Nielsen Next

For Mainak Mazumdar, Data Is the People Behind It

<!–tasks—from–>”We measure everything.”

It doesn’t get more comprehensive than that. But that’s how Mainak Mazumdar, our Chief Research Officer for media measurement, sees Nielsen’s role in the market—one characterized by myriad options and seemingly endless variety when it comes to media consumption.

Of course, that role has grown dramatically from when we started more than 90 years ago. Video and audio options have splintered across devices, giving consumers multiple ways to watch, stream and share digital content. While these changes present significant challenges for both Nielsen and our clients, Mainak and his team of more than 300 data scientists approach each new device as an opportunity to do what they do best—deliver cross-platform, representative media measurement in a way that is accurate, timely and useful to clients.

To do so, Mainak has set his team to cracking the codes hidden within the data, unearthing interesting patterns and data points. It’s these “outliers,” as Mainak calls them, that can significantly affect a client’s ability to make accurate predictions.

“Outliers are those use cases that are most interesting—the ones that actually tell you more than the mean,” explains Mainak. “So we are always looking for outlier cases or use cases that we could study, and that actually helps us to prepare for the future.”

The key to unlocking these outliers? For Mainak, it’s simple: Keep the people at the forefront.

The People Behind the Data

With an aura of zen that comes out any time he speaks, Mainak’s approach to data might surprise you. The main focus of his high-level mindset isn’t even necessarily about data.

“We are relentlessly focused on studying people,” he says. “We are not studying machines. We are not studying your cell phone or your television. … We collect data from them, but we are interested in understanding how a person, or a household, or a society, or region, or ethnicity, interacts with media. What do you consume? How often? Whom are you consuming with? And how are you reacting to the media? These are pretty important, big principles upon which our measurement framework is built.”

“We are relentlessly focused on studying people. … These are big principles upon which our measurement framework is built.”

An avid reader of poetry and literature, Mainak breaks the mold of the expected data guy by bringing his creative side into it. To effectively measure humans and the trail of data they leave behind, you need both sides of the brain, according to Mainak. And much like poetry, data has patterns, rhythms and structures that can make or break its quality.

In Search of Outliers

Social media is a prime example of where Mainak and his team’s eagle-eyed focus has been able to unlock patterns within the data to predict trends before they happen.

“If you look at the evolution of social media as a category, we have been studying that for the last 10 years. And we have actually predicted pretty well how it’s going to influence and evolve, and how, as a society and consumers, we’re going to embrace it.”

But knowing where the social media landscape is heading isn’t something that comes strictly from looking at data. Just like the people that use those networks, it’s about understanding the platforms, differentiating features and demographics that help make them up.

“When I’m not working, I spend a lot of time on social media, especially Twitter, and I try to consume as much as I can,” says Mainak. “And I do that because it gives me insights into where the media business is moving, and how we could prepare. This allows me to understand how people are consuming media—so when we are designing our measurement systems and processes in terms of the panel and methodologies, we are better prepared.”

“I spend a lot of time on social media. It gives me insights into where the media business is moving and how we could prepare.”

That clarity has led to some massive developments in how we use those social networks to adapt our models and our expand capabilities. Mainak was heavily involved in the implementation of our Digital Ad Ratings, “integrating our national TV panel with U.S. Census data and Facebook profiles,” as he explains it. “That’s some pretty seminal work, and, from a data science perspective, it opened up a lot of opportunities.”

So while many might think that algorithms and automation will be the lynchpins to success in a future where technology and data prevail, Mainak is keeping people at the heart of the data.

“The more technology becomes all-pervasive in our lives, the more important human judgment is. And I think that’s where a true data scientist can bring both. Yes, we work with a vast, massive amount of data and glean information from it, but we also bring human judgment and interpretation and make sure we’re giving the right insights.”


* Nielsen Total Audience Report, Q3 2016



Harry Brisson is a Modern Data Explorer

<!–tasks—from–>For many of us, everyday use of cutting edge tech like virtual reality (VR) is still quite a way off in the future. But for Harry Brisson, exposure to these types of advancing technologies—and how consumers can and will engage with them—is all in a day’s work.

