A Ph.D. in Digital

Apr 18, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Maybe it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand everything that’s going on in new media. Nevertheless, GM Planworks, which plans and buys media for General Motors, may have hired the next best thing.
Meet Dr. Michael Vinson, who last month was named senior VP and managing director of digital insights and analytics for the agency. His job is to develop ways of measuring activity in the digital and emerging media areas for General Motors—already a major player in digital media and television, particularly video-on-demand—and for Planworks’ parent, Starcom MediaVest Group.
Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., Dr. Vinson always wanted to be a scientist. He got his undergraduate degree from Cornell and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Chicago. He taught at colleges around the world, moving from Syracuse University to Jordan, Kuala Lumpur and the United Arab Emirates.
Fortunately, at the point that he wanted to transition into industry, he got a call from a former student.
“It was an unusually bright student who remembered me,” Dr. Vinson recalled. The student was one of the first employees at erinMedia, a start-up doing research based on data from set-top boxes. “He realized they needed somebody who could do mathematical analysis, statistics and so forth, and he called me up.”
Dr. Vinson was chief research scientist at erinMedia until it suspended operations earlier this year. Now, he said, he’s lucky to be with a company with much deeper resources.
“At erin, we were focused pretty much exclusively on digital set-top box data for television viewing,” he said. “Here it’s a much broader portfolio of data sources, potential data sources, encompassing not just digital television but, of course, the Web.”
Dr. Vinson believes that learning how millions of people are responding to digital media by looking directly at their behavior through set-top data and click-stream data from Internet service providers will help marketers better understand what’s going on with digital advertising.
“Once you get to that level of data, where it’s second-by-second, time-resolved data on an enormous scale, the amount of richness and structure that can be found in that data is really amazing, and the different ways of slicing and dicing and looking at analyzing it are manifold,” he said. “And what I bring to the table here is experience with working with that kind of data, but also a background in mathematics and computer simulation and statistical analysis that allows me to think of different questions [and] answer them from the data.”
Those answers lead to more questions, then to more answers. “Working directly with the data, you can get very deep insights,” he said.
He said it’s fascinating to watch second-by-second data on TV watching on a particular channel. Viewership will go up and down slightly, then fall off a cliff. That’s the start of a commercial pod. Typically viewers will come back slowly as they guess when the commercials end and the program resumes. Sometimes on-screen graphics similarly cause viewers to use their remotes.
“What was interesting about that is that you get behavioral data without asking anyone a question,” Dr. Vinson said. “No one’s filling out a survey, no one’s been recruited into a panel, it’s just right there directly from anonymized viewer behavior. We don’t know a thing about what this one person is doing, but we can look at the aggregated behavior.”
As Dr. Vinson begins his work at Planworks’ offices in Chicago, his three children, daughters Laila, 14, Yasmeen, 11, and son Miles, 8, as well as his wife, who teaches at the University of South Florida, will stay down south to finish the school year.
“We’re not used to being apart,” he said. “It’s only a month and a half, but it’s not easy on anyone.”
Dr. Vinson describes himself as a “serial hobbyist,” throwing himself into one interest, then dropping it and moving on to something else. Interested in aviation for a while, he became a pilot. He hasn’t flown for years, though he’s hoping to get back into it. For the past few years, he’s been playing the guitar.
Who Knew: Another of Dr. Vinson’s hobbies was robotics. He’s built his own robots, but not the kind featured on shows like “Battle Bots.” “Those weren’t real robots because they weren’t autonomous. They were radio-controlled,” he said. “For me, a real robot has to sense his environment, react to what it’s sensing and do it all without being interacted with by the controller, a human.”
He built one robot that would buzz around the apartment, taking pictures that would show up on the computer screen. “The kids had fun with that. The dogs hated it,” he said.


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