Lisa is one of the pioneers of multi-platform measurement (with a patent to boot) and has built a reputation as a true industry collaborator. In this episode she share insights about all things multi-platform and takes us on a journey exploring her career across CBS, ABC and now NBC.
A fascinating interview with Paul Donato who led research at Nielsen for over 17 years and, before that, was one of the co-founders of Kantar Media. Currently, Paul serves as Chief Research Officer at the Advertising Research Foundation. Come discover all about media currencies and why the evolution of common currencies is so challenging… and the strengths and limitations of big data (ACR vs. Set Top Box) vs panel data.
Duane: [00:00:00] Legends of Media Research is a podcast series featuring interviews with the Media Industry’s leading researchers, where we go behind the scenes, sharing stories from their greatest achievements and challenges. Brought to you by MediaScience, the leader in Media and Advertising Innovation Research.
Stay tuned at the end of the podcast for more information about MediaScience, but for now, I’m your host, MediaScience CEO, Dr. Duane Varan.
Welcome to another exciting episode of Legends of Media Research. Today I’m thrilled to feature an interview with NBC’s EVP – Analytics, Insights and Measurement, Lisa Heimann.
We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today, so without further ado, Lisa, welcome to Legends of Media Research.
Lisa: Thanks, Duane. Happy to do this.
Duane: Now Lisa, you’re probably the first guest that we’ve [00:01:00] had who actually ended up doing what they went to college and studied. [laughs] Everybody else, it was a little bit of a change in their career path, but for you, you actually went to college wanting to be a media researcher. Maybe you could tell us your story about how you got started in the industry.
Lisa: Sure. I loved TV as a kid, probably to the point that my parents were a little worried I was gonna become a couch potato, but loved TV, and you know, in the eighties there was a particular show, one of my all-time favorites, called Moonlighting.
And it was great to watch that show because they broke the fourth wall and there were so many industry things sort of going on behind the scenes with that. That was during one of the writer’s strikes, which is actually why I think they spoke to the TV. There were all these promos for, you know, “tune in and see if it’s new tonight”.
There was all this upheaval behind the scenes, and I think it just kind of piqued my interest as sort of, you know, what went into a TV show. It kind of went beyond just something that was, you know, fully formalized and sort of aired. And so that started kind of maybe me down the path of thinking, “wait, you know, there’s maybe a little [00:02:00] something behind this”, but I probably would have to credit a class that I took in high school.
It was a history class. And with almost everything, I was trying to find a way to get TV into my schoolwork. And so we had to write a report on a significant event in US History. And so I chose the Nixon-Kennedy debates, and the impact of television on that. And my, you know, teacher at the time said, “well, that’s a great topic”, but he was not so happy with the fact that I wanted to use TV Guide as my source.
So he sent me to the library. We went to the library back then, and I started to have to look up other sources, credible sources, and I discovered that there were all of these industry publications and just there was so much more to the business. And I think at that point I really got hooked on the idea that there was something that I could do on television.
I didn’t wanna be in front of the camera acting or news or something. I really wanted to be on the business side. And it was really that project that kind of led me to know that there were options that existed, and then ultimately led me to pursue applying to the communication school, the Newhouse School [00:03:00] at Syracuse University.
So yes, I did know that I wanted to work in television and sought that out for college. And it was a great experience ’cause I got there and I felt like I found my people, you know, other people who wanted to talk about TV all day long.
Duane: So you got your first job at a rep firm. For the benefit of the audience, rep firms were these companies that were filling the gap kind of between local and national ad sales. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about that first job and what it was like for you.
Lisa: Sure. I had done internships in college. I’m a big fan of internships, so you can try on different things. I had done them at a couple local stations, but ultimately, the last internship I did was at a rep firm called Blair Television, and I was just fortunate, actually; as the intern, we were supposed to rotate around and they were short handed on one of the teams so I ended up all summer, just working 40 hours a week for one of the teams.
And I had sort of the very unusual experience where I got a call in the fall. I actually graduated early. I was graduating in December and I had done the [00:04:00] internship in the summer and I got in the fall and they basically offered me a job to come back and do what I had been doing full-time.
So I know that never happens to others, but I was one of the non-stressed out college seniors. So I basically was able to start the job, continue the internship. It was great because they were short handed. Which early in your career is a good thing because you can work hard, you can distinguish yourself, you can raise your hand to do stuff, and they’re shorthanded, so they’ll, you know, they’ll sort of take you up on that.
