Supplier of the Year: NBCUniversal

As I write this article explaining MediaPost’s supplier of the year, I wonder if the NBCUniversal brass aren’t dreading it. And not without reason.

I spent much of the past year editorializing about their campaign to persuade advertisers to begin using currencies certified by a supplier: NBCUniversal.

Mostly, I just pointed out that it represented a fundamental shift from the past half century of currencies accredited by a neutral third party -- the Media Rating Council -- as part of a self-regulatory consent decree with the Justice Department following Congressional oversight of the audience-measurement industry.

That, plus 40 years of advertisers and agencies telling me they don’t want suppliers grading their own homework.

It turns out I was talking to the wrong sources, because in 2022 they would not be the ones who would make the decision.

It would be a new generation of digital natives who grew up in a world where it was common industry practice for platforms to certify how and with whom they do business, including the people who buy advertising from them.

It would not be the first time the ad industry operated in two topsy-turvy worlds of contradictory business practices, but the NBCU team had the vision to see that might be coming to an end, and that there was an opportunity for an inflection point in 2022.

And it proceeded to execute what arguably is the best sell-side research and marketing effort to restructure the TV advertising marketplace since Turner’s Media at the Millennium shifted billions of dollars from broadcast to cable.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how it was a perfect storm opportunity, because of how things aligned coming into the year:

  • Growing dissatisfaction with the ability of conventional TV audience measurement to accurately represent viewing in a cross-media world.

  • Historical dissatisfaction with the industry’s near monopolistic supplier, Nielsen.

  • The MRC’s suspension of accreditation for both Nielsen’s national and local services.

  •  Nielsen’s own implosion as it fumbled the timing of its own transition to a new cross-media measurement service.

  • Breakthrough innovation from startups in the audience-measurement supply chain, including one that NBCU ultimately ended up certifying as its currency -- iSpot -- following extensive test-and-learn trials with its biggest advertisers and agencies.

  • The generational shift from old-school sample-based ratings to platform-based audience data.

All that was needed was an organizing principle.

The truth is that NBCU already was on the path to be the one to organize it. It has long transformed its advertising and research organization from a TV ratings-centric one into a platform mindset and had brought in new management to help execute it.

It also brought in one of Nielsen’s top executives -- Kelly Abcarian -- to lead the development of new “alternative currencies” instead of Nielsen’s.

The fact that Nielsen proved to be its own worst enemy in defending its position was probably icing on the cake.

While Nielsen is expected to ultimately regain the MRC’s stamp of approval, it is now more than 15 months since CEO David Kenny told investors accreditation was just “months” away.

Those were the factors leading up to Madison Avenue’s embrace of alternative advertising currencies, but it was NBCU’s campaign that activated them.

The effort was carefully planned and effectively executed, and began by briefing the press that NBCU had issued a request for proposals from measurement suppliers to make a case for testing them as potential alternative currencies, and running a series of test-and-learn market trials so big advertisers and agencies could be part of the process.

It started with one of NBCU’s biggest tentpole events -- the Super Bowl -- and culminated with another, its coverage of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, before iSpot ultimately was certified as its national cross-media advertising currency for the 2022-23 upfront buying season.

“I knew this day was coming,” NBCU’s Abcarian told me when I spoke with the team to prepare for this article.

NBCU had already put its pieces in place by creating its “One Platform” for unifying linear TV and connected TV (CTV) audience measurement. All that was needed was a framework and a blueprint for executing it, she said. And working with big advertisers and agency holding companies to be part of it.

“In the end, it was clear that real change was needed,” she said, adding that it only required organizing the industry around it.

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