Nielsen’s New CEO: Critics Said Company ‘Wasn’t Moving Fast Enough. I Can Change That’

David Kenny talks strategy in his first interview since joining

'The places where the industry comes together, you will see a far more visible Nielsen,' Kenny says.
Nielsen

As Nielsen’s new CEO, David Kenny, settles into his job, he says he’s all ears.

“I’m keen to hear, and my team is keen to hear, what the industry needs, how it’s evolving and making sure that we’re stepping up to it,” said Kenny, who was named to the position in November, stepping in for the retiring Mitch Barns.

Kenny arrives from IBM, where he worked as svp of cognitive solutions. He previously was chairman and chief executive of The Weather Company (which was acquired by IBM), president of cloud service provider Akamai and co-founder, chairman and CEO of digital marketing agency Digitas.

In his first interview since joining Nielsen last week, Kenny talked about responding to the measurement company’s critics (“Nielsen wasn’t moving fast enough. I can change that”), his plans to help the industry move beyond C3 and C7 next year (“we’re overdue”) and the future of his new company, which is under strategic review (“I’ll be here no matter what”).

Adweek: What will be you focusing on first at Nielsen?
David Kenny: A lot of it is about execution. I think the Nielsen road map and the products in the marketplace are the right direction, and I heard from everybody [in the industry] that they love the vision; it’s just taking too long to get done. Because I have more of a software background, I can come in and make the decisions about what is our core platform, help understand which things are within Nielsen and which things are open source and help close the loop between our engineering teams, our architects and our product managers, which will help accelerate the pace of product velocity.

Secondly, our front velocity needs to work well: What is the workflow of the ad sales teams, and what is the workflow in the media companies and how do we actually get closer to the way a Linda Yaccarino [NBCUniversal’s ad sales chief] will run her business? And then, on the agency side, my friend [WPP CEO] Mark Read and [Publicis Groupe chairman and CEO] Arthur Sadoun and these guys are all changing the way they work, and they need more software technology. Having Nielsen be core to that helps them change the way they work as well. So one is going faster on our product road map, but the second is engaging more clearly with our customers on how our products can be embedded in the way they work.

Which part of the job has been the steepest learning curve for you so far?
I’m spending a lot of time with our data scientists on the panels. What’s interesting to me is the resurgence of panels. What people are concerned about—customer information, privacy—panels are much harder to hack. Cambridge Analytica would have a harder time getting rid of panels than it would an individual name. Nielsen has always been the world’s expert at how to have panels that truly represent the total population. How exactly that works, how we collect that data and protect it, I’m really digging into—and I’m loving it.

Secondly, I would say I know the media side historically a little more than the buy side of the business. So really understanding how we support retailers and the packaged-goods companies that sell through those retailers has been an important learning curve as well.

Some media companies have begun to pull together and transact on their own metrics, like NBCUniversal’s CFlight. What is your take on those new metrics, and will you try to work with those parties and get them back in to the fold?
My view is that advertisers have a broader way of wanting to transact. The best answer is for Nielsen to evolve to serve those more complex audiences and more precise targets and help expand currencies. If that happens, it’s a lot smarter, because then you’ve actually got to sort the truth; you can verify it. You can compare it to decisions you’ve made in the past.

So I think it’s our opportunity. When I talk to folks, [one reason] why they’ve been building these—it’s not that they dislike Nielsen, it’s just that Nielsen wasn’t moving fast enough. I can change that. I’m not trying to keep them on the historic metrics; I’m trying to make sure that Nielsen evolves with the new metrics as well, and is an important, trusted, intermediary to make that happen.

So you’re looking to sit down with Linda Yaccarino and others and figure out a way to evolve those metrics together?
Yes, and also with Facebook and Google. Everyone agrees that there needs to be a transparent, trusted currency. I think most people in the agency world and in the publishing world need it to be simplified, and they want Nielsen to do it. So I’m absolutely leaning in with an understanding of what they need, what problem they’re trying to solve and, honestly, opening our kimono a little more so we can co-invent this. You and I are talking a United States view, but this technology actually works globally.

Speaking of evolving metrics, it’s been 11 years since C3 and C7 were rolled out. How do you see your role in helping the industry update those?
I think it’s our responsibility. We’ve got to provide leadership and bring people together. I don’t think it’s our call— the industry has to make the call— but we’ll be giving better answers to folks and bringing them together. I’ll work with folks like Randy Rothenberg at the IAB on some of this. I’ll certainly work with the ANA and others.

So the places where the industry comes together, you will see a far more visible Nielsen—to listen first to people and then propose solutions. Because I think we can make a huge difference in 2019. I don’t think this is over a decade. 2019 is an important point. We’re overdue for going beyond C3 and C7.

"The places where the industry comes together, you will see a far more visible Nielsen."
David Kenny

You’re arriving at Nielsen as the company is undergoing a strategic review process. It could ultimately be sold, partially spun off or become a private company. How do you see Nielsen’s future?
I plan to be here no matter what. In my history, I’ve worked for three private equity firms, and I’ve also ran two public companies. So the work you actually do in the company is not that different between the two. I think my most important mission is to put a firm stake in the ground with the Nielsen Organization about what we’re doing and what we’re building so that people can have confidence to move forward. Because these strategic reviews, which are really about the shareholder base, should not be distracting people as much as they have.

Then the question is: As we catch up and do some of the big investments that we need to make and evolve our product, is that easier in a private setting where we’re not trying to make quarterly numbers, we’re trying to have a longer-term view and we’ve got the right capital structure, with the right private equity backer? On the other hand, if we set the right expectations with our shareholders, it could be that group wants to be with us and get the upside for themselves.

So I’ll lead that process—and our board has to make that decision—but I’ll take it back to them to make a call. I’m hopeful that I can handle that process with myself and the CFO, for the most part, and keep the organization and the customers focused on what we do. Because that honestly isn’t going to change, whether we’re public or private.

What do you see as the biggest area for growth at Nielsen?
There’s certainly more growth in central management of the media investment on the buy side and also in central management in yield optimization and helping move to new formats faster on the sell side. And there’s new technologies like digital ad insertion … all the things we’re used to on the web or on a mobile device that can work on a television and in streaming radio. Bringing all these tools to all media is going to help our clients, and they’re going to grow and be more valuable. The advertisers are going to pay a higher CPM for an M that really matters. If you grow the pie and make marketing more effective, our share will be worth more.

I also think there’s a lot we can do to have Nielsen be easier to work with and more usable, to have the software interface be better so we’re in their workflow and work with the other folks people are using in the media value chain on their workflow. That’s going to make Nielsen more ubiquitous, and we’ll scale it that way.

And the last thing, as I already covered—it’s global, so making sure we do this everywhere in the world. We’re in 100 countries on the buy side; we need to be 100 countries on the watch side as well.

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