A Strategic Planner’s 2018 New Year’s Resolution

A Strategic Planner’s 2018 New Year’s Resolution

3020 1630 Hunt Adkins

Removing (Unnecessary) Demographic Distortion.


Traditional Demographics’ usefulness might not yet be dead—but they no longer need to be a dominant lens for our work.

With the New Year we are all encouraged to observe the ritual of reflection. We look back on the actions of the past to identify what we have done well and where we could have done differently or done more or simply done better. Optimistic and energized, we look forward to the next year with a keen eye and open mind to when, where and how we can continue to improve our organizations and ourselves.

For me, this period of reflection includes the annual purging of my unread inbox, which by year-end is a swelling wasteland filled with various industry news briefs, market research think pieces and other box stuffing from lists signed up for with grand designs on staying atop of every hot take or next thing.

This year, drowning in Inbox 2017, I may have finally resigned to the reality that much of this content is the equivalent of meal replacement bars: healthy-ish sounding, but nothing more than an over-priced candy bar.

But then, amidst the empty-thought pieces unpacking the latest frictionless, blockchain platform created by a reformed YouTube influencer, appeared a refreshingly welcome sight. A simple yet provocative thought bite I couldn’t resist: The Death of Demographics.

Now this isn’t the first time this idea has taken hold of my screen—see TrendWatching’s 2014 trend briefing on Post-Demographic Consumerism for an arguably more comprehensive take—but this hit me right where my planner’s reflection ritual needed to be socked.

How in a world long since converted to digital- and mobile-centricity is a traditional media-targeting concept still a dominant lens for our strategic, creative and media-based work? Honestly, think of the last time anyone developed a transformative (heck, even moderately compelling) creative concept or service solution on the back of traditional demographic insight?

The simple answer is the most obvious but maybe the hardest to admit. As highly as many of us may think of ourselves (present company included), we’re just basic creatures of habit—the victims of our own ingrained behaviors.

But in everyone’s defense, traditional demographics are one of the first frameworks we learn in our marketing schooling; the golden age standard by which traditional offline media has been purchased and rated. Talk to anyone on a plane—and I mean anyone—and they speak conversational audience demographics.

Let’s face it. For a lot of us, a brief would feel foreign, even nakedly incomplete, without them. How else could we select the perfect persona portrait or guide creative casting?

Perhaps I can make the case for a better way by first making clear two fundamental (and unnecessary) issues traditional demographics create in our work.

Hopefully the case will be so clear that the habits we need to change will come easier.


1. Traditional demographics are not only blunt generalizations to describe real people—they’re not just stereotypes—they’re demographic distortions.

We’re going to set aside the larger societal issues at play with stereotypes and stick to the problematics we can resolve within our work—or at least in this post. Namely, how stereotype thinking is the first step in demographic distortion, a corrupting influence often seen in qualitative research analysis. What I refer to as “looking in a mirror, not through the mirror.”

Instead of sticking to what the data shows, people are quick to default to what they already “think they know.” Immediately a wave of anchoring and confirmation bias rushes in. Friends, family, experiences in college, etc., become the case evidence for why we should shift strategies. 

Worse for the teamwork, while we squander hours debating tedious anecdotal details, we often fall to those agreeable, yet fully hollow, “affirmative” insights. The kind that result in a quick “yup, that’s right” from around the room.

Even worse for the work, we lose out on those elusive perception- and behavior-shifting disrupters that inspire people to say, “Huh, I never really thought of that. That’s way better, let’s stick with that.”

Still too often, the end result is that work gets made and media bought for a target molded by demographic distortion—one that may or may not be real or just appear real enough.

Traditional demographics aren’t just stereotypes; they’re demographic distortions that fail to capture the many identities an individual lives throughout any given day. Photo Credit: Bayete Ross Smith

Too many real opportunities with real people who have actual interest or intent for our offers get missed.

To paraphrase my colleague who leads the HA Media team, “Strategies built on ‘I think’ statements won’t move the needle as surely as those developed strategies that follow, ‘I know.’”

With traditional demographics as the dominant lens into our audiences, there remains too much “I think” when we have other means to confidently plan with “I know.”


2. Traditional demographics privilege planning frameworks that were built for another media era. Today’s media fragmentation and digital fluidity enable infinite micro-audiences that must be precisely targeted and tracked to be reached.

