Measuring up in the Digital Age

How Heather Gadkari has gained deep insight into Nielsen’s digital media measuring services and its overall business strategy

Heather Gadkari, Nielsen Photo by Walter Czochanski

As several iconic brands became roadkill on the route to the digital economy, a ninety-year-old market research company has found new opportunities for growth. Nielsen built its business on traditional broadcast media and could have been vulnerable to the rapid market changes. Instead, as internet outlets gained advertising dollars, the company developed services to enable total audience measurement—that is, measurement on any device—and now Nielsen’s deputy general counsel, Heather Gadkari, ensures the brand’s agility across a much wider spectrum of platforms on which to promote products and services.

“The whole advertising ecosystem is constantly evolving,” Gadkari says. “Nielsen had foresight in anticipating the changing landscape.” While Nielsen is best known for its TV ratings service, an essential tool to set advertising rates, today its services for marketers plying the internet and alternative video outlets have also become critical.

The company helped lead this evolution more than a decade ago, when it made two key acquisitions, NetRatings and BuzzMetrics, that propelled it into the internet data-measurement sector. It continues to hone services that measure advertising and content consumption across any medium, including over-the-top media services, websites, apps, linear television, and more. These services have kept the company relevant and are natural add-ons to its existing services, Gadkari says. Most importantly, Nielsen embeds its legal team within its development and commercial teams, encouraging dialogue, discussion, and collaboration regarding various risks and the enablement of new initiatives. The conversations aren’t often pleasant or easy, but they’ve allowed Gadkari to acquire in-depth knowledge of the company’s offerings and business strategy.

Today the global information, data, and measurement company spans more than one hundred countries and employs forty-four thousand people around the world. Based in New York City, the multibillion-dollar market-research firm oversees 90 percent of the world’s population to deliver valuable consumer information with the right tools, earning it a spot on Forbes’s list of most innovative companies.

Gadkari has had a unique path to success. She joined Nielsen’s team in 2007, after the company acquired her then employer, BuzzMetrics, and formed a new unit called Nielsen Online. The aim was to enhance Nielsen’s existing business with a digital audience strategy, obtaining comparable metrics to Nielsen’s core television metrics by analyzing what people do online and via mobile devices. BuzzMetrics was originally conceived to track consumer-generated media and product as well as discussions on internet message boards, Usenet groups, and online articles. When social media such as Twitter and Facebook took off as advertising and purchase-influencing sites, Nielsen Online gravitated to them.

“I have been involved with the product team across our product life cycle, from concept to contract development to dealing with vendors to bringing products to market,” Gadkari says. “We have to get deep into the weeds with our teams. We have to understand how the products work and how our clients will use them to best provide legal support to our internal and external clients.”

For example, an advertiser might sign a contract to track a particular advertising campaign using multiple Nielsen services, including measuring what consumers buy online as well as what advertisements they see. Then, months later, the same company may want to engage Nielsen to measure a different campaign with a different mix of services.

“We built a contract structure that the client-services team could move with little legal touch,” Gadkari says. She explains that the document has a “check-the-box environment” that accounts for various ways marketers can use Nielsen’s services so that lawyers don’t have to rewrite contracts for common uses.

This partner-friendly, collaborative approach is critical to Nielsen’s current success. Gadkari mentions a remark from one company executive to another about whom to ask for information about one of the company’s services. “‘You can go to product or go to Heather,’” Gadkari recalls the executive saying. “That was an exciting moment for me.”

The internet allows marketers to learn a great deal about customers’ online habits, interests, and associations. For Gadkari, this environment makes for a great tool to precisely target demographic groups. The downside, though, is that some consumers perceive these tactics as intrusive, and if taken too far, they can create backlash. Nielsen has historically placed a high priority on preserving data privacy for the “Nielsen families” and individuals who have participated in various global Nielsen panels and provided representative demographics for the company’s broad research purposes.

Privacy laws, as well, demand compliance with regulations regarding certain types of internet market research. “When we are conducting measurement studies, we have to make sure that consumers are presented with appropriate privacy notices and opt-outs,” Gadkari says. Another part of the compliance puzzle centers on ensuring that clients adhere to privacy regulations and Nielsen’s policies. “We have to decide how we contractually put it on clients in a manner that enables compliance,” she adds. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all broad set of privacy obligations but a privacy-by-design approach that’s applicable to the product and makes sense for our clients.”

To write these contracts in a way that encompasses these issues is impossible without a thorough understanding of how the services work and collaboration with other Nielsen stakeholders, including its product teams and its legal leaders in the privacy field, according to Gadkari. Among other things, they must all understand what data is collected and how it is meant to be used. Gadkari cites this challenge as one of the intellectual pleasures of the job: gaining knowledge by being deeply involved with the development team’s work.

Equipped with a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from the University of Washington as well as a master’s degree in public policy from New York University and a JD from New York Law School, Gadkari has cultivated an insightful legal career first at BuzzMetrics and now at Nielsen. Her savvy service and strong business sense is recognized by others in the company, which, for the legal leader, is a clear source of pride. However, her greatest education, she maintains, comes from her young children: three boys. She is reminded every day who has the better negotiation skills between them.

For Gadkari, Nielsen presents the best of both worlds: interesting legal work and a dynamic business that is integral to remaking the media landscape. Her passion is aiding the company’s efforts to ensure the Nielsen brand remains as timeless as it is insightful.


McGuireWoods LLP:

“McGuireWoods is very lucky to work with Heather. She is a smart, innovative, results-focused attorney who achieves sophisticated and creative solutions to legal and business issues.”

—Amy B. Manning, Partner, Antitrust, Trade, and Commercial Litigation Department Chair