ViacomCBS, Dentsu Move Away From Nielsen in New Audience-Measurement Pact

ViacomCBS is among the big media companies rushing to find new ways to measure video audiences. Starting next year, the entertainment conglomerate expects to start doing deals based on a new yardstick.

Dentsu, the Japanese ad conglomerate that owns Carat and Merkle, among other U.S. firms, expects to base some of its media deals with ViacomCBS properties on new kinds of tabulation of consumers. The companies expect to enact some transactions as soon as the first quarter. The pact is the latest sign of how the media and advertising sectors are looking for alternatives to their main measurement source, Nielsen, as more consumers move from watching TV programs in linear fashion to enjoying them on demand thanks to streaming services and mobile and broadband technology.

“I do think we are going to have a considerable amount of change, because there will be multiple currencies in the marketplace,” Cara Lewis, executive vice president and head of U.S. investment at Dentsu, tells Variety. “I can’t say how much will be done on these new products or the timing of it. I think we are going to see a shift in the coming year. We will see what is ready for an upfront, but it’s definitely something that is top priority for us.”

Dentsu is going to supply data from Merkle, a unit that distills analytic models from consumer information. That in turn will be matched with consumer “identifiers” from OpenAP, an ad-tech company backed by several of the media conglomerates and recently unveiled a new system, XPm, which allows advertisers and media outlets to count viewership across venues that might include linear TV, addressable TV and mobile-delivered video. ViacomCBS has also started working with ad-tech firm VideoAmp to track the reach of advertising among linear and digital viewers.

The pacts, notes John Halley, chief operating officer of advertising revenue at ViacomCBS, offer “another sign that measurement is no longer a monopoly business.”

The pact between Dentsu and ViacomCBS takes place as the media sector is working furiously to develop an alternative to Nielsen, which has come under intense scrutiny in recent months. The networks have openly expressed their dissatisfaction with Nielsen’s ability to count traditional TV audiences during the pandemic, and many sector giants, including NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia, have said they intend to offer new ways to measure viewership. Nielsen has said it sees a need to move faster and has articulated a plan to measure both linear and digital audiences. The company has also started to overhaul the way it counts viewership of individual commercials, a bedrock element of the currency of TV advertising deals.

At issue is whether advertisers will accept tabulation from the companies selling them advertising. Nielsen has reigned for decades because many top advertisers have called for a neutral third party to count consumers attracted to a particular media property. As new digital giants like Facebook and Google have expanded, however, Madison Avenue has launched into deals that rely on the companies’ measurements, not those of an outside judge. The launch of ad-supported streaming hubs like Paramount Plus, Peacock, Hulu and HBO Max means that traditional media companies now have plenty of proprietary information about viewer habits that they can control.

All sides expect advertisers to embrace multiple forms of tracking the exposure of ads to audiences. ”It’s the agencies and advertisers’ preferences about what kinds of data sets they want to use,” Halley said. “We can take those IDs and guarantee delivery against those IDs. We get paid on delivery and optimize the campaigns around the presence of those IDs. It’s a major step forward from what has been the tradition.”

Transactions backed by the new methodology could begin taking hold well before the upfront, the annual sales session during which U.S. media companies try to sell the bulk of their commercial inventory for the next programming cycle. Dentsu’s Lewis declined to name specific clients that might be taking part. She indicated one of the reasons the company decided to work with ViacomCBS is its early move into the business of distilling consumer data and helping advertisers aim for specific consumer niches.

A potential hodgepodge of counting collaborations could be unveiled in weeks to come. Already, Spanish-language broadcaster Univision has struck a pact with Interpublic Group-owned media agency Mediahub to use two data companies, EDO Inc. and DatafuelX, to predict consumer engagement with advertising that runs on the company’s linear TV outlets.

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