In a fluid digital culture, we live in the moment with the only constant being change. Our approaches to planning for audiences should follow suit.

Today we literally share so much we’ve all attained a semblance of millennial-mindedness: we no longer hold ideas, needs, wants, desires or even identities long enough to fit into the little boxes and labels of traditional demographics.

Consumers’ ability to be exposed to infinite combinations of interests has produced paradigm-shifting niche micro-audiences: grandparents getting down in hip-hop dance classes; millennial billionaires whose basements could fit their parents’ homes; men seeking the best nutritional information to make dinner for their children, not because it’s Mom’s “night off,” but because Dad is the primary care provider.

To be honest, labeling these realities as “paradigm shifting” is a prime example of the ingrained ills of demographic distortion.

Given the inarguable societal and cultural gains empowered by the fluidity of the digital age, one must wonder why modern marketers still embrace the rigid marketing funnel framework?

While a linear consumer decision-making model made sense in an era where static, mass media reigned—cough, 1898—it is laughably inadequate in today’s always-on, on-demand, on-the-go access to content and information media landscape.

Consumers today have digital and mobile tools always at hand, no longer moving in sequential order but in a loop jumping back and forth between openness and interest, research and advocacy.

Our industry’s traditional practice and approach is still too media-centric rather-than human- and audience-centric.

Traditional demographics fail to capture the paradigm shifting micro-segments that are alive and real in our digitally fluid culture.

This reveals another conditioned side effect of demographic distortion—settling for the holistic downgrade in both effectiveness and efficiency that is traditional demographics.

Other than aligning with broadcast rating systems, what is it about traditional demographics that data such as Single Men 25-44, HHI $75k+ are meaningful indicators of interest or intent for anything?

Why when we have so many more precise and actionable signals for interest—searches made, music or films downloaded, games played, shows streamed, sites visited, posts liked or comments shared—are we painting target portraits as Pollocks and not Rembrandts?

Instead of using true signals of intent, such as identification of a real human problem to solve or interest to enhance—the dominant lens of Hunt Adkins’ work—there is too much comfort, and perhaps misplaced confidence, in traditional demographic model to create and place work.

Here we’d be remiss not to mention programmatic media. Now the pros and cons of programmatic are too big—and popular—a topic to cover here. But we can say that while it is not certainly the silver bullet to eliminate demographic distortion in media—at least not yet—we should be championing its success in pushing the traditional media model to further innovate and bring pinpointed, personalized targeting with behavioral or interest-based ads.

Besides, traditional media is not going away. We still need to plan, create and place effective content for it. The fact is despite its initial slow reaction to the digital age, traditional media is no longer behaving like the traditional media these frameworks were first developed for.

We must rewire our planning and development approaches to keep up with the times because traditional media has made resolutions too.


The Resolution to (Continue to) Create Better Content, Better Connections, Better Consumer Experiences.

By now the problem should be clear—traditional media frameworks and our own ingrained behaviors have to change. Consumers deserve better than to be skewed projections of demographic distortion.

Hopefully clearer still is how simple and clear the solution is to us. Digital and consumer experience frameworks need to become more central to all consumer content and media planning.

To address this issue at HA a number of years ago, we transformed our traditional communication and media approach by starting everything with digital-centric thinking.

Rather than searching for the key demographic insight, we seek the problem that needs to be solved or the interest than needs to be enhanced.

Our core planning and research frameworks follow human-centric design principles to emphasize connecting with consumers through empathy and the heart.

We combine behavior and interest-based data with other observational research approaches (you always learn more about people by watching what they do than by what they say they do) to develop personas that focus on mindsets, not demographic indexes, and to map consumer journeys based on experiences, not projections in the mirror.

We do this because we believe that better content, better connection, better consumer experiences remove unnecessary demographic distortions and are designed for real people.

And this, my friends, feels like a purposeful, ongoing professional resolution for 2018.

Now go blow that old shit up.

PS: Despite this post, we’re not a culture or crew that looks back yearly on what we can do to be better. It’s an every day deal.

PPS: No New Year’s Resolution List would be complete without also acknowledging what works too. I am grateful to work amongst a collection some of the most talented, intelligent, compassionate yet fiercely competitive professionals around, who always ensure that none of us ever take comfort in what worked yesterday.