5 Questions for Former Nielsen CEO John Dimling

John Dimling is a media industry veteran, with a career that spans more than four decades and includes leadership roles at the National Association of Broadcasters, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Arbitron, and Nielsen. Notably, Dimling headed up Project Apollo, a joint venture between Nielsen and Arbitron to create a single-source media and product measurement system. This month, we were lucky enough to catch up with him to chat about market research and audience data. Below, he shares his thoughts on last month’s Audience Measurement 2016 conference and his concerns around big data-driven research.

Verto Analytics (VA): Please tell us a bit about yourself.

John Dimling (JD): I joined Nielsen in 1985 from my position as executive director of the Media Rating Council. I was responsible for introducing the People meter into Nielsen’s national service. I became president of Nielsen Media Research in 1993, and CEO when the company became an independent business traded on the New York Stock Exchange in 1999. VNU bought the company in 2000, and I remained CEO until I retired in 2002. I was then encouraged to remain active in a variety of roles — as a member of our internal board, chair of NetRatings (of which Nielsen was majority owner), director of Project Apollo, interim chair of Nielsen Entertainment, and others. I finally “left the building” when those assignments ended in 2008.

VA: As CEO of Nielsen, you were part of some of the most significant corporate deal-making around market research. Nielsen is still the biggest market research company in terms of market capitalization. How do you see Nielsen today, and what are the top things Nielsen should be thinking about in the current media and advertising environment?

JD: I think Nielsen is well positioned today. I spoke years ago about the opportunity that I expected to develop: integrating various data bases that were likely to become available.  Nielsen seems to be doing this effectively – the work that Leslie Wood is doing with Catalina and Nielsen audience data being a prime example. This allows media outlets and their clients to understand better how to use media, and to increase the return on the money the clients spend.

VA: At the ARF’s Audience Measurement 2016 conference, we saw lots of small startup companies speaking about new innovations, methodologies, and presenting case studies with their customers. Are you also seeing an uptick of startups in the market research sector, and if so, what do you think is driving this phenomenon? Does the market research industry need small companies and startups, or should it only focus on the sort of quality and stability that big companies like Comscore or Nielsen can bring?

JD: I think market research has plenty of challenges, and ideas can (and have) come from both large and small companies.

VA:  While we’re on the topic of startups and innovation, there’s an abundance of new data collection approaches, such as big data, ACR, mobile passive meters, facial recognition, etc. How do you value these various data, and do you see any of these as emerging as the new norm moving forward?

JD: I am both impressed with, and concerned about, the abundance of data. I’m enough of a Bayesian to believe that additional information should allow us to get better answers, but I also come from a research tradition that requires effort to validate data and how it is used. Many large databases can be useful, but the size of a database does not necessarily indicate that it is a substitute for a random sample of the population it is supposed to represent.

VA: You are known to be a great observer and note-taker during presentations. You attended the ARF’s Audience Measurement 2016 conference in New York City in June. What were the most interesting observations and conclusions out of ARF Audience Measurement this year, based on your notes?

JD: The main impression I took away from the excellent ARF was that we are now getting real measures of the effectiveness of advertising and communications, and this information is now entering the media business in a way never seen before.

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