The Nielsen Company and Innovation Superstardom

Most of you have heard of the “Nielsen ratings” used to measure the popularity of television programs and other media. These ratings are only a small part of today’s Nielsen Company’s world-leading offering of marketing and media information and measurement.

In fact, I get bored with the mission statements of a lot of companies, but that of Nielsen is so focused and descriptive that I had to take a second look: “In a world increasingly defined by global markets, connected consumers and volumes of digital information, The Nielsen Company employs advanced data collection methodologies and measurement science to help businesses turn new and traditional sources of data into customer intelligence to better manage their brands, launch and grow product portfolios, optimize their media mix and establish meaningful customer relationships.”

But Innovation Superstardom isn’t just about mission statements, is it? In fact, it’s no accident that Nielsen has achieved such market leadership in a space requiring clever uses of technology to deliver customer solutions. How can you know what viewers are watching? How can you connect the effect of an ad to the piece of programming or even the medium or combination of media being deployed? How do you learn more about the habits and desires of the viewers? These questions all demand creative , effective, and in today’s fast moving media environment, very rapid solutions.

So I talked to the Senior VP of New Product Introductions (NPI) and Innovation at Nielsen (aha – a true innovation champion in high places!) – Ann Marie Dumais. She had an interesting story to tell. And I’ll tell you – the passion she exuded while telling it came through loud and clear!

Dumais’ first principle, like that we lay out in the Superstar anatomy – is to “stay connected with clients.” Now for her, and the some 30,000 + people in her organization involved directly or indirectly with innovation, this means “walking in their shoes.” She says every person involved with a client or a project needs to “go to the street with their client” early on to walk in their shoes. Individuals and teams visit clients to find out needs and to observe situations where they “may not know they have the need.” They become “really good at understanding value propositions.” It is carpet time, often done by innovation safari, done and done well.

Dumais has been implementing a cross-channel, common cross-business innovation platform to manage innovations across the company’s many businesses and 100+ worldwide locations. Now when I first heard this I was a bit concerned – remember “prescriptive” systems that are adapted to the individual needs of every business. That’s not what’s happening here – but Dumais has been so passionate about communicating the vision and so inclusive about getting everyone’s “fingerprints on the system” that it’s working. She gave it the internal code name “Square Watermelons,” to gain internal interest and to convey the idea that it was nothing conventional. I like the “official” name even better — “BPQ,” or Better Products Quicker. According to Dumais this name was carefully chosen not only to convey the importance of speed but also to be inclusive of all types of innovation, not just “new products” or some such.

Like the Real OpenTM platform we recommend, BPQ is a “common sense framework” with a heavy dose of openness at the front end. An innovation portal based on BrightIdea’s WebStorm is used to “harvest” inputs from all levels internally, plus outside where it makes sense. Nielsen will post a challenge, or a problem to be solved, and carry on contests internally to get solutions, offering “contestants” value points, gold, silver and bronze medals, and opportunities to attend senior leadership meetings to the winning ideas. Ideas are evaluated quickly and apolitically, with rapid decisions, results and feedback. What I heard about and saw was a great example of “find” and “filter” processes done democratically and done right. You will not find here organizational divisions having their own independent ideation sections, rather, quite the opposite. Dumais insists the company-wide best practice of “open, simple and integrated” as a rule for driving ideation from anywhere and anyone in the company.

Dumais also added some “best practice” principles I really liked and that serve them well. First, they set up challenges and solicit inputs in such a way as to eliminate any solutions that will take more than a year to do. It keeps solutions simpler and avoids the risk of missing the market. Secondly, they really embrace the “80-20” rule, sticking to the 20 percent of the innovation that achieves 80 percent of the customer value. According to Dumais: “Perfection is unsustainable in a business driven by fast changing customer needs” as it gobbles up resources and flexibility besides. Fulfilling the core and relevant needs of a customer base is paramount, and includes the distinction between filtering out the “nice to have” versus “must-have.”

In short, I was quite impressed with Nielsen’s approach to all three elements of Innovation Superstardom – Customer, Process and Culture. They’re a great example of balance and effectiveness – and also what can happen when you have a dynamic, respected and empowered leader in charge.

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