I worked first on the sales research side. Being able to sort of support what you’re talking about, those spot sales that were sold on the stations that Blair represented. And then I moved into the programming research side because one of the other functions of a rep firm is that they would advise their client stations what syndicated programs that they would wanna buy and where they would wanna air them.
They would also offer some advice also on network shows. But it was a great job because the syndicators would come in and they would tell you all about this new show that they were gonna debut and [00:05:00] why it was great and wonderful and you should recommend it to your station.
So probably the most memorable pitch of that was that there was this very petite but energetic, no-nonsense family court Judge, Judy Scheinman. And they were pitching this show that she was gonna do where she was gonna bring this no-nonsense approach to TV and there was really no better way to showcase what the show was gonna be than to bring her to the actual meeting.
So they did. And that was Judge Judy. And you know, I mean, Judge Judy’s still going today [laughs] over 25 years, and she’s just as authentic as she was that day in that meeting. It was a great experience. I love the people that I work with. I’m in contact with some of them still today, but it kind of got me then thinking about, “did I wanna do something that was a little bit closer to sort of programming?
Like, syndication really interests me?” All those pitches that we sat through.
Duane: Yeah, it’s amazing. Judge Judy has a special presence here at Legends of Media Research. She was also a part of Julie’s career story as well. [laughs]
Lisa: Yes! Yes. [00:06:00]
Duane: So then what happened? So you were at the rep firm. What happened that led you– you went on to CBS syndication from there, I believe.
Duane: What happened that motivated that transition? How did that all happen?
Lisa: Sure. So I think, you know, a side effect of being able to see all of those pitches was that you got a good sense of which of the syndicators valued research. And so as I was thinking about the next thing I wanted to do, syndication interested me. I also had been working in New York and sort of had, you know, really wanted to explore what LA might be like.
And so I was looking for a job that would be in LA and really, you know, CBS specifically kind of stood out to me. The head of sales would actually come and call on us. Barry Wallach, he was very knowledgeable about research, seemed to really value it, and I think when a job opened up the division was then called IMARK.
The “I” meaning the CBSI. It was a new syndication group, but it was based at a large company. So I liked the idea that it was a smaller group that I’d be [00:07:00] joining, but with, you know, the basing of a bigger company as CBS behind it. And so I, when the job came up, I pitched it hard. I got it. I moved to LA and it was an exciting time.
You know, some of the shows that they syndicated back then was the Martha Stewart Living Show, the one she did pre prison [laughter] where she had a special room for wrapping and she would cook with these very exotic spices and all this other stuff. It was also the time of Everybody Loves Raymond. Which was a show that had debuted on CBS and it did kind of okay. Aired on a Friday night, I believe, when it first debuted.
But as we started to sell it in syndication, the show just got more and more popular, which was a really exciting time. We actually had to keep updating the pitches for good stories. Usually you would, you’d have to kind of use an old pitch if the story got worse, but it was just a great time to be there, and I liked that it was a small department.
I think there were maybe five of us in the research department. My boss at the time, Joanne Burns, was a great teacher, mentor, still a friend, and we worked [00:08:00] closely with the programming team and the marketing team. And it was just, again, a really great experience to be able to– you had ideas, you could be directly in the room, and I was always very thankful that I chose something that was smaller like that, as opposed to going to one of the other studios where they had massive research departments.
But it was gonna be a long time before you had the chance to really distinguish yourself or kind of get your hands on things. So it’s funny because I was only there for two years and in my mind it always seems like it was much longer because just so many of those people are such good friends, and it was such a turning point for me.
But it was really only two years. And the reason it was only two years is because I encountered my first of many mergers and [laughs] acquisitions in the business, and that sort of, you know, changed things.
Duane: Was that the King’s World? The King’s World?
Lisa: King World, yeah.
Duane: King World, right? Yeah.
Lisa: CBS bought King World and even though CBS– I was at CBS and we were the buyer, King World was definitely, you know, the big gorilla in the syndication space. And so [00:09:00] very quickly we started having these conversations with the head of research there who asked me if I wanted to move to Short Hills, New Jersey. And I said, “no, thank you”. I was really liking LA. [Duane laughs]
So, nothing against New Jersey, but it wasn’t even, you know, it wasn’t even New York City. I said, “you know, I really like working in LA, and I wouldn’t have started looking except that that happened”. But it got me to the next thing.
Duane: Yeah. And that was at CBS affiliate relations, is that right?
