Nielsen is getting a leadership changeup, naming long-time veteran Karthik Rao as chief executive officer, effective immediately.

Rao replaces David Kenny, who held the position since 2018 and who will transition to the role of executive chairman.

Karthik Rao _ Nielsen
Karthik Rao, Nielsen CEO  (Nielsen)

“I have been fortunate to lead this company through some extraordinary times in the past five years, working alongside Karthik for much of it,” Kenny said in a statement. “As I transition to my new role and my operating responsibilities come to an end, I hand over leadership to someone with extensive experience in knowing what Nielsen does best, backed by the skills and understanding to position the company for a vibrant future.”

Rao has already spent 23 years at Nielsen, most recently as the ratings giant’s CEO of audience measurement since early 2023. Prior, he was chief operating officer for three years, and also served as chief product, technology & operations officer. Before that Rao was CEO of the Nielsen Portfolio, leading the independent division comprised of Nielsen Entertainment, Gracenote, Brandbank and Telecom businesses across all global markets.

Rao’s appointment comes at a time of significant change in TV audience and ad measurement – as well as a time during which Nielsen’s dealt with notable scrutiny over its traditional TV ratings that have long underpinned transactions for ad buyers and sellers.  

David Kerko, head of private equity at Elliot Management, noted its seen great progress since working with Nielsen more closely in the past year, after the PE firm led an acquisition of the measurement giant, joined by Brookfield Asset Management in a 2022 deal that valued the company at around $10 billion.

In a statement Thursday Kerko said “Karthik is now the right leader for Nielsen, which is well positioned to evolve with and support the media ecosystem as it undergoes a period of dramatic change.

“Karthik's expansive industry experience, deep client relationships, and proven track record make him ideally suited to manage this evolution and make Nielsen's value stronger than ever,” Kerko continued.

During Kenny’s tenure, in September 2021 Nielsen in dealt with a suspension of its accreditation for national TV ratings and certain other services by the Media Rating Council over issues including accuracy. National TV ratings MRC accreditation was reinstated 19 months later in April 2023 after Nielsen underwent an audit and took steps to address the industry watchdog’s concerns.  Still, the MRC said there was still work to be done to ensure the vendor’s TV measurement continues “to meet our standards and the requirements of the industry.” Certain Nielsen services such as Digital Ad Ratings and its Nielsen One cross-platform measurement product are still seeking accreditation.

Even with accreditation suspended, as the long-time incumbent Nielsen was and is still used as a leading measurement vendor. However, with ratings under scrutiny it provided the opportunity for new measurement players to grab attention, such as Comscore, iSpot and VideoAmp, as the media industry looks to utilize alternate and multiple currencies for TV ad buying and selling. Some are looking for advanced cross-platform tools, which vendors including Nielsen have put focus on, as measurement has become more complex alongside a fragmented TV viewing and advertising ecosystem amid a shift to streaming.

NBCU for example for the 2023 Upfront said it would still be transacting on certain Nielsen metrics, while also tapping iSpot and VideoAmp as cross-platform certified currency partners.

“Nielsen has been my home for most of my career, and I could not be more excited for this new opportunity," said Rao in a statement. "Providing our client partners, the ad industry, and content creators of all types, the most accurate information possible is our singular goal.  Nielsen invented measurement a century ago.  In that time, the way audiences consume content has fundamentally shifted many times over, and we are committed to continuing to partner with our customers to lead that change.”