Analysis: Sternberg Exit Unnerves Research Units
As Magna research chief departs, agency brain drain is programmers' gain
By Claire Atkinson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/14/2009 5:07:50 PM
Commentary and analysis on the business of television advertising--from the upfront and scatter markets to TV events like the Super Bowl, the Oscars and the Olympics--courtesy of Broadcasting & Cable Business Editor Claire Atkinson.
The sudden departure of Interpublic Group's veteran programming analyst Steve Sternberg has other agency research staff wondering about their own future roles as agency cutbacks mirror those of their clients.
One agency research chief, who did not wish to be named, said that research departments on both the agency and the content side where "shocked and astounded" by Sternberg's sudden exit from Magna. This executive said that agency research executives were important gatekeepers who helped media buyers keep the "bright shiny numbers pitches" in perspective.
As executive VP of audience analysis, Sternberg was involved in the Council for Research Excellence's video mapping study released in spring. Sternberg also conducted ground breaking research on the content of commercial pods and is credited with persuading Nielsen to report the median age of TV channels' viewership. He joined Magna in 2001 and helped build the research department.
His departure follows that of other Magna stalwarts, including forecaster Bob Cohen, who retired; TV negotiator Bill Cela; and branded entertainment player Bill Hilary.
A Magna statement on Sternberg's departure explained that Lisa Quan, VP, Director of Audience Analysis, and Brian Hughes, VP, Manager of Audience Analysis, will take over some of his responsibilities. Magna said it would expand audience analysis beyond TV to include all media.
"Steve Sternberg has been a leader analyzing the broadcast television industry for many years," reads the statement. "But after conversations with Steve about Magna's new direction, we both agreed that both his professional interests and Magna's business needs did not align. Therefore Steve is leaving effective immediately to pursue other opportunities."
Another person familiar with the change said that the decision was in large part determined by the need to cut costs.
Many agency research executives have migrated to the content side over the past few years, a loss to agencies that looks to be cable's gain. Turner Broadcasting has hired three former agency staff in recent years. Among them: former Interpublic research executive, Stacey Lynn Schulman, who heads sales research for Turner's entertainment properties, and Gregg Liebman, a former ZenithOptimedia executive heads ad sales research at CNN. Turner also hired Universal McCann researcher Susan Nathan to the department about two years ago.
Other agency executives who've made the change include: Mindshare's David Marans, who moved from the agency world to Nielsen and was hired earlier this year in a research post at A&E Networks; Bruce Goerlich, who ran research at ZenithOptimedia and joined measurement firm Rentrak Corporation as chief research officer in January; and David Ernst, a former Initiative research executive recently hired by Discovery.
The defections are partly due to a change in focus at the agency level. Some agencies are putting more focus on understanding consumer behavior across the board and are investing in technology that judges the value of programs on factors that use ratings as only one of a number of metrics. Some feel that the changes could leave agencies short-changed when it comes to sorting through the onslaught of competing ratings claims made by each of the TV channels.
"What they've lost is that agency people used to be the insight leaders in understanding how people interact with their media," one research chief at a content company observed. Ninety-eight percent of video consumption is on the big TV screen, people are watching more than ever before. Understanding how and why people spend more of their time with TV is more important than ever."
An agency research chief added: "You really need sharp talented people in place to operate as gatekeepers. Anyone can produce a number-what's underneath the hood? When these people disappear from our side of the desk, it puts our clients at a disadvantage, because all the data is nice, but if it's not grounded in sound methodology, the numbers are built on a house of cards.
"If we become an endangered species, who is there to mentor the next generation? It is truly an apprenticeship."
Turner Broadcasting's chief research officer Jack Wakshlag commented: "I'm always looking for people who've seen many sides, and the client side is very important for us. They have a perspective that is very important for us to understand."On Steve Sternberg, Wakshlag added: "He's among the best and brightest minds this industry has seen. He's been a leader and he's been right almost all the time. He's made an immense contribution to the industry." Sternberg declined to comment for this article.
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