Lisa: That’s correct, yeah.
Duane: And that was a bit of a major turning point in your career, Lisa, really, I think.
Lisa: It was, and if I remember correctly, I think Julie may have spoken about affiliate relations too. I may be getting this mixed up, but a lot of our backgrounds are similar. Affiliate relations is like an unsung hero of the network.
I think sometimes, unless you’ve worked in it, you don’t really know how hard those people work, but also how interconnected they are to the entire network. It was great to get access to– you know, you worked with news, you worked with programming, that’s where [00:10:00] I met Jeff Bader. You worked with the marketing groups, you worked with the operations group, the legal group.
You just literally sat at the forefront of all of it, and I loved that. It was just the best primer for working and understanding network television. And it just brought about, you know, so many different opportunities. One of the new divisions that was started while I was there was ABC Digital.
So this is in the, you know, the early to mid two thousands. And Disney ABC was actually the first company to put their video on iTunes at first. And people may remember, but this was at the time when there was a lot of music piracy. Napster was out there, people were sharing, you know, sharing music.
And the whole music industry was concerned that people weren’t buying music. And so I think kind of as a hedge against that, Disney sort of said, “well, let’s figure out a way to put good content on iTunes so people can buy it”. And they had the advantage with video that, at the time, the bandwidth of the internet really couldn’t handle sharing video [00:11:00] files, and so they were trying to get ahead of this, and iTunes was the first step.
And then the very next step was that they were the first ones to launch a video player, the ABC Video Player. And they did an experiment at first. They didn’t roll it out everywhere nationally. They did it in a few markets. And so, because I was in charge of local market research, which has nothing to do with digital, but because I was in charge of local market research, I think somebody asked me, or maybe I raised my hand and said, “oh, you know, sure, I’d love to look at the data and sort of help analyze this”.
So when that data came in for the original video player test, I was the one sort of looking at that and helping, you know, decipher that. And I think honestly just the curiosity in me, you know, got the better of me. And I just, I wanted to keep doing that. It was new and exciting and felt like an extension of everything I had been doing.
Duane: This is really the very dawn of what we now think of as multi-platform.
Lisa: Exactly. And I would say that I wasn’t alone in this, but that I was one of the early folks and eventually my [00:12:00] team as well, who really thought about it differently, right when it first started, they actually said, “you know, we’ll let you hire somebody, one person for digital”.
And we hired somebody, but digital at the time was counting up, you know, clicks. It was how many clicks of an episode or something there was, and you really couldn’t equivalize it with ratings. This was also around the same time that DVRs were starting to really gain in penetration.
Nielsen was adding them into the currency, and I think from a very, very early stage, we took the position that streaming was no different than a DVR. It was playback through a different pipe, right? But it was ultimately consumers choosing to watch content at a different time that worked for them.
And so that’s how we approached it from the very beginning. You know, the team of the one person– digital grew to a whole team working on this. It was truly an exciting time to be at Disney. We did a lot of different things with that multi-platform point of view. We ultimately created a multi-platform rating, which I don’t think I [00:13:00] realized how impactful that was until I was at a conference, I think it was at Nielsen, when they used to do the Nielsen client meetings actually, and I was presenting. They asked me to sort of present some of the stuff that we were doing, and as part of the presentation on one of the slides was the formula that we were using. And all of a sudden–
Duane: This is the famous formula that you and Brian West got a patent for, is that right?
Lisa: That is correct, yes.
Duane: Yeah. [laughs]
Lisa: So if anyone wants to look it up, it is patent number 9,749,688. [Duane laughs]
And yes, Brian is my co-inventor in that. But no, it was surprising to me, is that I feel like it was my rockstar moment. All of a sudden, all the cameras in the audience, you know, everybody took their phone out and started taking a picture of this formula and I was like, “you know, guys, this is really just a, you know, a flavor of an average audience rating”.
But it was really helpful, ’cause beyond wanting to benefit, you know, the company that I worked for and being able to express the value of our shows, [00:14:00] it really represented an opportunity for unifying. Because at the time, everybody was doing kind of their own version of this, including NBC, which had what they called Tammy.
But sort of opening up this conversation, and particularly I wanted to share the formula because I didn’t want it to be a secret. I wanted it to be something the industry could talk about openly and we could differ on things. The reality was the majority of the way we were all calculating was more similar than it was different.
