Nielsen Lures IBM Watson’s David Kenny To Become Its New CEO

Nielsen's hire of IBM Watson honcho David Kenny as CEO, first reported on Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal, is a major bet for the measurement company as it rises to meet new competitive challenges and prepares for a possible sale of the business.

Kenny oversaw IBM’s artificial intelligence initiatives, using machine learning to support enterprise customers across a large number of verticals, including healthcare, energy and marketing. Previously, he was CEO of The Weather Company, president of content delivery network Akamai and the founder of Publicis-owned digital and programmatic incubator Vivaki.

Importantly for Nielsen, he has experience making sense of large, unstructured data sets, a key challenge for the firm as it works to migrate away from yesterday’s panel-based measurement system to incorporate new methodologies.

“Particularly for Nielsen, [Kenny] brings much-needed world-class expertise in television (Weather Channel), artificial intelligence (IBM Watson), advertising (Vivaki) and consulting (Bain),” Elgin Thompson, managing director at Digital Capital Advisors, told AdExchanger in an email. “It’s that unique combination of leadership and dynamism that should excite Nielsen shareholders, customers and employees.”

Kenny is also connected to several private equity firms, as The Wall Street Journal notes. Earlier in his career, Kenny was a partner at Bain & Company, which bills itself as “the leading consulting partner to the private equity industry and its key stakeholders.”

With Nielsen’s $8.3 billion in debt and its stock rapidly declining (about 30% over the last year alone), it might benefit the company to have a CEO with links to the private equity world, should the company decide to sell all or part of itself to one of these firms.

Kenny joins Nielsen during a time of looming change for the measurement industry. The company faces new competition from players such as Amazon and Google, a lack of visibility into some viewing environments and erosion of its monopoly control over television audience data.

Nielsen recently began exploring a sale or spinning off different parts of its business due to increased pressure from Elliott Management, a hedge fund with a 8.4% stake in Nielsen. Its “buy” business has struggled due to the troubled brick-and-mortar market and looming threat of Amazon, among other factors.

“Strategically, the critical question for the board remains, do you create more value by separating the Watch and Buy businesses?” Thompson said. “Kenny is as good as it gets at the former. What happens to the latter? Bringing on a new CEO seems to suggest giving him time to assess the situation prior to executing on strategic alternatives.”

Kenny will officially start Dec. 3. His predecessor, Mitch Barns, will leave the company at the end of the year.

 

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