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The Front-Runner: How iSpot Became a Favorite To Claim Nielsen’s Measurement Crown

Hands holding up a crown
(Image credit: Darren Robb/Getty Images)

While millions of Americans settled in to watch the Olympic opening ceremony from Beijing, China, at the Bellevue, Washington, headquarters of iSpot.TV, employees were warming up to count them.

The 10-year-old measurement company had been engaged by NBCUniversal not just to count viewers, but to analyze how many commercials they were watching, how much of each spot they watched and what each advertiser's share of voice was across the TV landscape. And to do it in real time.

Sean Muller of iSpot

iSpot CEO Sean Muller (Image credit: iSpot)

About 30 iSpot staffers worked through the weekend. “We have all hands on deck and we’re delivering metrics several times a day to NBC on a regular cadence,” iSpot CEO Sean Muller said. “I was pretty excited, but I never looked forward more towards a Monday than this last weekend. It’s been hectic.”

The next weekend, iSpot did it again for both the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl LVI, also broadcast by NBC, which has declared iSpot the front-runner in the race to provide the industry with a cross-screen currency that can be used to buy and sell billions of dollars worth of commercials in the next upfront market — a contest that includes Nielsen, which has dominated the media measurement industry for decades.

“Look, we have a lot of confidence in the work they’re doing,” Kelly Abcarian, executive VP of measurement and impact for NBCU's sales and partnerships unit, said of iSpot. “We wouldn’t have engaged the biggest media-buying agency, PMX, and the other holding companies alongside us in this test-and-learn if we didn’t think that iSpot was ready for the big stage.”

Parsing the Big Game

On Tuesday morning after the Super Bowl, iSpot declared the big game had reached 150 million viewers and had an average minute unified cross-platform viewership of 122 million. 

Nielsen later said total audience reach was 167 million, but didn’t have a comparable cross-platform figure. Nielsen said the average minute audience for linear viewing was 101 million vs. iSpot’s figure of 98.1 million. 

iSpot produced some other numbers, saying the average minute audience for streaming was 10.4 million viewers, the game delivered 9.81 billion ad impressions and the commercials, which cost as much as $7 million a pop, had a healthy average completion rate of 98.6%.

Super Bowl LVI Public MetricsiSpotNielsen
Total Audience Reach150.0 million*167.0 million**
Avg. Min Audience Unified Cross Platform122 million**N/A
Avg. Min Audience - Linear98.1 million101.0 million**
Avg. Min Audience - Streaming10.4 millionN/A
Avg. Min Audience - Out of Home12.5 millionNot broken out
Total Household Reach68.9 million86.4 million
Avg. Min Households Viewership49.8 million47.9 million
TV Ad Household Impressions4.39 billionN/A
TV Ad Audience Impressions9.81 billionN/A
Total TV Ads (including promos)91N/A
Ad Completion Rates98.60%N/A
Brand Spots89N/A
Creative Assessment121 ads/teasers evaluatedN/A
*Excludes OOH
**Includes OOH

“What the last week or so has brought forward is that that confidence is rightly placed,” Abcarian said. “We are producing overnight metrics. We are able to understand real insights and deliver them back to advertisers on a next-day basis. We are unifying cross-platform impressions at scale and bringing that forward to help advertisers understand that total delivery.”

Abcarian, a former Nielsen executive, on March 3 released what she called “a look book.” It organized all the information NBCU had gotten through requests for proposals from companies interested in providing the television industry with updated approaches to media measurement. In the book, NBCU declared iSpot as the leader of the pack, ahead of rivals Comscore, VideoAmp, 605, Oracle, Samba TV, TVSquared and Nielsen.

In the midst of the Olympics, Abcarian remained convinced. “It’s clear to me after working with [Muller] on these test-and-learns as we ready this currency for the upfront that there’s a reason why he’s the front-runner in terms of being ready to help the market redefine the currency as we move ahead.”

Muller, a serial tech entrepreneur, wasn’t familiar with the media business before starting iSpot. 