And it was good to have dialogue around, you know, what people were doing differently and learn from that. So, it’s actually, I have to say, it’s one of the things I love about research. It’s why I’ve stayed in research for as long as I have. For the most part it, you know, there’s other disciplines that are filled with egos.
Researchers generally care about getting it right [laughs] and they work tirelessly for their companies, but they also really advocate for good research. And so that whole experience of being able to open that up and to share that and engage and get to meet people at other companies was really gratifying.[00:15:00]
Duane: You know, I wanna pause here for a second, Lisa, because there’s so many things that you’ve just said that I think are really important for the audience to come to terms with, you know. First, there’s the whole multi-platform question. I mean, it’s over a decade later, and we’re still trying to figure it out. [laughter]
Duane: It seems like it’s taking us a long time to figure, you know, to figure out how to measure for this properly but you also talked about, you know, the ability to share this formula, this secret sauce, if you will, at the time, to share it with the industry. And I think that’s something that has been more of a challenge for the industry.
You know, there was a time, and the time that you’re talking about really was that period where the industry felt a lot more collaborative than it feels today. Maybe we had Big Titan research leaders who could, you know, Poltrack and Artie and Alan could call each other up and Colleen and they could have this conversation and make things happen.
Maybe we’re much more fragmented [00:16:00] today than we were. I’m not sure what it is, but it seems like it’s a lot more challenging to have that level of collaboration. I mean, certainly there’s always been collaboration, but not like the way it was. Is that getting better now? Do you see hope? [laughs]
Lisa: I definitely see hope and I think it’s, you know, it comes kind of in waves and, you know, I would say a big part of it has been the slow kind of disaggregation of content and ad measurement has been partly at the root of this as well as streaming services. So in– and in two different ways, right?
So on the ad sales side, you know, the commonality that needs to be reached is between a publisher and an advertiser. They need to agree on sort of what’s gonna measure and dictate their transaction. So in that case, it’s okay if there’s many different flavors you transact with: one advertiser at apples and another, at oranges, et cetera, right?
That doesn’t really work so well in the programming space because it’s very much about trying to understand where the program sits in the ecosystem, and you have to have sort of one [00:17:00] version of the truth, not multiple versions of the truth. So I think that was one of the things, is that you had ad and program measurement sort of starting to diverge and on the content side, you know, everything behind it, as far as not just when it airs on a network and how it performs, but in general, what the lifecycle and and lifetime value was of that piece of content.
The other thing that sort of happened, you know, for sort of going back and in the early days of this was you had Netflix. And so Netflix, you know, emerged first on the scene. They were very big, they had a lot of power, and one of the things that they did or didn’t do was they didn’t share their data. And so, you know, if you were selling your content to that, you could try to negotiate to get, you know, very piddly amounts of data back.
But there certainly was no wider transparency. There was no understanding of how your show fit into their ecosystem or how that show fit into multiple ecosystems, right? A show that was maybe on ABC but also on Netflix at the same time. And so, you know, for a long time there was a culture of not [00:18:00] sharing and each successive streaming service kind of unfortunately followed in the footsteps of Netflix and didn’t share their data for a while.
Well, you know, fast forward, and Netflix has a whole lot of other streaming competitors, and not only that, but many of them, including Netflix, are now introducing advertising, which again, then brings back the idea that you really do have to have more transparency. And so I think there’s been a lot of good steps in this direction and some of it is measuring the actual viewing. Some of it is measuring the signups, the attributable sort of subscriptions and signups that go along with the content.
There is also metrics for the demand for content, right? It’s a wide variety of things, but they are far more transparent than they were sort of in the early days of streaming. And I’m encouraged by that. I’m encouraged that we can continue to sort of fan the flames of those good efforts. There will never be a time when we share everything. And I think that’s important to sort of distinguish, right? There’s always gonna be a secret sauce to how [00:19:00] a streaming service maybe has an algorithm that sort of moves people around their site.
There’s always gonna be different marketing tactics and things. There’s some of that we shouldn’t share. That’s kind of, that’s for us to have on a proprietary basis. But a lot of the content lives in a lot of spaces and there’s a lot more people involved, you know, in producing it and distributing it.
And we have to have some sort of common way of, sort of talking about it and a common understanding. And so I am encouraged that some of these syndicated sources that are taking steps in that direction, you know, can get even farther. I think there’s also an element, it’s very unsexy, but I’m a big advocate for some of the metadata that each of the companies have about their programs needing to be more transparent.
