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January 7, 2000


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The Nielsen Web Man

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Arthur J Pais

Keeping tab of viewers and rating their preferences could be a stimulating and lucrative job but it could also turn nasty, especially if you are in the business of the blossoming Internet rating systems. Claims and counterclaims are not uncommon in the rating industry.

But 34-year-old Manish Bhatia, who runs the Nielsen Web, a tracking program which he largely developed, is fast building a reputation for being not only one of the smartest tracking minds but also the coolest.

"He is get-it-done kind of kid," says Ned Greenberg, the director of research at Weather Channel, one of the more than 120 clients Nielsen Web has acquired in recent months. "He keeps his cool under all circumstances."

"I try to," says Bhatia, with a broad smile. "It is not always possible but I have learned to be very, very patient in life." Of course, it does not mean he is not ambitious or aggressive about his goals, he hastens to add.

Take his marriage for instance.

He recalls how his own family and that of his would-be wife, Harvinder, were initially not very happy about their romance. He comes from a traditional Hindu family and his wife is a Sikh.

"So we waited for several years till there was a reconciliation," he says.

"When I came to study in America, I wrote her practically every day. It was like I was offering her my dairy, day after day." Eventually, Harvinder joined him in America and went on to get a master's degree.

"But patience was the essence of getting people to accept us," Bhatia says.

At the time of their weddings, she showed him two suitcases filled with his letters. "We burned those letters because that was the practical thing to do," he says. He also learned to be patient and persistent from his wife, Bhatia says.

It may sound like a cliché, he says but it has to be true that his Indian background helps him to remain cool under most difficult and adverse conditions.

Son of an IAS officer and a mother who is an Ayurvedic doctor, Bhatia says his parents were initially disappointed that he did not go into IAS or medicine.

"But now they fully appreciate what I have been able to achieve," he says.

Manish Bhatia is the vice president of interactive services at Nielsen Media Research and heads Nielsen/NetRatings, a venture between Nielsen and California-based NetRatings.

Nielsen, the leading TV audience tracker, began keeping a tab on Internet users and their demographics about eight months ago. "In this business, the numbers can mean only this much," says Bhatia. Advertisers and the people who have websites want to know more about the spending habits, financial background and other crucial information about visitors to various sites.

Given that several other competitors would want to claim to be the king of net ratings, Bhatia has a formidable task. But he is unfazed. "Nielsen has been around for long and we have a solid reputation," he says. "But, of course, we cannot depend on reputation alone, We have to be on top of things, build and consolidate alliances with businesses all the time."

Bhatia, who got his first masters degree from Punjab University in Chandigarh, went on to earn an MBA in computer information system from Baruch College in 1989.

He got a job at Nielsen soon graduation.

For a year, he was more of a whiz kid who knew how to fix glitches. "I used to go around with a screwdriver in my pocket," Bhatia says, laughing, in his office in Manhattan. But being a computer tech buff, he was also learning fast about new cable-related technologies.

"Cable was growing but there was so much one did not know about it," he says. "I learned a lot on the job, and soon I began to handle client relations. I was talking to the big guy at Turner, HBO, MTV. And then came the Internet."

Soon he was helping the clients understand the Internet and the systems that were offering to rate Internet traffic.

In 1996, he became the director, and then a vice president of the Nielsen Interactive Service Department.

The Internet rating offers many more challenges than the television ratings, Bhatia says. "We do not have to go the homes of our panel members and install the program," he says. "Now, we can send a tiny disc and the panelists get instructions how to use it." But the Internet business and machinery is changing so fast, he continues, that the rating system becomes much more challenging.

His interest in Internet rating also extends to offices.

The tricky part of the process, he feels, is to get the co-operation of the employers. "A lot of data is unloaded during working hours," he says. "But the computer belongs to the company, and that means the panelists must get permission to install rating devises in the office computers."

What is next for Manish Bhatia? He says he is fascinated by the possibility of creating a product which will allow companies to keep track of media hoppers, for instance, those who go from South Park to Comedy Central. The industry will need a company to keep a tab on intriguing new behaviors, he says. "I will be able to walk (soon) into a senior management team and offer an integrated project," he recently told Adweek.

'Indian students would do better if they weren't shy'

"Indian students do very well in America, and that is not a secret," says Manish Bhatia. "But many would do even better if they were not shy."

Class participation and assertiveness are something American academics values, Bhatia says.

"We are not talking about argument for argument's sake," he continues. "But professors love students who are vocal, who join discussions and who, from time to time, offer a different perspective or an argument."

Bhatia, one of the rising stars at Nielsen, got his MBA from Baruch College in New York City. His sister recently started studying in New York. He says he would tell her that it is not enough to be a dedicated student in America.

"You should be seen and heard in the class room," he says. He used to be shy in his class too but after a few weeks he overcame the shyness and learned to be assertive.

Bhatia and his wife talk to their sons, Manik and Samir, in Hindi. Many Indian parents in America make the mistake of not teaching their children an Indian language, he says. He has noticed that students who grow up in a bilingual milieu are often smarter than children who grew up using just one language.

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