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. 

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

Obituary photo of Harry+Norris Handley, Orlando-Florida
Harry Handley (1939-2014)
Walt Disney Attractions would not be in our bio 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 network, Harry was a teacher, not just a demographer and statistician.  One of the more important lessons he taught us was to "qualify" quantitative data.  That is, 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) versus the qualifying characteristics of households, even if a smaller number (10,000) where the potential for profit was greater.   

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 a costly one.  Attracting the right customers, not chasing the wrong customers, is a better way to go.  (See 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.   


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