He grew up in Israel and didn’t speak English when, at 12 years old, he moved to Washington state in 1986. He went to the University of Washington as an undergrad and got his MBA there as well.

Muller’s father was a software engineer who built the Hebrew operating system for Wang Laboratories, and the younger Muller jumped into the tech world. He learned how to build databases with his first venture, KingBooks.com, back in the days when Amazon had fewer than 100 employees. He also started TheWeddingTracker.com. 

Another venture called Enom, an internet domain registrar, was acquired by Demand Media, for which Muller became chief technology officer. He left Demand Media for Medianet Digital, a platform that cataloged music for Google, Amazon and Apple. Medianet developed expertise in audio automatic content recognition.

The inspiration for iSpot came when Muller saw a commercial on TV and discovered how hard it was to find information about that spot online.

Building an Online Ad Database

“I didn’t understand how you could not find a TV ad on the internet,” Muller said. “Basically the theory was if any information exists, it exists on the internet. So there was no good data for TV advertising because if there was, it would exist online. It didn’t seem possible.”

Muller built software that would watch TV and catalog the ads and launched iSpot in 2012. It put some of its data online and drew a million unique viewers a month almost immediately. “Clearly, there was demand from both the industry and consumer to find information about TV ads,” he said.

iSpot then added one more data point to its website that Muller credits with really launching the business. The company reported, in real time, exactly when each ad last aired on TV. “If you were watching ESPN and you just saw a Progressive ad, you could Google it, find our website and it would tell you this ad last aired 10 seconds ago on SportsCenter,” he said. “People were like, ‘How is this even possible?’ We started getting phone calls from networks and agencies. And our first customer was actually ESPN.”

Muller and his team couldn’t believe that the $70 billion TV industry wasn’t getting real-time information about the commercials it aired.

iSpot’s new clients asked it to integrate audience data so they could see who was watching the commercials. Muller talked to Nielsen and Rentrak (now part of Comscore), but it took them weeks to process their data. Then he discovered Cognitive Networks, which was using Automatic Content Recognition technology to see what people were watching in real time.

Cognitive Networks was acquired by Vizio, and iSpot in 2014 became the first company to sign a data deal with Vizio. “We went all in on this,” Muller said. “We bet the farm and it was a risky bet. We basically committed $6 million to the project and we had no business committing $6 million back then to anything.” But it made iSpot the first company to report audiences for commercials on a timely basis.

In the past, the TV industry grumbled about Nielsen, but when the time came to invest in an alternative, the money dried up. Old-fashioned audience measurement using panels of sample viewers tends to be expensive.

Big Data, Big Business

Over the past decade, a thicket of companies have sprung up using big data to address aspects of the TV business. With Nielsen stumbling by undercounting audiences, excluding out-of-home viewing and losing its accreditation, some are ready to step up to end Nielsen’s stranglehold on the industry.

“We’ve been trying to nurture all these alternative measurement companies for a long time,” said Jane Clarke, who stepped down in February as CEO of the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement. “They couldn’t get any traction because Nielsen was sucking all the money out of the room. They had to start with other businesses, like ad verification for iSpot.

“Now there’s big money on the table. It’s great that the networks are finally taking this seriously,” Clarke said.

In addition to Nielsen’s troubles, new measurement approaches are necessary because of the rise of addressable advertising and the growth of streaming and multi-platform advertising, she said.

What makes iSpot stand out is the commercial catalog it built and how fast it turns around data. “iSpot did two things better than anybody that people should have realized were important,” Clarke said. “Not only is iSpot’s ad log accurate, but they give you their results in 24 or 48 hours.”

Kelly Abcarian

Kelly Abcarian, executive VP of measurement and impact for NBCU's sales and partnerships unit (Image credit: Nielsen)

When Abcarian was at Nielsen, company executives knew the industry’s measurement issues “needed to be solved with big data, with speed and with a different approach that would bring together ratings in a world where the ads don’t travel with the content,” she said. 