In sort of the olden days, right? You would look at, how did a piece of content perform when it followed another particular type of content, right? A talk show into another talk show or a talk show versus a sitcom, right? Or what followed best after. And that’s how you look at live linear [00:20:00] television.
When people are watching that way today, the kind of metadata that’s important from the business questions we get are things like, you know, how important is it that a piece of content be exclusive? How important is it that it dropped once a week or should we drop the whole season at once? Right? And it’s metadata that exists because we can, anybody could have an intern go and look at all of the streaming services and go into them and write things down and note this.
But I think we, as an industry, have to figure out how we’re gonna share some of that in service of being able to learn more, ’cause everybody’s sort of only learning from their successes and not having an idea of the success and failures of others just slowed us down quite a bit. So I’m hopeful, as a very long answer to that question.
Duane: I think the other trend that we’re seeing is this rise of more and more measures into the mix.
Duane: What do you think about that? Is that good? Is it bad? I [00:21:00] mean, certainly it’s complex. How do we navigate through that kind of like multi measure universe that we’re increasingly growing into?
Lisa: Sure. Well, while I sort of, some days, long for [laughs] the simplicity of research when I first started my career, the reality is that there is no one metric, right?
If we start talking about just what’s the one metric, we go down a bad rabbit hole. The key is that different data informs different business questions, right? And so, and different levels of grain, right? So some data sets are better for, “how can I connect viewing of my show on Peacock versus on NBC versus maybe on Hulu?”
Right? Like, or Netflix, or you know, if you’re looking at Yellowstone, how is it performing on Peacock, but also how is it performing on Paramount Network? So certain datasets might help you get at understanding, kind of that larger landscape for all the platforms they’re in. But they may not be as helpful if you’re trying [00:22:00] to get into deep level of grain on an individual episode, you know, at a very fine demo or at a very fine period of time, like a telecast at a specific hour or something, right?
If something is not based on census level data that is truly representative of the US, that’s not gonna serve you well if you’re trying to figure out demand for something. You know, looking at past behavior does not necessarily always indicate, you know, the best measure of demand. So I think it’s really about understanding the possibilities and the limitations of each of the data sets and then really trying to figure out, you know, which business question would you use? Which of those data sets or sets?
Duane: Yeah, it goes back to your 101 class, you know, where everything comes back to your communication objective. And how do you measure for success or failure against that objective, I guess.
Lisa: Yeah. Yep. And I think, you know, I had a little bit of an early peek into this. Before I left Disney, although maybe it was foreshadowing [00:23:00] on where I was gonna go, but you know, one of the other really interesting business questions that I felt like I’ve had the chance to be a part of as it changed was this thing called “in season stacking”, right?
At the time it was this novel thing. Most of the episodes of television were only available in what they call Trailing Five, and it was Trailing Four and then it became Trailing Five, which is why there’s a metric called Live + 35 days that we look at still. But the problem at the time was that Netflix, if you went to go sell your program later and you had done anything more than exposing the most recent, you know, five episodes of the series online, you know, they said they were gonna discount how much they offered in the backend to that, and the other challenge was because of streaming, people were not really as tolerant to say, watch repeats within a season, particularly for a serialized show like if you’re watching Grey’s Anatomy for four episodes that are original and then a repeat, and then orig– it just sort of broke the flow, and broadcast in particular, moved closer to a cable model [00:24:00] where they would run original episodes kind of straight through in the fall.
Then they would take a break for a few months and then they would come back with original episodes in the spring. And it became very difficult, especially for a brand new show, to maintain momentum. So even if the show sort of had good momentum, you know, people would gather the holidays and talk about it.
That’s when, you know, people did more in-person talking. Or they might talk on social, but there’d become interest in the show and there was no way for someone to go and actually start from the beginning and be able to, you know, jump into these shows. And so, we always have these conversations internally about, “well, how could we quantify that?”
How could we quantify the lift you could get by offering the episodes longer so that we could figure out whether or not it offset the value? We might, you know, lose a little bit on the backend and so, one of the partners for Disney was Comcast, right? Disney Networks were distributed on Comcast and actually the person sort of driving a lot of the desire to have the in-season stacking was Matt Strauss, who was then [00:25:00] working sort of on the video on demand side at Comcast.
He now oversees all the NBC’s D2C services, including Peacock. But you know, I think he and his team were big drivers for sort of pushing the value of getting stacking rights and so, out of one of those conversations that myself and my team were invited to, we sort of endeavored down this path of, “well, how could we prove it?”
