marketing Cloud. Launched this past spring, it is based in large part on technology and expertise the company gained from last year's acquisition of eXelate.

Nielsen Marketing Cloud gives the company's clients faster access to data and analysis, which helps them make more informed marketing and media decisions. The system facilitates cross-channel planning by letting clients connect in real time to mobile, online, over-the-top TV, video, social and other platforms. It lets them analyze how advertising and content mold consumers' purchase decisions. That means advertisers can see which platforms or specific types of media are doing best with their target audiences at any given moment and shift ad dollars accordingly. "It takes different product capabilities, connects them all into this interoperable system," says Barns. "It's off to a great start in the U.S., and we also, just in the summer, launched it in Europe."

The company is exploring other new frontiers, with wide-ranging efforts to diversify. One example is Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience. Launched through the 2015 purchase of Innerscope Research, the practice explores the subconscious responses that drive consumer behaviors.

Then, there's Nielsen Innovate, an early-stage investment fund that focuses on areas of client interest. In just two years of operation, the fund has backed 19 startups. Such efforts, according to John Burbank, Nielsen's president of strategic initiatives, ensure that the company "is prepared for a future in which our clients are going to be facing challenges from new types of competitors and new interests from consumers."


An increasingly challenging marketplace drives Nielsen's Buy-side evolution, as CPG companies demand intricate data for business decisions, often with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. To that end, Nielsen has cast itself as a performance management firm, providing guidance for navigating the sales funnel.

Ainsworth Pet Nutrition—best known for its Rachael Ray Nutrish brand—has been a Buy client for more than 10 years. Nielsen's "work has a significant influence on decisions we make with our products, how we approach a market, new-product development, advertising, ROI and channel development," says Walt Wdowiak, Ainsworth's vp, innovation and insights.

In the Buy process, Nielsen collects data from a variety of sources. These include checkout scans from both brick-and-mortar and online venues. Such data covers pricing, purchase dates and other variables. In addition to those retail scans, Nielsen's Homescan Shopper Panel—totaling 100,000 households in the U.S.—provides key insights about purchasing habits based on factors such as age, gender, geography, income, race, level of education and family size.

The data drill-down can get amazingly granular. For example, Nielsen can peel out sales for specific products purchased by Hispanic households—or for acculturated Hispanic households vs. non-acculturated Hispanics—and report back on where and when these consumers bought those items, and in which amounts. It can even tell clients which competitors are popular among the demographic. This allows Nielsen to weigh buying behaviors across numerous product types and categories.

The end result: Nielsen can tell clients which of their offerings are best-sellers or busts at, for example, a particular convenience mart among acculturated, college-educated, millennial Hispanic families with 2.5 children. Also, it could explain why those products were popular or passed over by the demo. Nielsen can identify issues such as out-of-stock situations, distribution gaps or lack of promotion, helping clients adjust their efforts accordingly. Plus, its product innovation practice—formerly known as Bases but still called that by many clients—allows companies to test concepts, packaging and messaging with consumers. All that helps marketers target consumers with increased precision and maximize their ROI.


"Measuring all of those different purchasing occasions and all of those different retail outlets, doing it in a way that's comparable, so you can put it all together and provide the view of the total consumer—that's the transformation that's happening on the Buy side of our business," Barns says.

Last year, Ainsworth tapped into Nielsen's Buy insights in a big way. Among its goals: increase super-premium pet food sales in mainstream supermarkets and at mass merchandisers, channels where the marketer exclusively offers its products. (Such venues have fallen off the radar for animal owners seeking super premium pet food, most of whom shop at specialty pet stores—depriving the grocery and mass merchandising industry of sales.)

The Ainsworth project involved detailed research and consumer interviews, in-store "shop-alongs" and a market simulation study to gauge retail demand and determine which changes would boost sales. "The outcome was incredibly successful," Wdowiak says, with Nielsen suggesting ways to improve the "aisle experience" and create more effective signage and promotions. Per Nielsen, adopting these recommendations could yield a 30 percent increase in overall super-premium pet food sales.

Despite such offerings, analysts believe it will be a long haul for Nielsen Buy to amass anywhere near the level of marketplace clout Watch has earned through the years. "The Watch side is what drives the business forward, given the likely higher revenue growth associated with digital media and media accountability versus the CPG-focused industries that drive much of the Buy businesses," says Wieser of Pivotal Research. Higher margins on the Watch side are also a factor, he says. Plus, "clients don't need to spend money if they have their own [sales] metrics they prefer to track. That's not possible with paid media. Every major media owner knows they would be negotiating blindly if they aren't able to reference the [Nielsen] data that their negotiating counterparts are referencing."

Nielsen has long enjoyed a virtual TV ratings monopoly—but competition has intensified of late, with IRI, Kantar and others getting in. Digital media measurement firm comScore, through its merger with TV measurement company Rentrak, seems especially well positioned to make Nielsen feel some heat.

In recent years, this charged climate helped spur Watch-side innovation. "When I arrived here six years ago, we basically had a U.S. TV measurement franchise and not much else," says Nielsen COO Steve Hasker. "Now, we have a global total audience and advanced analytics franchise. It really is a complete transformation."

While killing off the paper diaries is part of that transition, Nielsen's Total Audience metric, designed to measure viewing across mobile, streaming and on-demand media (in addition to traditional TV), represents the company's ultimate reboot for the multiscreen age. Nielsen began developing the tool two years ago, long after the streaming revolution took hold, and the company has absorbed countless broadsides for being late to the game by failing to measure the performance of series across outlets including Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Media executives groused that their shows were getting short-changed on viewer measurement—therefore losing out on potential ad dollars.

While most execs applauded the Total Audience rollout, some were disappointed that those numbers didn't factor into 2016 upfront ad-buying decisions, because the product hadn't been syndicated across the entire industry, allowing players to access each other's data.

"We expect in the fall that they will be reflecting our audience across pretty much all of the digital devices and streaming devices, as well as traditional VOD, DVR—and of course, live television," says David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS. "I think by 2017, we will have the stability and the degree of transparency among the different entities that would be adequate to do deals on the basis of Total Audience, and we would be comfortable doing that." (Nielsen effectively confirmed Poltrack's hunch last week, saying the product will attain full-scale rollout by March 2017. )


While Total Audience gains traction, Nielsen sees the confluence of Watch and Buy as a powerful revenue generator and means of closer integration with marketers and media companies of all shapes and sizes. In fact, that process has already begun. "While those traditionally existed as two fairly separate and distinct parts of our business, you're seeing us connect these sides—what consumers watch connected to what consumers buy—to create a third part of our business," known internally as Marketing Effectiveness, says Barns. "That has been growing at a solid double-digit pace, in fact, north of 20 percent for the last several quarters. That growth's going to continue, as far as we can tell."

With all this change, one may think Nielsen would be well on the way to shedding its reputation of adapting sluggishly. Some think that may not be the case. "I don't think anything will quiet naysayers about Nielsen," says Pivotal's Wieser. "Too many industry participants have a vested interest in being negative about Nielsen—regardless of whether or not those perspectives are warranted—given Nielsen's pseudo-monopolistic presence in currency-related measurement for TV."

It's unlikely Barns will give up easily. And the more he builds out Nielsen's buy side, the more buy-in he'll earn.

This story first appeared in the September 26, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.