The Future was Then: On Being Early

Way back in the day, 1999, I worked at the Nielsen Company, then called ACNielsen. Having created the company’s—and the industry’s—first web application in 1995, my marketing counterparts and I had succeeded in getting the company interested in doing more on the web. The fact that we had, for the first time, gotten a Nielsen client to pay for data delivery blew the president’s mind.

To set the stage a little bit, back in 1999 the web was a far different place. They called it the Information Superhighway. (Al Gore did NOT say he invented it. ) People would often respond “the World Wide What?” when I talked about the web. Recommended hardware was an IBM 486 SX25 or a Mac 68030 series with 8MB of RAM.

Google was barely on the radar; we used AltaVista, HotBot, and Northern Light to find stuff. (In fact, late that year, I met a guy from Google and asked what he did. When told that Google was a search engine, I said, “Good luck with all of that. AltaVista’s got it pretty wrapped up.”)

IRC and Usenet were where we could chat, if we could figure out how to. To get online, you needed to subscribe to a national Internet Service Provider like AT&T, EarthLink, MCI Internet, Netcom, Prodigy, Sprint, or SpryNet—most are gone or swallowed by others by now.

Commercial entities were not officially allowed on the Internet until 1995, so a mere four years later, there were few big sites. Big (a relative term) entertainment sites included, Avenger’s Handbook, Driveways of the Rich & Famous and Famous Birthdays. The Dancing Baby was all the rage.


On the eCommerce front, Amazon had just started selling things besides books, and eBay had just 3 million items on auction. High-speed Internet connections were becoming available, but were expensive and boasted speeds up to 1.5 Mbps.  Most home users, however, used dial-up modems running far slower, at 28.8 kbps. Netscape 4.0 was the dominant browser and Microsoft had only recently stopped charging users for Internet Explorer.

A big concern for the people who ran Nielsen’s network and its Internet connection was applications like PointCast, which a couple of years earlier had threatened to swamp corporations’ internal networks with a new technique: pushing news articles to a desktop application in real time. The Internet was seen by many as a Wild West filled with unknowns.

So, in this environment, I started floating the idea of creating a Nielsen portal. I had released the first Nielsen website in 1995, under the radar, and an official site in 1996. After running a project to create what was to become Nielsen’s fastest-growing Internet app, I had the attention of the company president, who came up to me at a meeting and asked, “What is a portal, and why do I want one?” I guess my answer was satisfactory. My marketing partner (now a big noise in marketing at Microsoft) and I were given an $800K budget ($1,173,093 in today’s dollars) to build a portal.

But what was a portal? That was the question that was eventually impossible to answer. The VPs of Marketing and Development couldn’t provide any answers. Jacob and I tried several times to produce a product plan.

My first idea was heretical: use the Internet to retail Nielsen’s marketing information. Nielsen sells marketing information derived from point-of-sale scanners to consumer packaged goods companies. In those days, and to a certain extent today, consumer packaged goods brands would contract with Nielsen, paying millions of dollars to create customized databases of consumer purchase information. Clients used this information to track consumer behavior and trends. You had to be a pretty big corporation to be able afford Nielsen’s services. At the time, our biggest customer paid $30M a year for Nielsen services.

I saw the web as a way to sell reports based on standard databases containing the same information, just not customized for the client. Thus, a small dog food brand could buy quarterly or weekly reports on how and where their product was selling, just like the big boys. The way I saw it, more-advanced analysis and insights could be priced additionally and Nielsen would have a new revenue stream, basically reselling data they were already producing, for a huge markup.

I was told I was crazy.

Nielsen did not get the concept and could not even consider changing their business model—charging big brands millions for access to their databases—to a model involving retailing their information.

My second idea was also crazy: a service that would rewrite articles on cooperating news sites on the fly to link mentions of brands to Nielsen tables, graphs, and reports on the company. Kind of like what you see now, with ticker links on Forbes, the Wall Street Journal or others. (See my post I Invented the Sponsored Keyword for the whole story.  )

The way I saw it, the hyperlink in, say, an article about Kraft macaroni and cheese, would go to some basic information about the performance of the brand, and on that page, there would be a link to purchase a report, either on the company or on one of its brands.

We got nowhere with the second proposal. “Give away our stuff for free? You must be mad!”

We proposed allowing Nielsen clients to access their databases via the web.

No dice.

We proposed integrating other information sources in a portal with Nielsen opinion pieces, similar to current sites that aggregate blogs.


We proposed a portal that clients could use to upload their own information and create reports incorporating Nielsen and other data.

Not gonna happen.

We suggested that clients who had both Nielsen Media (TV ratings) and Nielsen Marketing (our company) subscriptions be able to analyze and correlate their data online.

Not a chance.

As we went through other iterations, each idea was turned down, primarily because it proposed a new way of doing business.

We eventually decided that it was hopeless. Nielsen executives, having seen the rise of CNN and Excite (still alive!) and other portals, knew enough to think that the portal concept was trendy, but they couldn’t wrap their minds around the opportunity for the company because they couldn’t see how to change their paradigm.

We decided to give back the $800K and close the program. I often point to this as the highlight of my career at Nielsen: knowing when to stop.

So imagine my surprise when today, more than 17 years later, I found out that Nielsen has something called the Nielsen Marketing Cloud! Announced in April, 2016, the product is described as combining “world-class data, management tools and analytics applications into a single destination, allowing marketers to more effectively manage their marketing spend.”

Here are the Cloud’s features:

The Nielsen Marketing Cloud’s core set of applications include the Nielsen Data Management Platform (DMP) and DaaS, Multi-Touch Attribution (MTA), and In-Flight Analytics for automotive, CPG and retail, as well as integrations with over 150 third-party media and content activation and optimization applications. All applications enable cross-platform analysis and centralized data access. Additional Nielsen and third-party applications, including Nielsen Media Impact for cross-platform media planning, will be integrated in the coming months.

The details are modern, but this is the same idea we killed in 1999.

It just goes to show what I’ve said elsewhere: It doesn’t matter if you can see the next big thing if you can’t make others see the path beyond the horizon.

So if you want to see beyond our current horizon, and you want help getting there, look me up.


(Many of the 1999 facts are courtesy of ARS Technica’s Time capsule: The Rough Guide to the Internet… from 1999  )