“How could we use different data sources to be able to actually track and see… You know, if you left a show up longer, would that actually drive viewing?” And so we picked a few shows, we got approval to do an experiment on this, and we tracked all those viewers that were able to watch beyond the Trailing Five, and we were able to prove out what the lift was to linear television.
And it was pretty significant. And it more than outweighed any sort of, you know, discount that we were gonna face later. And that was one of the first hurdles in getting through to be able to offer in-season stacking, which then, you know, turned into “can we have past season stacking?” Right? Can we have everything in one place?
[00:26:00] But I think for me, that was maybe one of the eye-opening things about how to use different data sets, how to work with data scientists beyond just researchers and really be able to affect a business decision. And I think, and it also for me personally, just made me more interested to eventually work at Comcast NBC.
Duane: And you know, Lisa, your story is a great example of, I think, where you’ve built a particular reputation in the industry, which is, you know, tackling new terrain. We’re all confused by the constant, kind of like shifts in the market, the new landscape, and you know, everybody’s trying to figure it out.
And you really have built a career of kind of like, methodically approaching a question like that and figuring out how to get the data to behave itself in terms of [laughs] helping inform a business decision. So that’s been fantastic.
So let’s go back to our main story line. So we digressed there for a bit. So then you made [00:27:00] the transition from ABC as you were just alluding to NBC. Tell us about that transition.
Lisa: If we fast forward a few years, sometimes things are really just about timing. And I happened to be having lunch with Jeff Bader, who I had worked with when he oversaw scheduling at ABC. And he was somebody who I knew really valued research and researchers. He and I used to have some spirited debate over numbers from time to time, and I loved it.
He’s also just one of the best humans I know in the industry, and we were having this conversation and he was talking about the fact that Alan had announced he was retiring and he was leaving. And Jeff was actually taking over responsibility so that the NBC Research Group was gonna report to him.
And one of the things that he was very interested was making sure that we sort of had a continuation of multi-platform research that was started under Alan, but, you know, continued to progress. And so, you know, it really interested me, it was a chance to work for somebody that I really valued. It was a chance to extend the things I had done at Disney and sort of apply them to a different, you know, slightly different canvas at NBC. [00:28:00]
And so I left Disney after 17 years and I joined NBC probably about five and a half years ago now. And my initial role was really to oversee NBCU multi-platform research. That sort of quickly evolved, as those things do, [laughs] to include more things. And eventually I ended up overseeing as I do today, pretty much all current and evolving measurement, whether that’s linear, digital, cross platform.
Again, trying to maintain that lens of looking at it all together holistically. But also consumer insights at that corporate landscape level. You know, the data is great ’cause it tells us ‘what’, the consumer insights really sort of tell us more the ‘why’. And it’s the combination of those two things that I think has always been very powerful.
We service a variety of stakeholders across NBCU and the company, but also we get the opportunity to work really closely with a lot of the many talented research folks. The way that NBC is set up, each of the different entertainment, sports, et cetera, has their own research leader. And so we work very [00:29:00] closely with them as well.
Duane: And I think that’s important for the audience to understand that, you know, every company has its own, kinda like, philosophy about whether research should be centralized or decentralized.
Duane: And NBC probably tilts more on the, you know, the decentralized side of that equation. And you often have these tensions where they centralize and decentralize over time even.
Duane: But I guess that’s what’s interesting about the role that you’ve come into because you’re kind of like providing a centralized service but, you know, it is within a very decentralized structure. How do you facilitate that? How do you go about tackling that in that kind of environment?
Lisa: It helped that I knew it from going in. [laughs] So it’s always helpful when you know something going in.
My time at Disney had become more and more centralized from a research standpoint, and it, you know, it was clear in sort of talking with Jeff and others, you know, that it was different at NBC. But one of the things that, you know, Jeff and I talked about early on was, you know, how could you build out a collaboration layer that would [00:30:00] support sort of each of those research groups being separate?
And I had done that in an informal way when I was at Disney, but really it was a part of my role coming to NBC that I was going to help, you know, facilitate that. So it’s kind of the other hat that I wear, which is that I’m the chair of the NBCU Research Council.
One of the things that NBC has is this thing called Symphony, and it’s really marketing focused and it’s– the idea of it is all of the different divisions, you know, parks, movies, media, work together to support the pri– the different high priorities from the company, right? So if there’s a Jurassic Park movie coming out, how do they all support it?
