Merely giving the people what they want is a shortcut to banality, mediocrity and invisibility.
The agency that gives its clients exactly what they think they want never deserves to win Agency of the Year, and worse, is rarely seen as the leader in the field, the trusted advisor that is smart enough to know what the client ought to want instead. They certainly can't charge more or hire better team members.
I'm defining pandering as using your perception of your customer's wishes as an excuse to do work you're not proud of.
The public radio station that puts on empty, sensationalist coverage of the current crisis-of-the-year is chasing others down the rabbithole, a chase it can't (and doesn't want to) win. [The excuse is always the same—it's what the listeners want!]
The bookstore that gives customers toys, games and other junk to survive won't long be able to call itself a bookstore.
The restaurant that eagerly serves kids salty, fatty, tasteless junk food because that's all they will eat is inevitably training an entire generation not to eat at restaurants when they grow up.
The architect who proclaims that times are tough and ends up doing nothing but ticky tacky work because it's easy to sell gets the clients he deserves.
The copywriter/editor who trades in meaning for lists, using calculated SEO keyword loading and sensationalism designed to attract the drive-by audience, earns the privilege of doing it again and again, forever.
The reason you don't have to pander is that you're not in a hurry and you don't need everyone to embrace you and your work. When you focus on the weird, passionate, interesting segment of the audience, you can do extraordinary work for a few (and watch it spread) instead of starting from a place of average.
Go ahead and make something for the elites. Not the elites of class or wealth, but the elites of curiosity, passion and taste. Every great thing ever created was created by and for this group.
There's a surprisingly large amount of room at the this end of the market–among those that care enough about what they do to say no, and better yet, to teach the market why they're right.
They earn their niche at the top of the market by leading, not pandering.