Today, it's the norm for executives to jump from company to company, climbing rungs on the corporate ladder by moving from one place to the next. But loyalty has paid off for Susan Whiting.
Whiting has spent all of her career—two dozen years—at Nielsen Media Research, ascending its ranks to head the ratings giant. Whiting started at Nielsen fresh out of school, as part of a management development program in 1978. In May 2001, she was named Nielsen's president and chief operating officer, with another promotion to president and CEO a year ago. Her domain at Nielsen includes 3,200 full-time employees in offices across the country.
Whiting, a cum laude economics graduate of Denison University, realizes it's unusual to stay with one employer so long. "I was just extraordinarily fortunate to end up in a company in that first job where there was a nice connection between what I wanted to do and what they needed me to do."
She also pointed out that she has had a number of different titles and duties at Nielsen. These include being named senior vice president of Nielsen Homevideo Index in 1993, where she helped develop services for the then young and fast-growing cable industry.
"Each job has been so different that I've had lots of different roles," Whiting said. "And the company has had a lot of different owners. I guess I got the same benefit as changing jobs. I just stayed in the same company."
Whiting, the daughter of an aviation entrepreneur from Lake Geneva, Wisc., oversees a vendor that's often the target of criticism. It supplies viewership data to oft-time adversaries—cable networks, cable systems, ad agencies, broadcast networks, TV stations and syndicators—who, in most cases, are in a battle over ad dollars.
"She provides ammunition to people who are warring parties," said Bob Sieber, former research chief
at Turner Broadcasting System Inc., who has known Whiting for more than 20 years.
As the source for TV ratings information, Nielsen—serving a client roster of 4,500—is often the target of those who want to shoot the messenger when they don't like the data they get. But Whiting deals with this kind of conflict well, according to Sieber.
"Since Nielsen is the only game in town, the relationship between research supplier and client truly needs to be collaborative, but often times turns adversarial," he said. "But Susan deals well with adversity, working hard to foster collaboration. She can be both tough and sensitive. Because she is a modest person, many in the industry have probably underestimated her, to their own detriment."
Whiting concedes her job has its challenges.
"Trying to get a group of clients with somewhat different requirements to agree on one measurement and understand the implications for their businesses is the most difficult thing we do," Whiting said. "That will continue to be the most difficult thing going forward."
When Whiting was working on emerging media at NHI, there were then only a handful of cable networks.
"We had to build the service that they needed to help them sell advertising and therefore grow," she said. "I don't think anybody really envisioned that there would be hundreds of networks. We certainly hoped there would be dozens."
Now, in addition to serving clients crunched by one of the worse ad environments in decades, Whiting has to make sure that Nielsen stays abreast of all of TV's technological advances, ranging from digital channels, high-definition TV and devices like TiVo Inc.'s digital video recorders.
Nielsen has "a growing list of relationships" with equipment manufacturers, including set-top makers, "to make sure we know how to meter what shows up in our sample home or we have software that's loaded onto the pieces of equipment so we can get information," according to Whiting.
"We're looking at all those different kinds of solutions," she said.
Nielsen's future includes deploying new digital people meters, so-called active/passive meters, and doubling the size of its national sample panel.
"We'll build a new platform for metering which over time—not overnight—but over time will replace the kinds of meters we use today," Whiting said. "And the whole idea behind that metering plan was that it would allow us to measure digital and HDTV. Our new metering plan doesn't care very much how the program gets to the TV set, because we're just measuring what's on the TV and what the program is. So it allows us to simplify a very complicated task."
Whiting, who makes her home in Fairfield, Conn., but maintains an apartment in New York, has a number of female role models from her family, such as great aunts who were teachers, doctors and even a college professor.
"They did things that were a little ahead of the norm," Whiting said. "So if I think this is difficult, I have to think about what they had to do, and I'm sure that was much more difficult."
Whiting travels 30 percent to 40 percent of the time, to meet with clients and employees or make presentations. A typical day starts at 8 a.m. and ends with client dinner that might conclude at 10:30 p.m.
She relaxes by swimming, gardening and cooking for friends. Whiting is also on the board of Chicago's Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
"They're doing a really good things in terms of educating people about nature and the environment in an urban setting where a lot of kids don't have any idea what that's about," Whiting said.