If there’s a new TV show debuting on NBC, how does everybody support it? And so on. And so, there was a desire to say, “what could the research version of that be?” So it wasn’t gonna be so much, you know, trading promo time or something. It was really more based on the idea of collaboration and sharing knowledge and sort of thinking about kind of how to set that up.
I think I tried to take from a variety of different things I had seen succeed over the years [00:31:00] and essentially we set it up so that there’s a research called the Research Board. It’s basically all of the senior research leaders across NBCU. It’s pretty media focused, so it’s a lot of TV. We’ve got some folks from film as well when it makes sense, somebody from parks, but we sort of meet monthly and we kind of talk about all the different things that are going on and share, and it’s a chance to also just share knowledge or insights that, you know, any of the groups have come up with.
But probably the heart and soul of research is really the committees that we have. And we set it up so that there would be different committees. I think we’ve got about 10 of them now. It sort of changes over time, but they’re very topic driven, very function driven, right.
So we have a Social Media Committee. We have a Local Market Committee. We have a Contents or Primary Research Committee. We have a New Data Sets Committee. We have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council as part of that, you know, and so on. And so what’s great is that’s the chance for researchers of all levels across NBCU, so there’s probably about 300 or more people that we sort of [00:32:00] support in this ecosystem.
And they can come together and they can join a committee that is either the area that they work in and they wanna support and lend their expertise to, or in some cases it’s an area that they want to learn about. The committees are chaired very, very intentionally by sort of director and VP level.
It gives those folks a chance. You know, sometimes there’s directors and VPs who don’t have a large team. This gives them a chance to actually flex their leadership skills, particularly leadership through influence, which is so much harder than sort of just overseeing your direct reports.
And it, you know, sets them up for success and that they have a board member who kind of acts as a liaison and a mentor to them. But really it’s those committees that do the heavy lifting. You know, meeting and talking about the different parts of what’s going on kind of in their area. We use them from time to time, you know, could be a vendor renewal where we sort of go to that group and we talk about all of the various options in that area, and how can we work together to maybe come up with a way to [00:33:00] streamline some of those costs and instead of everybody just using, you know, the company that they’re comfortable with.
So, sometimes there’s also a cost savings that comes out of it. But, you know, I think for me it’s just, I’ve always loved being able to support sort of people’s growth and knowledge as individuals and as researchers, and I think it does that. It also keeps us connected and, you know, good insights from one part of the business often have application to other parts of the business. We just have to have a framework to share.
And so we actually were getting ready, we probably officially launched a research council maybe in 2018, end of 2018 and into 2019. And we decided that we wanted to start having, we wanted to have an offsite and we are gonna plan it for 2020. Spoiler alert, that did not happen. [Duane laughs]
But instead– we flexed and instead we came up with sort of a virtual event. We called the Fall Forum and we took about, I think, four or five Thursdays in that October, [00:34:00] and we set aside about 90 minutes. And we gave the committees a chance to do a readout on what they were working on. We also used it as an opportunity to bring in some outside speakers, to bring in some inside speakers.
And each time we also– we like to pair it with some sort of a data skillset or a presentation type skillset building session. And so we’ve been able to bring in– and vendors to do that. I think researchers, they know their research really well, but they can always use a few tips on sort of how to tell that story and how to show the story in the larger company.
So it was a big success in 2020. Everybody was at home. It was a chance to kind of virtually connect and share information. We’ve done it now three years in a row, and this past year we were really excited that we brought a hybrid element to it where we had some of the folks being able to meet in person, see each other, see the presentations in person if possible.
And so it’s great ’cause it’s still reached and facilitated our researchers across the globe. One of the sessions actually had our folks from London presenting, which is a bit of a time challenge, but we [00:35:00] figured it out. But also it encourages people to meet and talk in person. So I think going forward, we’ll continue to strive how to do that in a way that optimizes both.
Duane: You know, another area where you’ve really built your reputation, Lisa, has been in the whole challenge of bringing, you know, research slash consumer insights together with data science. I know for the industry really over the past decade, this has been such a challenge, you know.
In some organizations data science reigns, in some organizations there’s still very much an active conflict, but you’ve done a really good job in terms of helping provide a bridge between those two cultures. Maybe you could tell us a little bit of what you’ve learned over the years in terms of how you find that balance between, you know, research slash consumer insights and data science.
