David Ponraj: An Entrepreneur for Innovation

An entrepreneurial spirit is more often associated with startups than companies with more than 40,000 employees. It’s been core to Nielsen, however, since Arthur C. Nielsen founded the company nearly 95 years ago. Today, David Ponraj is continuing Arthur’s legacy, driving innovation in the ways we measure retail shopping around the world.

“Innovation starts when you have someone with entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to make something better and take initiative on their own,” David explains. “When I look at myself, I consider myself an entrepreneur, and I bring entrepreneurship to work every single day.”


“Innovation starts when you have someone with entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to make something better and take initiative on their own.”


David is currently helping to bring to life the Nielsen Connected System—a new platform that is revolutionizing how clients interact with data. However, he has a long history of innovation at the company. In his previous role as the Innovations Leader for Data Collection at Nielsen, David helped our field teams evolve the ways they measure how people shop at retail stores around the world.

New technologies, increased urbanization and shifting consumer segments are changing what products people are looking for and how they ultimately decide what to buy. Our Data Collection team is designing new tools to collect the right data in this new world—in ways that are fast, real time and actionable.

What’s Now and What’s Next

As Innovations Leader, David’s job was a big one. Nielsen measures purchasing at more than 10,000 stores a day across modern and traditional trade around the globe. Evolving our measurement techniques at such scale is no small task.

No company can match Nielsen’s expertise in retail measurement. We are the pioneers of consumer measurement, beginning in 1933 with a field team going into stores and auditing the shelves with pen and paper. Today, our approximately 20,000 auditors use hand-held scanners to measure barcodes in store. By combining this observational data with sales data from the retailers, we’re able to provide a unique lens into how retailers and manufacturers are performing.

Our field team and Nielsen’s investment in covering markets around the world remain critical in the measurement process, even as David and his team develop new technologies to make them even more efficient. “What’s next for data collection at Nielsen is digitized data collection, automatic data validation and real-time data,” says David.


“What’s next for data collection at Nielsen is digitized data collection, automatic data validation and real-time data.”


The Data Collections team is taking incremental steps to make this vision for the future a reality. In fact, they’ve already brought real-time data to our clients, thanks to Quality Control Towers that connect our auditors in a store directly to our clients. With this system, clients are able to ask questions about the conditions in a store—is there a certain product on the shelf, or is it out of stock—and our auditors can provide answers in real time.

Looking ahead, the team is developing new technologies like image recognition to further simplify how we collect data. This powerful technology will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning to enable computers to see what we see.

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“Image recognition, for the auditor, is a very simple way of collecting data. You go into the store, you take a photo of the shelf and you walk out of the store. It’s simple, and it’s seamless,” David explains. “For our clients, they want actionable data. What image recognition does is it gives our clients a way to get data in real time with pictures and with compliance of the store that they can act upon.”

While the end result may be simple, the technology is not. Image recognition requires a computer to be able to see products the way human beings see them and recognize what’s on the shelf. This requires teaching a computer what to look for using context. New father David compares this to how children learn.

“You don’t teach children to recognize a soda brand by the bottle, the make or the manufacturer, but I guarantee you—if you take your child into a store, the child will be able tell you exactly what the product is because the child has context,” says David. “And we’re teaching the computer to have that context, because then the computer can learn a lot faster. And our measurement coverage will be a lot bigger because then you just take a photo and it can tell everything on a shelf.”

Trust: The Key Ingredient

New digital technologies are revolutionizing the retail industry, and some might question the need for this "boots on the ground" measurement, even with new tools like our Quality Control Towers and image recognition.

To illustrate the inherent value in how we collect data, David compares our process to a bakery. For example, if a bakery didn’t know where its ingredients came from, it also couldn’t tell if they were sourced organically and if they didn’t have any chemicals in them. So the reason why you can be sure the quality is good in the Nielsen "bakery" is because we source our ingredients ourselves. In other words, it all comes down to trust.


“Nielsen data is trustworthy because it’s verifiable. That’s the single most important thing if you want to trust data.”


“Nielsen data is trustworthy because it’s verifiable. That’s the single most important thing if you want to trust data,” David explains. “You go collect the data, you tell the clients the story that the data is telling you and the clients can then go and check the data, and something that’s not verifiable or repeatable cannot be trusted. And Nielsen is trustworthy because our data is verifiable, it’s real, and it’s going to change the way clients make decisions.”

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Trust is something David is very familiar with. As an innovation leader at Nielsen, his job has been to create trust, to inspire, to bring teams together, and then to facilitate the creation of new tools and processes.

“Innovation is about trust, because if you don’t allow your team to fail you’re not going to enable them to succeed,” says David. “When you learn and fail and repeat it over and over again and iterate while working together as a team day after day, that’s what gets you to a breakthrough.”