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Best-selling author David Allison, on why you should hire a Personal Reader

Hire a Personal Reader. For the longest time I had a person who read books and summarized them for me and would search the web continuously and summarize the stuff that I or my clients needed to know. I got to leave that entire “staying on top of the latest” part of my brain to […]


Hire a Personal Reader. For the longest time I had a person who read books and summarized them for me and would search the web continuously and summarize the stuff that I or my clients needed to know. I got to leave that entire “staying on top of the latest” part of my brain to focus on other things, like writing my book. Plus, I had a constant stream of information to share with my clients and social followers. This should be something SaaS could do. It probably already does.


I had the pleasure of interviewing the best-selling author, international speaker and Valuegraphics pioneer David Allison. At a time when nobody acts their age anymore, gender roles are shifting, income has no bearing on behaviour and all the demographic norms are in flux, he created Valuegraphics, the first-ever database complex enough to statistically detect what target audiences — for anything — really want from the products, services and brands they buy, and what motivates them most. As he puts it “I am out to end the tyranny of demographic stereotypes in a post-demographic world.”


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

You bet! I worked for decades selling ideas to clients — first as an employee, then as an owner of — advertising agencies and marketing firms. These ideas were always based on some kind of imagined persona for the target audience made up from our best guesses about what the demographic wanted. It never made much sense but it was the best information we had. I mean, girls don’t all like pink, and boys don’t all like blue, but when you base things on demographic stereotypes that’s what you get to work with…stereotypes. So there’s that piece of the puzzle.

But it only really became clear when I started researching what I thought was going to be a book about multi-generational condo towers, and all our survey respondents said they didn’t want to live in a tower full of people the same age, but they would pay MORE for a condo in a tower full of people who shared their values. That’s when the cartoon lightbulb floating over my head switched on, and the hunch that shared human values were the most important way to understand an audience was born. Which led to…you guessed it…Valuegraphics.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

There’s probably some super-smart thing I should say but do you want the truth? Writing and launching a book on Amazon had me feeling incredibly vulnerable; an entirely new sensation for me. That was a very wild thing to notice and accept. I’m usually unflappable, but there I was feeling all stressy and fitful and didn’t know why until I went to my nephew’s dance recital and a choreographer talked about how vulnerable it feels to make something and hope people get it. Zing! That’s what I was feeling. I had written three books before, but they were all for a very small and specialized audience who I knew well, and who knew me. This one was very different. I mean, strangers might say mean things, and then what would I do? Thank god it turned out well and was a best-seller overnight. My friends told me afterwards that they had pre-planned an in intervention in the event it flopped…they were worried I’d crumble. Isn’t that sweet? I have great friends.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I only get to talk about ONE mistake? There were so many, and there will be more. We are always learning, aren’t we? Ok I know which story to tell, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned is a bit tangential so I will get it out of the way first. Everybody should just slow the truck down a little bit and have a good think about what they are doing. Seriously. We are so fast to hit send, or post the tweet, or approve the document, or end the video call or whatever, that we make all kinds of mistakes and stupid errors. Some of them you can recover from. Others you can’t. Just slow down, think things through, and make sure you’ve caught all the issues.

Now here’s the story: the biggest mistake I’ve ever made was believing demographic stereotypes and the ridiculous guesswork that they force on you. We created, sold and launched hugely expensive and wrong-headed campaigns because a couple of people figured they knew what the target audience wanted. After a gazillion dollars in time and effort and investment by a client in some product or service, the entire public face of this thing –whatever it was — was determined by a couple of agency guys late at night throwing pencils at the acoustic ceiling tiles in the boardroom and eating pizza. Wow.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

This is one of those softball questions you only dream about! Obviously, I’m going to plug Valuegraphics.

Valuegraphics is the first and only custom-created database that is large enough to accurately detect what your target audience really wants, and what motivates them to do what you want them to do. No more demographic-stereotypes. No more guesswork. No more acoustic-ceiling-tile-pencil-tossing late at night. Data can now guide the decision-making about marketing, R&D, HR…anything that will improve the way a company interacts with an audience.

The database is currently sitting at somewhere over 75,000 surveys across North America, with 380 metrics about what people value, want, need and expect from their life. The data maintains a confidence level of 95% and a margin of error of +/- 3.5%, and is constructed as a random stratified statistically representative sample of the population. All that fancy-schmancy stats-speak just means it’s bullet-proof, and enormous, and crazy-accurate.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

A bunch. We’ve just done 20,000 surveys in China so we can help companies trying to do business there, or understand customers from there. We’ve pulled the data on the new luxury market and what drives decision-making in that sector. We are also keenly interested in arts & culture and have completed a study about donors and patrons. And of course I started out on this journey to write a book about multi-generational condos that feel more like vertical villages, and I still want to do that.

It’s an embarrassment of riches actually: the Valuegraphics Database is a book-writing/speech-making gold mine. Every keynote speech I deliver is based on a custom profile of the audience for that industry. The speech delivers first-of-it’s-kind insider- knowledge about your audience. It’s kind of an unfair advantage for conference attendees — any competitor who isn’t at that conference won’t know what hit them, once everyone gets back to the office and starts using these insights. All bravado aside, the way we understand and activate audiences is statistically as much as eight times more effective than using demographic stereotypes. Eight times better anything is a big boost.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lessons that others can learn from that?