Lisa: Sure. It started kind of at Disney. One of my responsibilities at Disney was to oversee forecasting, linear and digital forecasting. [00:36:00] And I’ll start with digital forecasting. Digital forecasting, you know, started off with one platform and it kept expanding and expanding. And then, and it literally got to a place where I think I said like, “this is beyond what a human brain and an Excel spreadsheet can do”. [Duane laughs]
The complexity. The complexity of it. And you know, and I think it’s okay to admit these things. One of the things I try to say to research folks today is just like, research takes a village. It’s okay that you don’t know everything, just you know the people that you need to go to.
And in this case it was knowing that we needed help, right? And so the way Disney sort of structured it, there was a data science group that was inside the Disney parks, but was doing work on behalf of the media sector side. And so we started working with them on building out modeling that could support, at first, sort of the digital side and later linear.
It was hard ’cause I think in the very beginning there was an adversarial dynamic to it. It was sort of data scientist versus research. And what we really tried to do was make it [00:37:00] collaborative because the data science folks can bring a perspective and a nuance to these very complex situations that, again, Excel spreadsheet and human brain can’t do.
But what researchers understand is the business. Like beyond understanding the data they’re working with, they really understand the business and it’s the coming together of those two things that ultimately is better than either of those alone. I sometimes say, you know, my job as an advocate for data science is that, you know, that one plus one equals three, right?
That you try to figure out ways each of them separately are not gonna get all the way there. So at Disney, we sort of did a variety of that. With forecasting, I think that’s where that kind of started. But then my role at NBC about two years ago, somewhere in the beginning of Covid, I actually had a data science team that was added to my team.
And it was along the same lines, right? How can we bring them closer to the analysis that we were doing and all the data that we were looking at and be able to get to insights faster [00:38:00] or to get to insights that you might not see, or maybe the beginning of an insight. We still do forecasting as well. That forecasting modeling did not go away, but it’s been really interesting and the more the data scientists can sort of learn about the business and the business questions and the more that the researchers can lean into to sharing and teaching, you know, the data scientists of what they’re doing. That’s where we’ve really seen, again, the one plus one equals three come out of it. And I am certainly not a data scientist.
I think if I was starting, you know, school today, I would probably consider going into data science, but I didn’t, it didn’t exist. That much all those years ago. But it’s definitely something to embrace and to not run away from. And I think researchers who continue to be successful today and in the future are gonna be ones that embrace it and it isn’t, you know, a lot of times it’s like, “oh, the streaming services are the ones that have all the data sciences to look at all of their internal data”.
And that’s true, but there’s also a large wealth of other data, syndicated data, et [00:39:00] cetera, that there’s more value that can come out of that by sort of turning on its head a little bit.
Duane: I know you have a particular passion for providing mentorship to the next generation of researchers, so you’ll love our closing question, Lisa. [Lisa laughs] The closing question for today is, what advice would you have for the next generation of researchers?
Lisa: I have a lot of different things, so I’ll try to think of a few of them. [Duane laughs]
I have a lot of advice. Let’s see. I’d say ‘be curious’ is one of them, right? ‘Don’t be afraid of change’ is another. You know, I talked about that first merger and acquisition that I sort of went through in my career. They’re gonna continue to happen. The business is gonna continue to change.
Like, you gotta not be scared of it. Lean into it. Lean into being a disruptor. Being a disruptor can be a good thing. Challenge the status quo. I think also there’s just an element of, and again, I find this particularly in research, which is: develop good working relationships [00:40:00] with others, learn from others.
If you make it about trying to help the greater good, you will ultimately be identified for your individual talents. If you seek getting attention to your individual talents, that will only take you so far. And so I think there’s just, that’s probably outside of the research community. But I think really, you know, chase good work, chase impact, chase working with others and embrace data science.
Duane: Well, fantastic. Well, Lisa, thanks again so much for sharing from your career with us today. There were lots of great little nuggets of insights there and I wanna thank you also for being such a champion for collaboration in our industry. You know, that’s certainly something we need to see more and more of.
Lisa: Yes, definitely. Happy to do this. Thank you for having me.
Duane: And of course, I want to thank you, the audience, for joining us today. Don’t forget to tell your friends and colleagues about us and follow this podcast so you don’t miss any of our exciting episodes. And if you’d like to learn more about MediaScience, stick around after today’s interview [00:41:00] for more.
So, until next time, I’m MediaScience, CEO, Duane Varan, thanking you for joining us today and inviting you to our next exciting episode of Legends of Media Research.
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