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COUNTDOWN TO 2000;COMPUTER HAVOC AWAITS THE UNSUSPECTING AGENCY

By Published on .

2000 could be in for some down time.

Even as agencies and advertisers prepare marketing programs for the turn of the century, some of them have potential time-bombs ticking in their shops-and they are set to go off the instant the year changes from 1999 to 2000.

Here's the problem: Computers cannot divide by zero and many of them only use two places to hold the year. Therefore, 2000 is going to be read by many systems as 00, signifying 1900, and that has the potential to wreak havoc on sensitive databases.

The kind of impact this will have on a company depends largely on the type of information system it has in place. The newer client-server networks, being more flexible and easier to re-program, are less likely to suffer and most applications written in the last 10 years or so have taken the problem into account.

OLDER SYSTEM WOES

Older mainframes, on the other hand, are going to be far more difficult to switch over and even that spanking new PC on the desk of a creative or an account exec may be pulling its information from the computer equivalent of an Edsel.

At Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, VP-Director of Technology Jim Whitfield says the impact of the date field problem will hit almost across the board.

"Production environments, media systems and financial systems are all affected," he says. "It reaches into every corner of the agency."

LACK OF PLANNING

The root of the problem lies in a lack of foresight on the part of early system designers. Mr. Whitfield says: "When programmers and developers wrote this stuff 20 years ago, they weren't thinking about 2000" and Burnett can date back some of their computer technology at least that far.

The original decision to go with a two-space date field was made largely to conserve memory, says Jim Dileo, senior VP-information technology for D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, but it is coming back to haunt information services departments and, as result, every single agency function that relies on computers.

"Let's say that somebody has to produce a broadcast schedule for media placement and notices have to go out X weeks or X months in advance"; unless the changes are made, in 2000, Mr. Dileo says, "The notices will be instructing people to do things on dates that don't make sense."

POTENTIAL BENEFIT

The headaches, however, may bring with them a side benefit, says Mr. Whitfield. He points out the coming date-field compliance problem also has presented the agency with a compelling reason to redesign and re-engineer all of its systems:

"What we are looking to do is to migrate from a mainframe to a client server environment.*.*.The whole process has a lot of exposure but also a lot of opportunity for a big win. We are looking to come back and give ourselves some competitive edge."

Mr. Whitfield started working on the problem almost the same day he arrived at the agency a little more than two years ago and says he feels like he is part of "a never-ending race."

While he is confident of a positive outcome, he adds, "I would sleep better if there was some sure guarantee."

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