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Talking data and the future of grocery with Nielsen’s David Kenny

Newly-appointed CEO will help evolve market research company into an AI-first business

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The grocery industry is far from boring, and 2018 offered definitive proof of that reality–from grocers’ expansion of automation and robotics to their increased use of data to better target shoppers’ needs.

And speaking of data, Chicago-based market research firm Nielsen has named data expert, David Kenny, its CEO. Before joining the company, he served as VP of IBM’s Watson & Cloud platform, as well as CEO of The Weather Company, which IBM acquired under his leadership. With Kenny at the helm, Nielsen hopes to transform into a more technology-focused company that is fueled by data.

Canadian Grocer‘s sister publication Progressive Grocer sat down with Kenny to talk grocery–what fascinated him in 2018 and what he expects in 2019. He also shared his vision for the company he now oversees. This is an edited version of the conversation.

Retail altogether is changing, but we’re seeing grocery, long the laggard, stepping up its game in an increasingly omnichannel world. Share with us what you see as some top happenings in grocery retail in the past year, and what made them so interesting.

The accelerated rate of change in the industry has been incredible, and it is exciting to see how many retailers have stepped up to the challenge. But, speed without a purpose is chaos. Instead, I’m a big believer in velocity, because velocity is speed toward a purpose. This past year, grocery retailers moved at lighting speed–took risks, displayed a bold willingness to quickly adopt new technologies, challenged the status quo and made changes that rocked the industry at its core–ultimately achieving great momentum and velocity towards a more tech and AI [artificial intelligence] driven retail future.

What are three or four main areas you see transforming in 2019 in the business of grocery retail, and how will they transform?

As AI continues to unfold and advance the grocery retail industry, I believe an AI-driven, data strategy will increasingly become a default setting for retailers and FMCG manufacturers–with AI and machine learning unlocking even more value. And while we have over 1,000 data scientists who solve our clients’ thorniest problems, retailers looking to get ahead in 2019 should also be looking to develop their own understanding of this technology, too. Working together can make that happen, faster.

For grocery retailers, more success will come from gaining greater access to the lives of the consumers they serve, through data–in, of course, a safe and secure manner. However, at no other point in history has the consumer been more aware, curious and concerned about how data about them is being captured and used. Therefore, I strongly believe that with data comes huge responsibilities–to protect the consumer, the marketing ecosystem and to manage it all with integrity and transparency.

You’ve served in top roles at several technology companies including IBM and The Weather Company. Tell us about your experiences there and how you will bring those learnings to Nielsen to help transform it from a market research company to a technology and AI-first company.

As co-founder, chairman and CEO of digital marketing agency Digitas, I gained a deep respect for Nielsen, its valuable contribution it brings to businesses and the trusted sense of truth they bring to the industry. As chief executive of The Weather Company (which was acquired by IBM), president of cloud service provider Akamai and most recently, SVP of cognitive solutions at IBM, where I helped develop IBM Watson and lead the company’s cloud computing efforts, I had a front row seat into how machine learning and AI can truly transform the power of data from understanding what’s happening, to predicting the future. It’s almost as if each of my work experiences have led me right to this place, at this time.

To me, as Nielsen expands the capabilities of its data through machine learning and AI, my past experiences sit squarely in the direction of where Nielsen is going. The way I see it, Nielsen is uniquely placed at the intersection of marketing data and technology–and it is technology that will drive the company forward.

A version of this article appeared at ProgressiveGrocer.com.

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