01 June 2017

Remembering Harry Handley

"Statistics are no substitute for judgment."

--Henry Clay

I recently received word that a former colleague and friend, Harry Handley, passed away. 

Harry would be at or near the top if I created a list of brilliant people personally known. Our meeting not long after I arrived in Central Florida in 1982 was providential. A company I owned, CRA Research Group, was looking for new business and expanding its services. Prospective clients wanted greater access to database marketing information, which was Harry's specialty.  

Obituary photo of Harry+Norris Handley, Orlando-Florida
Harry Handley (1939-2014)
Walt Disney Attractions would not be on our client list were it not for Harry's unique problem-solving skills. His was a cluttered desk but an uncluttered mind.  

A former NASA engineer and research director for ABC, Harry was a teacher, not just a demographer and statistician. One of the more important lessons he taught was to "qualify" quantitative data. Understand the numbers by knowing who or what values those numbers represent.  

Time and again, he used the illustration of focusing too much on large numbers (100,000) and not enough on qualifying the characteristics of households, even if a smaller number (10,000) represented greater profit potential.   

Why do some businesses believe casting a wider net is better for prospecting?

Because they want to cover all the possibilities. However, that tends to be a misguided approach to marketing and costly. Attracting the right customers, not chasing the wrong ones, is a better way. (See the decision by General Motors CEO Mary Barra to exit Russia, Europe, and India in favor of more profitable markets.)        

My time with Harry pre-dated the Internet and social media. It was a different era, to be sure. Yet finding the right demographics, household characteristics, and motivations for purchasing remain building blocks for successful marketing campaigns in a digital age.  

A problem with big data is that few know what to do with it. Algorithms, where computers learn and repeat human behavior, can also magnify misbehavior. And the automation of reasoning carries risk.   

Therefore, when appropriate, add to data the need for human judgment.

Such was the wisdom of Harry Handley.   


(C) Bredholt & Co.