A lot's riding on Jon Mandel, the outspoken head of WPP Group's MediaCom, tapped last week in a startling move by private-equity research powerhouse VNU to head its Nielsen Connect unit. Mr. Mandel was hired by CEO David Calhoun, a rising star at General Electric Co. before signing on with the Dutch media- and consumer-research provider to bring a fresh perspective to its tangled mass of 300-plus subsidiaries.
Mr. Mandel's mission: Find useful new links within a marketing-metrics-and-analytics empire that includes Nielsen Media Research TV ratings, ACNielsen retail-scanner and consumer-panel data, Nielsen/NetRatings online measurement and Nielsen Buzzmetrics online-buzz measurement among many others.
He won't be the first, or even the second, to try connecting the dots in VNU's sprawl to create a single-source nirvana of perfect marketing knowledge. Yet some industry insiders are giving him decent odds of success. And the marketing industry desperately needs him to succeed.
"There's such a plethora of information within this place that can all be cross-connected," Mr. Mandel said.
It's a dream VNU -- as a publicly held company -- couldn't fully realize after it acquired ACNielsen six years ago. An investor revolt last year over the company's plans to add yet another piece to its data mix -- IMS Health -- led to the sale to private equity.
With Mr. Mandel's media background, things could be different this time, said Mike Hess, director-global research and consumer insights at Omnicom Group's OMD.
Direction of the industry
"It's the way the industry is heading -- to bring that quantitative, evaluative background to [the media industry]," he said. "He can think about what the buyer needs before we even think we need it."
The same theory has been at play within some marketers, such as Procter & Gamble Co., which three years ago shifted career consumer researcher Don Gloeckler to head its effort to improve media measurement. His urging led to development of Apollo, a joint pilot venture between VNU and Arbitron to combine media measurement from Portable People Meters with purchase data from ACNielsen's HomeScan panel.
Kate Sirkin, exec-VP, global research director of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group said Mr. Mandel's appointment is a fascinating one. "It speaks of bravery to bring someone in who's been critical of you," she said. "Jon Mandel's been a user and he's been frustrated by an inability to consolidate this information as a user. He's not an old-time Nielsen guy."
Indeed, Mr. Mandel has been critical of the research giant. In a 2003 Ad Age story he called Nielsen "anti-competitive" and urged the media committee of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, of which he was a vocal member, to take to the federal government complaints about new Nielsen Media Research contracts that included price hikes and limits on how ratings data could be used. Nielsen denied his charge at the time.
Put focus on marketers
Creating a unit that spans VNU properties could also help shift the company's focus toward marketers and away from TV networks. "They'll try to keep the biggest customers happy," Ms. Sirkin said. "And the biggest customers across VNU might not be the networks." In the past, agencies have complained that Nielsen Media Research spends too much time worrying about what the networks want and too little thinking about the advertisers. Indeed, the biggest customer for VNU as a whole is the same as the biggest customer for Starcom-P&G.
Another factor favoring synergy-seekers today over years past is growing marketer focus on measurable results, Mr. Hess said. "Accountability and ROI have become mainstream," Mr. Hess said.
But a longtime industry executive who recently left ACNielsen said he sees no sign the new VNU will be any more successful than before at giving its disparate offerings "more value inside the VNU box than outside." Third parties, such as marketing-analytics boutiques, have been as successful, if not more so, at combining VNU data streams, he said.
VNU's main obstacle
The main obstacle is that VNU data services generally don't operate on a common computer or systems platform, giving the company no particular edge on third-party integrators, the executive said. Creating a common platform will require considerable investment, one he said the private-equity consortium may be unwilling to make after paying $9 billion to buy the company on the premise of making substantial gains within three to five years. He said clients have expressed concerns to him that the new owners may invest less, not more, in infrastructure.
David Poltrack, CBS's chief research officer, said he raised that concern with Mr. Calhoun, explaining that Nielsen couldn't afford the kind of trim-and-flip mentality some private-equity plays employ.
"He reassured me that he shared that belief," Mr. Poltrack said. "And coming from GE, he's coming from a corporation that understands that."
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Abbey Klaassen and Brooke Capps contributed to this report.