I’ve been blessed with a lot of success. But the one I’m excited about is yet to come. I want there to be a day, hopefully while I am still around, when it’s common to talk about demographics, psychographics and Valuegraphics in the same sentence as if there had always been three “-phics” in the set.

It’s so important to the world I think, to address each other based on the values we share instead of the demographic stereotypes that push us apart. I included a free Valuegraphics profiling tool in my book so that everyone can use it. The lesson here? Turns out that changing the world is as easy as changing the way we see each other. It’s really that simple.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Behave like every day is a Wednesday. If you integrate your life and your work you get two extra days to spread things out. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do for free and it’s awesome to have seven days of fun every week!

How do you define “Marketing”? Can you explain what you mean?

Oh good lord. There are a billion definitions. Just Google “definition of marketing” and you’ll see. I guess for me it’s about creating stuff people care about and making sure they know it’s available. Everything else is secondary.

Oh, and a definitional pet peeve? Can I include that? This makes me nuts.

We seem to have forgotten the difference between tactics and strategy. Identifying some channels, and a kooky headline with a visual pun is not a strategy. A beautiful website or a smart logo is not a strategy. I saw the term “tactification of marketing” somewhere the other day and it made me laugh because it’s true. I have had people look me in eye and tell me that the strategy is “pictures of people enjoying the product on Instagram.” How can you not snort coffee out your nose when you hear that?

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Any modicum of success I enjoy is because of the help of pretty much everyone I’ve ever met. In my case, the old line about ‘it takes a village,” couldn’t be more true. I know I sound like one of those positive-affirmation websites now, so here’s an example.

When I first started my strategic communications firm one of the first clients was a big art fair. I was so excited, because I’m very involved in the visual art world in my spare time. We did great work, it was approved, and the ideas and things we’d made started showing up on brochures and banners and everywhere around the city.

But they stiffed us. The guy running the thing is a jerk and in a very Leona-Helmsley kind of way didn’t think he had to pay. That almost killed our little start-up financially, before we’d even really got going, so from that day forward I have done everything I can to pay all my suppliers and staff as fast as possible. My accounting team thinks it’s insane that I pay bills in the same week I receive them. I guess it’s not smart financial management. But it scared me so much when I was on the other end that I vowed to prevent anyone else from ever feeling what that art fair owner put me through.

It’s contributed to my success in a big way. My suppliers and consultants are loyal, and when I need help, they are happy to help. Lesson? Even a deadbeat client can help you. Everyone you encounter will help you in some way.

Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners?

This new generation of SaaS tools are mind-blowing. For example, I use one called Lately (trylately.com) that is an AI engine which reads your long-form blogs and chops them up into posts all nicely formatted for Facebook, IG, twitter, LinkedIn and so on. It saves me a billion hours a week and does a vastly better job than the humans I used to pay at a social media company. Those social media companies need to offer strategy and insight, not the manual labour of cranking out tweets. Irony alert! Those disruptive social media firms are being disrupted by AI! That’s sort of sweet. The good ones will survive.

What are your “5 Non Intuitive Marketing Strategies For Small Businesses”?

I’m answering these with a small consulting company like mine in mind. But it doesn’t matter what kind of small business you have, these things work.

1. Hire a Personal Reader. For the longest time I had a person who read books and summarized them for me and would search the web continuously and summarize the stuff that I or my clients needed to know. I got to leave that entire “staying on top of the latest” part of my brain to focus on other things, like writing my book. Plus, I had a constant stream of information to share with my clients and social followers. This should be something SaaS could do. It probably already does.

2. Birthdays. It’s such an impersonal world these days. Everytime you find out the birthday of someone you know or work with or meet at a conference ow whatever…it comes up in conversation more than you realize…make it into a recurring event reminder on your calendar for the same day every year, and send everyone a quick email or shoutout on social media or etc. No one takes the time to SEE you anymore, so when someone does, it’s powerful.

3. Look for ways to help other people be successful. Enough has already been said about this. But it’s true. Karma works.

4. Choose a social channel and triple-down. You can’t be awesome on every channel out there. Be awesome on one. Keep you toe in the water on the rest.

5. Be prepared and be open. This bastardization of the old boy scout motto couldn’t be more true. I thought I knew what the consulting game was all about. What happens when and how. But as I started to be open to new ways of thinking about the process of providing consulting services, and new technologies that I had to be prepared to adopt, I realized that nothing NOTHING nothing is set in stone anymore. There is no “way to be a consultant.” There is only being open to how it works best today and being ready, prepared and open for it all to change again tomorrow.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Now that we have Valuegraphics, we can stop the widespread acceptance of demographic stereotypes, which do nothing but push us apart into segments based on young/old, rich/poor, married/single, male/female and so on. They are discriminatory, in a sense, and they are the foundational tool we use to design and plan everything in our world. Crazy.

Instead, we can now build a world based on the things we all care about; the values we share. Let’s do that. It’s way better for business ROI, far better for all of us as human being alive in 2018 and walking the same planet, and it’s simple. As it turns out, changing the world is as easy as changing the way we look at the world. Boom.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This is a life lesson I wish everyone could get on board with. Stop and think about what you are doing. We have become a universe of checklist-writing task-handling to-do-list-tacklers. It’s rare to find someone willing to think first, act later. We need more thinking.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn is my main platform. But I’m on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook too.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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