Aspiring Disc Jockey Drops the Mic for Marketing Research: Chris Bockay, '88
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet
Chris Bockay, '88, never imagined he would be working in consumer intelligence. Since the age of six, he was fascinated with radio and felt at home sitting in front of a microphone.
"I was drawn to pursue a career as a disc jockey by listening to big-name radio personalities like Larry Lujack, John Landecker and Bob Sirott," Bockay said. "They seemed larger than life. And when Steve Dahl and Garry Meier hit the Chicago radio scene in the late 1970s, they took morning radio to a new level with their cutting-edge talk format."
After getting his hands on a cassette tape recorder with a handheld microphone, Bockay set up a "radio station" of his own in his basement. He made hours of recordings with any of his friends who would participate in his fantasy world.
In high school, Bockay landed a Saturday night on-air timeslot at his school’s radio station, WDGC-FM in Downers Grove, Illinois, one of the most coveted times to have a show. He stood apart from other students who mainly just played records and announced the songs. Bockay drew upon the styles of his earlier radio influences and followed a talk show format with a co-host, interacting with callers on-air, commenting on local events and developing creative bits.
Having a large following for a high school station with a signal radius of only about 10-15 miles, Bockay was convinced he would make a career out of radio—and came to NIU.
“When it was time to look for a college, the primary qualification was that it had to have a radio station and a good broadcasting or communications program,” said Bockay.
Once at NIU and after working at NIU’s station, WKDI, Bockay discovered radio might not be what he expected and began feeling disenchanted with being a disc jockey.
"I was assigned an early Sunday morning slot, not the most ideal time slot to get an audience in a college town," he said. "On top of that, the strict format prohibited me from doing anything creative like I had been doing at my high school station."
After completing his first year, Bockay changed his major to marketing, figuring that a business degree would help him land an office job at a radio or TV station if he didn’t end up behind the microphone. Having only ever imagined a career in radio, Bockay was shocked when a single NIU marketing research class changed the course of his professional aspirations forever—and began his fascination with consumer behavior.
“The course gave me significant exposure to a career path in consumer intelligence. I remember participating in various special projects, like a beverage taste test that required us to find a sample of students to participate in research surveys,” said Bockay. “I became interested in marketing research almost immediately.”
Bockay targeted A.C. Nielsen, now NielsenIQ, as his first, and top, potential employer after graduating. But instead of being his first employer, A.C. Nielsen sent him his first rejection letter.
“I specifically remember seeing ‘A.C. Nielsen’ often sourced in college textbook footnotes as they were the leading marketing research company in the world for over 65 years,” said Bockay. “I knew that’s where I wanted to work.”
Disheartened by the rejection, Bockay continued an extensive job search. He landed a position at the second leading marketing research company, Information Resources, Inc. (IRI), now Circana.
“Most people were aware of A.C. Nielsen as the ‘people meter’ and TV ratings company, but during the 1980s both A.C. Nielsen and IRI launched retail measurement services sourced from UPC-based scanner data,” said Bockay. “These were the only two companies offering this specific service, and both were fierce competitors of each other in that space.”
Bockay spent the next 16 years at IRI, starting as an entry-level client database specialist and eventually working his way up the ranks to hold senior-level leadership roles in operations and product management. Following his IRI tenure, he worked for direct marketing and survey-based marketing research companies, fulfilling roles in operations, offshore outsourcing management and project management.
Then his big break came.
"Exactly 25 years after receiving the rejection letter from A.C. Nielsen, they offered me a position!" Bockay said. "I began networking with a former colleague who arranged to get my credentials to the right person at Nielsen. Once I was able to get my foot in the door, I was quickly offered a position to join the company I once dreamed about."
Today, Bockay serves as operations engagement lead at NielsenIQ and has been with the company for 11 years.
As operations engagement lead for the U.S. Retail Operations Group, servicing Walmart and Sam’s Club, Bockay works with a commercial team as their single point of contact for Walmart’s database operations and deliverables. He ensures there are no disruptions to Walmart’s current services and is responsible for implementing growth initiatives to enhance Walmart’s services.
Bockay says the most rewarding aspect of his 35-year-long career has been seeing others he has mentored or managed thrive and grow in their own careers.
“The best reward a manager can receive is to take a new employee and be a strong coach to the point where that individual achieves their own career goals,” he said. “This is when you get recognized for being a good manager of people.”
With a successful tenure in product management, operations and client delivery services, Bockay has no regrets about shifting his career path from his earlier pursuits of working in radio broadcasting—but he remains captivated with interest and fond memories.
“I can still remember a transistor radio I received as a gift at six years old,” he said. “It was one of those collectible items that was popular in the early 1970’s. It was a radio encased in a miniature-sized football helmet of your team of choice. I am almost certain mine was the Cincinnati Bengals since I was living in Ohio at the time. I was fascinated by radio technology; it seemed so magical to me.”
Bockay never completely pushed aside his radio broadcasting aspirations. He still has a basement recording studio where he can keep radio as a creative hobby. Most notably, he co-hosted a podcast with his daughter for many years and did some freelance voiceover work.
A few years after graduation, Bockay was invited back to NIU for Career Day, where he spoke to students about his job and how he got his foot in the door at IRI. The advice he gave still applies today.
“Networking is critical,” Bockay said. “With only one exception, every job offer I received was ultimately because I knew someone at that company who helped me land the initial interview. It’s so important that you build a strong network and keep in touch with colleagues over the years. You never know whether they will play a role in your career down the road.”
Bockay’s wisdom comes from experience.
“Be flexible and open to trying new things,” he advised. “The career path you initially think you are going to travel down may lead to a dead end or a fork in the road. You need to recognize when to alter your original plans and take a new path.”
“What made the greatest impact on my career was always looking for the next opportunity to learn and grow. When you take risks and go outside of your comfort zone, not only can you fail, but you can also be rewarded. This is how you grow. There is still so much to learn.”
Help students practice Bockay’s networking advice. Volunteer for the Student Career Fair Prep Workshop (Feb. 7; 4:30-6 p.m.) and help students practice their networking and communication skills at the Holmes Student Center Regency Room. Register here.