Most people who major in applied math and statistics wind up working as actuaries. Calculating life expectancies sounded like a painful life to Howard Shimmel, so he found a way to get into the TV business. Now he’s Turner Broadcasting’s chief research officer, with a reputation for generating fresh ideas.
“He’s an innovative researcher and comes up with some neat techniques,” says Jed Meyer, U.S. research director for Omnicom Media Group’s Annalect unit, who works with Turner as a client and worked with Shimmel at Nielsen.
Among recent examples of his innovations at Turner are the creation of Targeting Now and ROI Now, the kind of data-based products that are widely popular with advertisers today.
Shimmel’s avoided an actuarial fate because his mother’s first cousin worked at ad agency Young & Rubicam as a spot TV buyer. The cousin helped Shimmel get a job at Nielsen, which seemed a less painful option.
He began working in local TV, soon moving to the young but growing cable business. In 1986 he joined MTV Networks as director of ad research. “Those were fun times. MTV was a young, crazy company,” Shimmel recalls.
He became an entrepreneur as president of Symmetrical Research, a company that early on incorporated credit card purchase data into its research, before returning to Nielsen, where he worked on fusing third-party data with Nielsen TV ratings. He also launched Nielsen’s media analytic business, consulting with companies like Turner, ESPN and CBS.
“He’s commercially savvy. He understands the business problems that research and data analytics are trying to solve and he’s good at applying the heavy thinking to the business problems rather than to the research for the research’s sake,” says Steve Hasker, global president of Nielsen.
Hasker wasn’t thrilled Shimmel left, but ties to the company remain. “He’s a very important client of ours. He’s also a very important sort of advisor to us because he understands exactly what we do and how we do it and being on the client and industry side,” he says. “He has a unique perspective on where our data and our insights are helpful and where they need to be improved.”
Jack Wakshlag, who retired as Turner’s chief research officer last year, hired Shimmel to run ad sales and sports research. “I interviewed a lot of people, and I thought Howard had a really good combination of substance and experience and sales savvy,” Wakshlag says. He praised Shimmel for being willing to try new things and following through on good ideas, such as getting the Media Ratings Council to verify Turner’s CNN All Screen measurement methodology.
“I can’t think of more of a fun time to be on the media side of this business than today, dealing with consumer change, dealing with market fragmentation, dealing with a place where some of the measurement tools are not as precise as we need,” Shimmel says.
“We’re using that data to optimize the placement of spots,” he says. “At the end of the day what the client is going to get is more GRPs against the people they care about rather than thinking about age-sex demographics, which I think everybody pretty well acknowledges now are a bad surrogate for the people [the client] cares about.”
Turner president of ad sales Donna Speciale says Shimmel has great rapport with agencies. “All of a sudden research is hot, and everyone wants Howard in the meetings.” she says. At Turner, “research is much more client-focused. The goal for us long-term is pushing to see if we can lead the industry and figure out what that next currency is.”
What Shimmel likes to do in his free time might be a bit surprising. “You wouldn’t know it by looking at me but I’m a big jam band fan,” he says, labeling Phish and Neil Young as musical acts he likes to catch. “I’m lucky enough that I have two kids that live in Boulder, Colo.,” he says. “They love it that I fly out to Boulder and take them to concerts, so that works well.”