Interview by Robert Heeg, ResearchWorld
Prior to joining Nielsen in December 2018, David Kenny was the senior Vice President of IBM’s Watson & Cloud platform. His experience in big data, artificial intelligence cloud technologies and media, made him a logical choice to steer Nielsen into the future. He explains how the company’s progress around product development, especially in recent years, has been essential to maintaining its standing with clients and helping them understand the rapidly changing consumer landscape. “Moving forward our teams are set to act more like a technology and product company. AI and machine learning can really supercharge the progress we’ve made and create space for the innovations we’ll need in areas like dynamic-ad insertion, content recognition and other areas where industry investment is headed.” Having enjoyed a career that has lived at the intersection of those elements, Kenny feels that technology will be instrumental to the changes that are coming next.
Nielsen is by far the biggest research company worldwide but the global market has seen slow to no growth over the past few years. Yet, there are several areas in which Kenny sees opportunities for creating growth and stakeholder value:
The solutions Nielsen offers for measurement of content in the digital space are no longer products in their infancy but established measurement solutions, says Kenny. “Our clients rely on this data every single day to help them understand their business and size their markets. Moving forward we will scale these products not only in the U.S., but also around the world.”
The FMCG side of Nielsen’s business, amplifying and selling in Connect Enterprise and Connect Express – the company’s new technology solution for data – is an imperative. Kenny has high expectations of this platform and open app system. “Our manufacturer clients and our retailer clients can now drive growth through best-in-class measurement, predictive tools and activation.”
As the end markets in media and consumer packaged goods are changing, clients’ needs are shifting and so is their use of data and technology. Transforming its business into a truly product-driven organisation is therefore crucial for Nielsen, explains Kenny. “It will allow us to strengthen our partnership with our clients and help them unlock the power of consistent and independent measurement.”
Nielsen may be changing, but so is the playing field. In a fast-developing information world, a company with a long history and a presence in over 100 countries, may not necessarily be the most agile. But Kenny regards the 95-year legacy as an advantage. “It means we’re consistently in the consideration set for our clients, who are seeing increased costs and eroded monetisation as they shift their business models to meet consumer demands.” In going forward, he knows that Nielsen has to provide products that are rooted in a cutting-edge technological advantage. Not only do they need to match the rapidly evolving landscape, they’re also catering to more tech-savvy clients. “Thus, we’ve made some significant moves in the last couple of months. We’ve integrated our product and tech operations teams directly into our lines of business so that we can keep innovating, with a specific focus on creating single point solutions that allow clients to access our data intrinsically and seamlessly.’
Recently, Unilever announced a partnership with Kantar Media, Nielsen, Facebook, Google and Twitter to build a standardised cross-media brand measurement model. It has long been the Holy Grail for brands to measure and understand campaign impact across different media. It’s interesting to see how this partnership develops, especially as media measurement is a large part of Nielsen’s revenue. Kenny regards Unilever’s call for the industry to coalesce around independent cross-media measurement, as a validation of the progress his teams have made in developing solutions that measure real people across the screens where they spend their time.
“That seems simple, but the product development and technology investment that goes into bringing a product like Total Ad Ratings to market was part of our long-term strategy to ensure the market had person-level ad measurement across TV and digital.” He promises that Nielsen will keep pushing harder to bring a transparent view across the ecosystem.
Meanwhile, Google has decided to remove all third-party tracking pixels from its advertising. This will make them the only company that can provide an ad-effectiveness measure on any of its channels. Kenny’s thoughts on this development are that independent measurement is key – whether that is in the area of ‘reach’ or ‘effectiveness’. He explains that the industry is looking for more outcomes-based measurement. Google, for instance, entered the skinny bundle space (services that offer a lower number of channels than traditional pay TV platforms, ed.) with YouTubeTV. Simultaneously the company adopted such digital solutions from Nielsen as Digital Ad Ratings measurement. “There are a host of factors that Google and others are considering as they make policy changes around measuring marketing effectiveness,” says Kenny. “Our goal is to make sure that we’re at the table as they make these decisions and that we are working collaboratively to ensure transparency isn’t sacrificed in the midst of this disruption.”
“The players need to understand with great transparency, the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘how long’ of gold standard measurement.”
The increasing influence of Google and other global tech networks has been accompanied with a lot of negative coverage about companies surreptitiously gathering consumer information. We ask Kenny if this impacts Nielsen and how research companies can differentiate themselves from ‘bad players’. His answer is unequivocal: “With data comes responsibilities. A responsibility to protect the consumer. A responsibility to protect the marketing ecosystem and a responsibility to manage it all with integrity and transparency.” He knows that consumers who provide this data – with every click, every like and every transaction – also want to know that when they engage in any buying behaviour, they are protected. “In fact, at no other point in history has the consumer been more aware, curious and concerned about how data about them is being captured and used.” Nielsen’s panels stay on ‘the right side’ of consumer privacy. The company understands that not everybody wants everything to be known about them, and that brands need to make good decisions without inadvertently crossing boundaries. “Tougher restrictions on privacy are fine with us; it’s the right thing to do. Nielsen has always worked hard to gain the explicit agreement of consumers in our panels.”
If industry bodies can play a role in ensuring research companies keep their ‘white hat’ then Nielsen, as the world’s market research leader, should perhaps play a major role in these associations. Kenny emphasises that the company is quite active across the associations and other bodies where the marketplace is engaging. “We focus on all areas of the marketing ecosystem – buyers, agencies and sellers across all areas of the business. That said, I think there’s definitely a balance we aim to strike, which is to make sure we are distinguishing the noise from the action. We often say that measurement is a team sport, but the players need to understand with great transparency, the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘how long’ of gold standard measurement.”
The worlds of primary research and analytics are coalescing and Kenny regards this as a major opportunity for Nielsen. “The work our teams are doing to bring together measurement of age and gender and then using that to underpin more segmented data sets – with information on purchase behaviour, content preference, income, attitudes – is going to be central to the evolution of the marketplace.” He feels that the company’s century-long experience in measuring audiences using a privacy-first framework, will give it the advantage. “The work ahead for us is to help the industry draw a line from that fundamental understanding to a deeper understanding of consumers in the context of their actual lives.”
On September 12, 2018, Nielsen’s board of directors announced a strategic review process. This includes a broad range of options: continuing to operate as a public, independent company; a separation of either Nielsen’s Connect or Media segments; or a sale of the company. Kenny is convinced that ultimately the board will determine the best path forward in order to maximise value for all stakeholders. “In the meantime, we are clear on our strategy and the teams are fully focused on executing for our clients. Regardless of the outcome, our most important mission is to build an even stronger organisation for our second century, with a specific focus on creating single point solutions that allow clients to drive their business forward with data that is rooted in truth.”
Source: ResearchWorld.com, Interview by Robert Heeg, 5 March 2019