Common marketing practice, Mr. Mandel said, has long been about using blunt instruments to reach one's most desired consumers. "You would use age. You would use sex. You would use geography. You'd pile on all these broad things to find out about who is buying the product and then you'd use other broad things to figure out who is watching media or using what media, and you'd try to mash it together."
Always outspoken while working at MediaCom and Grey Advertising, Mr. Mandel has taken the reins of an interesting project at Nielsen Co., a company that was once the target of some of his brazen chatter. Most advertisers place ads in TV shows, radio programs and other media based largely on demographic data: How many people between the ages of 18 and 49 read or watch, how many high-income consumers are attracted, how many men or women come to see. Mr. Mandel wants marketers to be able to target people most likely to buy, regardless of their age or sex.
Finding the commonalities
His solution: Trying to find the commonalities between Nielsen ratings-panel members and different databases that examine consumer purchases. Critics suggest that practitioners of this technique, known as "fusion," capture something more basic than marketers would like. Even so, executives like Mr. Mandel believe the results could help, say, a soda marketer figure out which programs best attract Latino men who like a lemon-lime beverage, or a movie studio determine the media outlet most likely to draw consumers who like to see films on their opening weekend.
Relying on such data would represent a major step forward for the media and advertising industries, said David F. Poltrack, CBS Corp.'s chief research officer. "Moving away from age" and toward identifiable blocks of consumers who use particular products, he said, would give advertisers an opportunity to better place their ads. They might reach "true heavy beer consumers, as opposed to men 18 to 34."
Mr. Mandel's effort is different from the work he did in the past. After starting at Grey Advertising in 1974, he moved up the chain of command in the world of media buying, eventually building MediaCom when it was part of Grey Global Group, then joining WPP Group's large Group M consortium as chief of strategic solutions after WPP purchased Grey in 2005. Along the way, he became famous for his skeptical view toward media hype. While being profiled by USA Today during TV-network upfront presentations in 1998, he dismissed part of ABC's fall schedule as "yesterday's enchiladas," and told a reporter that "the biggest mistake these guys can make is to over-promise" when then-lowly rated ABC promised to take back the title of "most-watched network" from then-champion NBC.
A good start
Now he is the one bound to encounter skepticism. Not everyone believes the Nielsen service -- Nielsen Connect -- he's promoting is the ad world's saving grace, though people concede it's a good start towards something that will eventually work. "There are a lot of people who have some very strong issues about fusion. At the end of the day, you are taking two completely different data sets and you're trying to find some links between the two," said Jim Kite, president-connections, research and analytics at MediaVest. One media researcher suggested Nielsen would deliver better results if it sought more detailed information from its viewing panel -- a practice that tends to tamp down response rates -- and then fused it with consumer data.
Sparking more interest in fusion data could be a crucial move in Nielsen's quest to stay current with new advertiser demands. Knowing how many people watched an episode of "30 Rock" is nice, but marketers are under more pressure to find out which subset of the thousands or millions of people who watched a program actually went out and purchased their product. To extend its authority, Nielsen must push into measurement of emerging media venues and lace behavioral data into its longstanding dominance of reach-and-frequency metrics.
Some people have been trying these new ideas. Fusion research is more common in Europe, but others have tested ideas in a similar vein. Not too long ago, Nielsen helped manage a similar measurement effort known as Project Apollo, which utilized technology from Arbitron to track individual consumers' media exposure and married it with Nielsen's Homescan consumer-purchase, with some support from Procter & Gamble. The effort was scuttled in February, after Nielsen and Arbitron said they couldn't secure commitments from enough clients to make it work on an ongoing basis. Meanwhile a start-up company known as TRA Inc. is utilizing viewership data from set-top boxes and marrying it to purchase information from shopper cards and the like. CBS's Mr. Poltrack believes that sort of data could prove sturdier in the long run.
Edging out rivals
At a time when marketers are clamping down on ad spending, media outlets think the Nielsen data could help them edge out rivals. Sony Pictures Television, which sells ads for things such as syndicated episodes of "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You," has used Nielsen's service to show that the average household reached by its TV and online properties spends nearly $4,200 a month on consumer package-goods per year. "I don't think it's at a point where you can buy against it, but it could be a tiebreaker" when advertisers are considering options, said Amy Carney, president-advertiser sales, Sony Pictures Television. "I hope to get more business as a result of it."
Others feel the information could help them make inroads with clients. Interpublic Group's Martin Agency is currently in discussions with Nielsen to find ways to use its fusion service. "Targeting based on a demographic is probably not the most accurate way to find people," said Mark Pavia, president of Martin's Ingenuity Media Group. "One 25-year-old is not the same as another 25-year old." Crown Media Holdings' Hallmark Channel is also looking to use the new Nielsen information, said Jess Aguirre, senior VP-research for Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel. "If I'm a brand manager trying to move boxes of soap or cereal or whatever, I honestly don't care what the age of the person is," he said. "I just want to know: 'Is this a person who is going to buy my products and services?'"
These days, Mr. Mandel sounds like anything but a skeptic. "What we are doing here is going to make the advertising marketplace a lot more efficient, because we're enabling the right transaction to occur," he said. Getting people to believe along with him will take time, technology and results.