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Nielsen Marketing Research is on the verge of achieving the unthinkable: reclaiming not one but two clients from Information Resources Inc.

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and the McNeil Consumer Products Co. unit of Johnson & Johnson, worth a combined $6 million to IRI, are pulling up stakes at a company that hasn't lost a client to Nielsen in nearly two years.

The loss of two blue-chip clients' scanner data business comes on the heels of disappointing financial news from IRI.

But the real question remains: Are the client defections a turning point in the Nielsen-IRI rivalry or merely a blip in IRI's success story?

Package-goods executives who listen to pitches from both IRI and Nielsen say the latter has cut prices to be more competitive. IRI Chairman Gian Fulgoni said Nielsen wooed the two clients with attractive pricing, offering to discount data services in increasingly important overseas markets if the companies agreed to buy domestic scanner data from Nielsen.

Neither Bristol-Myers nor McNeil executives could be reached for comment.

In his first interview since returning to IRI as president of its North American business in November-after a whirlwind four months at Nielsen-George Garrick said Nielsen has engaged in "drastic" price cutting in an attempt to win business.

"They are overstaffing accounts and giving away free service. They have no software, no analytical argument," he told Advertising Age. "The only thing they have to offer is price."

One package-goods executive who has worked with both companies said both IRI and Nielsen have been and will continue to engage in pricing wars to hold onto business.

IRI's fourth-quarter 1993 earnings seem proof of that: At 16 cents a share, they were half what analysts had predicted, and the announcement sent IRI's stock price falling-losing $9, or more than one-fourth its total value, in one day.

In a release, IRI attributed the fourth-quarter results in part to efforts of Mr. Garrick, whose short term as president of Nielsen Marketing Research USA helped block IRI from sealing deals with several Nielsen clients.

Analysts were skeptical of the explanation, which Mr. Fulgoni elaborated on in an interview.

"About half of the hit was due to George," he said. A slow start in rolling out efficient consumer response initiatives IRI had hoped would generate revenue in the fourth quarter also contributed to the lowered earnings per share, as did several foreign acquisitions and joint ventures.

"It's a strong, growing company but not as strong as they led you to believe," said one securities analyst. "The market for product movement data in the U.S. isn't big enough to support IRI growing unless Nielsen is going down."

Although Nielsen President-Chief Operating Officer DavidFlaschen would not confirm the Bristol-Myers and McNeil moves, he said his company's global strength and its Solution Systems program are among the reasons Nielsen is "gaining momentum."

On March 31, five Nielsen clients will start using Solution Systems, an audit program that allows clients to tailor data to more specific needs.

Nielsen Marketing Research reported 1993 revenues of $1.05 billion, roughly 70% of which came from business abroad. IRI reported 1993 revenues of $334.5 million, which came almost entirely from domestic business.

Mr. Fulgoni noted IRI has renewed several clients and has won from Nielsen Dole Foods Co., Dean Foods, J.E. Seagram Corp. and Black & Decker Corp..

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