Abcarian didn’t regard iSpot and its ilk as pests trying to upset Nielsen’s apple cart, she said. “I had a lot of respect for players like iSpot and others that were leading the way to redefine the currency and trading model.”

Now that she gets to work more closely with iSpot, she’s seen “the power of when you change the mindset and move away from only thinking about program audiences and including the ads as well,” Abcarian said. “At the end of the day, we’re all trying to move the industry forward and bring better measurement for our advertisers.”

NBCU is not iSpot’s only client. It works with about 300 advertisers, including 50% of the top 100 TV advertisers and about 40% of iSpot’s logins come from media buying agencies.

“We’re leaning in on several advanced measurement workstreams with iSpot,” GroupM chief investment officer Matthew Sweeney said. “We like a lot about what they’re doing. 

“Having the ability to look at a traditionally offline channel like linear in a way that aligns with how digital has been planned and executed is critical for scaled converged video,” he said. “We need to ensure that the buy-side needs are equally weighted in the development of alternative currency and measurement capabilities.”

iSpot is riding high right now. In 2021, revenues jumped 60% to about $100 million, Muller said.

Ad Tech’s an Active Space

Asked about the possibility of going public, Muller noted, “When a company’s doing well, there’s always rumors swirling around.” He said iSpot is “committed to growing the company and owning the space, so yeah, we’re in constant conversations with investors.”

But iSpot hasn’t won the race yet.

“It’s not a done deal that, you know, iSpot is the top of the pack here,” Jane Clarke said. 

Observers noted that iSpot doesn’t measure out-of-home viewing, has only just started to add set-top box data to balance ACR data from smart TVs and is not accredited by the Media Rating Council.

At the same time, NBCU is not the only media company looking for alternatives to Nielsen.

Discovery in February said it would be working with media buyer Omnicom Media Group to test currencies using data from Comscore and Video Amp. In January, WarnerMedia announced it was working with Comscore, iSpot and VideoAmp as possible Nielsen alternatives. In December, Paramount, then known as ViacomCBS, said it and media agency Dentsu would be using data from VideoAmp as currency for first-quarter ad deals.

“Viacom’s actually a huge client of ours,” Muller said. “We have not done much with them to date on the currency front, but I expect that to change. We’re in discussion with all of [the networks] around alternative currencies.”

Nor can Nielsen be counted out. “Nielsen has the potential to put together these pieces just as well as anybody else,” Muller added. “The problem with Nielsen is that they have this kind of legacy internal mindset where everything revolves around the panel and you kind of add on the other data.”

The Walt Disney Co. is working with Nielsen on Nielsen’s new approach to measurement, Nielsen One.

iSpot has been adding to its capabilities. Last year it acquired Ace Metrix to boost its attribution business and DRMetrics, which specializes in direct-to-consumer and direct response advertisers.

“I think we're about to come out with something way better than the industry has seen for out-of-home,” Muller said. “We’re just making continual investments in alternative currency.”

The TV advertising business is particularly tradition-bound, but Muller says iSpot is creating ways to ease the transition from demos and gross ratings points to alternative metrics and currencies.

“Because of the way we’ve built this, we can report things in the old-school way and feed into third-party systems,” he said. “We can feed program and ad ratings using age and gender.”  

And its systems are now being audited by the Media Rating Council. “We expect our first accreditation this spring and then we're going to continue with several other accreditations as well,” Muller said. He said its first accreditation will be for its ad tracking product. That should happen in the spring. “We will follow very quickly on audience measurement using our smart TV panel,” he said.

Bottom line: iSpot thinks it is already ready to take on Nielsen and win.

“Nielsen has not helped themselves, right?” Muller said. “But look, a monopoly is not good for any industry and it stifles Innovation. You have a monopoly, it hasn't innovated, it hasn’t kept up and why would it? It doesn't need to? It's a monopoly.

“I think it's catching up to them and now the industry is ready,” he said. “I think this competition is going to breed more innovation and that’s what’s exciting.” ■

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.