Harry’s work focuses on how technology like VR will be used when it matures and becomes more widely accessible to consumers. In many ways, Harry and the Nielsen Media Lab that he oversees shape the foundation for how consumers will use emerging technology. Debates about the future of media are popping up in app stores and on shelves faster than ever. Will the latest trending device become ubiquitous like the smartphone? Or will it be an accessory that only a select few will gravitate toward?

Putting Data and Technology Into Human Context

“When new technology comes out, it’s critical to understand how it fits into people’s lives in order to build a marketplace around it,” Harry says. “Virtual reality, for example, is still new and experimental. To fund content on a platform, businesses need to attract advertisers or consumers. The Media Lab helps emerging technology businesses identify a sustainable path forward so they can create experiences that delight consumers.”

“When new technology comes out, it’s critical to understand how it fits into people’s lives in order to build a marketplace around it.”

Harry explains that the Media Lab’s primary role is to simply put things into context. To do that, the lab convenes a large group of experts from across the research spectrum. But as critical as those associates are, the lab’s real edge comes from everyday people—who help inform Harry and his team about how up-and-coming technology might fit into our daily lives.

“At the lab in Las Vegas, we invite in people from all over,” he says. “It’s a great setting, and we can create environments that mimic real life to see how people react to new technology. For example, there’s a living room, where people can interact with each other and screens—a much more natural setting than if we had people isolated or sitting around an office table.”

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Those natural settings are critical in helping the researchers at the lab understand applications, advertising opportunities and use cases for an array of offerings across the media landscape. For these experiments, the team uses modern technology to answer questions about how consumers respond to media types that have been around for decades. For example, the team uses eye-tracking VR technology to assess how people engage with (or don’t engage with) out-of-home advertising like billboards.

Curiosity is the Core of Good Research

Harry explains that the lab is also focused on testing audience engagement with newer media types like podcasts. Over the past few years, podcasts have been steadily growing in popularity, and publishers are increasingly exploring ways to monetize them as consumer interest in them rises.

“Podcasts are a hotbed for experimentation,” Harry says. “Because of the relatively low cost of entry, the pace of innovation can be quite fast. The lab helps podcasters understand how how novel content types and ad formats engage listeners.”

It’s Harry’s interest in evolving technology and personal curiosity that are helping to drive his research and enabling it to serve as a gateway to answering fundamental questions about human behavior.

“We’re laying a data foundation from which creators can build businesses…Knowledge is incredibly valuable, and that’s a testament to Nielsen’s value over time.”

“We’re laying a data foundation upon which creators can build businesses,” he says. “Nielsen has one of the largest collections of curious people I’ve ever worked with. Yes, they want to inform the marketplace, but they’re also deeply inquisitive by nature, venturing into the unknown in pursuit of knowledge. This kind of knowledge is incredibly valuable to the marketplace, which is why Nielsen has played a pivotal role in many marketplaces for nearly a century.”

Modern Day Explorers

Harry says he very much likes to journey off the beaten path in search of understanding the unknown. And he compares his work at Nielsen to being a modern-day explorer, much like explorers thousands of years ago who would venture off to unknown places. But instead of mapping the world, he’s mapping the human experience.

Harry Brisson

“Our very existence is predicated on being a truth teller,” he says of Nielsen. “Markets perform better when they have reliable and accurate information to work with. From our founding, Nielsen has provided information that enables markets to better serve their participants.

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“Without quality information on performance, markets, businesses and even individuals lack a clear mechanism for self-improvement; the scientific method is radical tool that debunks wrongful assumptions, challenges the status quo and enables us to make tomorrow better than today. Those working in developed information ecosystems can occasionally take it for granted, but working in uncharted territory gives one an even greater appreciation for what quality information enables.”

“Markets perform better when they have reliable and accurate information to work with. From our founding, Nielsen has provided information that enables markets to better serve their participants.”

And Harry, a self-proclaimed part-time contrarian, likes challenging the status quo—pushing people outside of their comfort zones. He also believes that all questions can be answered with data and research. And that’s where the Nielsen Media Lab comes in.

“I like to say that the lab is the last defense against ignorance,” he says with a laugh. “But jokes aside, no question is unanswerable, and we’re always excited to find new ways to handle the toughest questions that existing solutions don’t answer. Each new answer builds toward a world where creators have all the information they need to sustainably create content for new platforms that audiences will love, and that’s a mission I’m inspired to pursue every day, one question at a time.”

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