Working Smart and Preparing for the Future with Nielsen's David Kenny

By Media Insights Archives
Cover image for  article: Working Smart and Preparing for the Future with Nielsen's David Kenny

Even before the pandemic made the media world an uncertain environment, the explosion of data sources and measurement needs were causing changes and disruptions. But now, with COVID-19 impacting lives, behaviors and businesses, the world of measurement and data collection needs to ascertain what the new normal will look like and how we can go forward.

Even before the pandemic made the media world an uncertain environment, the explosion of data sources and measurement needs were causing changes and disruptions. But now, with COVID-19 impacting lives, behaviors and businesses, the world of measurement and data collection needs to ascertain what the new normal will look like and how we can go forward.

Watch the Full Conversation at Top

David Kenny, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Diversity Officer, Nielsen, shared his perspectives on the media landscape in a fascinating MediaVillage Collective Leadership Conversation with Jack Myers. Kenny is an early pioneer in digital with a career that has spanned agencies, networks to technology and data. His current work at Nielsen is an eclectic mix of data, technology, and human resources development that, as he explained, will enable Nielsen to "work smart."

Kenny, as well as others at Nielsen, understands the need to move the industry forward and maintain a leadership position in measurement. But it is not easy. He explained that, "When you are the industry currency and you advance that currency forward, you have some people who lean in and some it affects in a negative way." He is charged with bringing Nielsen's innovations to the next level in a massively changing media environment that is becoming, "digital first, streaming first platform."

The Workplace Shift During COVID-19

How can a company that was launched during the Depression to measure CPG pivot successfully during normal times and now during extraordinary times? "In order to do that I need to allocate resources to the highest opportunity," Kenny explained, "and the most important resources I allocate are human beings' amazing talent." Under his direction, employees are expected to, "contribute to their fullest potential." Some of this disconnect was the workplace environment, he conceded. Now, with a new work environment, he wants to be able to, "give everyone the best chance to impact the business," which is why he took on the personal responsibility as Chief Diversity Officer, "to ensure everyone here can bring their whole self to work and contribute their whole self to the work they are doing,"

Interestingly, Kenny noted that the pandemic has shifted the workplace dynamic as more employees work from home, leading to his reassessment of the need for office space. But, he realizes that this has greater ramifications than just square foot rent. "It affects a lot of things because it is not just real estate. If less people are in an office that affects restaurants and public transportation," he explained. Yet, until we can be assured that it is safe to be in an office, Kenny remains on the side of caution and Nielsen will adapt to that. Interestingly, Kenny has not been a fan of remote work but has since revised his opinion. "When everybody works this way, we are actually cognizant about everybody being up on the grid view, calling on everybody. We are actually making better, faster and more inclusive decisions in this environment than we were before." He advocates being, "plan-full about a change of everybody. When everybody is doing this it makes sense. We call it 'working smart' … and it will change the way we work with clients as well."

Measurement Quality During and Beyond COVID-19

Hardware that is pivotal to capturing data sometimes breaks down. How is that handled during a pandemic? According to Kenny, "the quality metric (in-tab rate) in the last two months is at an all-time high. The Nielsen families around the world have risen to the occasion to say, 'this work matters.' Their votes matter. They are working with us to keep things operational." Nielsen is finding ways to fix meter lapses by troubleshooting remotely with panelists. Sometimes it is just a matter of, "hitting the reset button or put in a new HDMI cable or reset their router." Kenny added that the MRC has been monitoring this process and has given their seal of approval on it. "I see no issues at all with our ability to get this done because our field organization literally turned, over a weekend, completely how they work," he concluded.

In data, planning ahead has always been important but never more so than the unpredictable now. "How can you predict that campaign will have that result?" he asked. "It's great for me to talk about the value of advertising and brand building but those are big investments that CFOs have to look at a period of tight cash flow. I think those decisions will be made with good probabilistic work." Kenny explained that when he worked in Weather, they predicted based on probability. "We managed to get 3 billion people a day to make decisions based 80% likelihood of rain or20% likelihood of a hurricane in your location." What this bodes for Nielsen in an age of attribution is, "giving people a forward view. We measure backwards, we measure what's happening and then predict the future." This is a seismic change for Nielsen which has always been a strictly objective data provider. "The more we're comfortable acting on high probabilities, the smarter we are going to be," he stated.

Maintaining and Accelerating Innovation

Kenny advocates for encouraging innovation from all levels of the business and has been engaged in what he called, "the Founder Mentality, making sure that everyone at Nielsen thought about the business the way Arthur Nielsen would have thought about it." This idea launched into an internal campaign called, "Find Your Inner Arthur," where employees post their innovation ideas on the company's intranet.

One fascinating area of innovation is the introduction of the nanometer as a replacement for the current hardware to better address the rapid acceleration of streaming consumption. The small and compact nanometer is designed to facilitate a single origination point for cross platform data collection instead of the current process of measuring via parallel panels where the data must be merged. "We are actually able to have a total view of the total audience. Getting one meter that can do everything and have one panel for all of the parts of Nielsen is where we are going."

This, along with a full range of other innovations in upgraded technology and understanding streaming, was being developed prior to the pandemic with an expected launch data of 2021 and 2022. "We made the decision to go faster, to work with the MRC and auditors Ernst and Young to make sure we advance the industry currency quicker," he explained, "We pulled things forward." In fact, the impact of the pandemic has moved things forward much more quickly.

COVID-19 Usage and Media Business Trends

When it comes to programming, Kenny sees an interesting, understandable spike in local news consumption across all platforms, especially in-home. "As folks are dealing with a pandemic, it's almost like a weather crisis – you go back to local. You want to understand what is happening in your community," he explained, "There is a lot of trust. It feels de-politicized." There is also more, "comfort viewing with resurgence in old shows," and a great adaption by sports networks which are airing, "classic, epic games," and, "the spectacular," NFL draft coverage.

Nielsen, as the industry currency, works with both buyers and sellers. Now, the need to better understand changing consumer behavior is critical to the future of the business. "The buyers, the agencies and their client are trying to understand what is going on with the end consumer, not just what she is watching but the mindset," Kenny noted. So the focus is on attribution in a higher use and much more fragmented viewing environment and, "how we connect that attribution back to the media plans." Further, it goes without saying that all of this information needs to be easily accessible and easy to use for working from home.

On the sell side, the challenge for the media owners during this unusual upfront is to figure out, "how to value their total portfolio, how to make it to the point that they are selling through this fragmentation, that the content is breaking through and how to get all of the Nielsen data baked into some really advanced media selling systems." No matter what side of the business you are on, Kenny sees that the industry is facing the realization that, "we might have to do this – run this whole economy from home for a long time, maybe for a whole other year."

For both sides of the business equation Nielsen plays a crucial role in making the economy work. "Measuring independently by a third party in the same way so that you can trust each other is going to be key," he added, "Maintaining trust in the system at a point where we have seen unprecedented cancellations … is a starting point."

Maintaining Optimism

Kenny referred to the past to fuel his optimism for the future. "More patents were filed right during and after the Great Depression and right after WW2 than ever and so we will get to this point where innovation will really matter and those innovations need to be communicated at scale to people. There will be a solution here… and advertising plays such an important role. You don't see a really strong economy built without brand building advertising."

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