Even though Windows versions of these directories are coming to market, it's now clear that these electronic systems have not revolutionized the business.
Possibly more important, however, most agency media buyers still seem to prefer the old way of business: paper directories and face-to-face meetings with salesmen.
"I think our expectations were at one level and the reality was at another level," says Mark Thomas, media research director at Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco. "I don't think there is anything that can replace face-to-face negotiations."
"I think the electronic media kits are used more by junior people in the pre-planning stages of a campaign," says Debbie Menfi, senior VP-media director at Deutsch Inc., New York.
The two main rivals in the field, SRDS' Media Planning System and Electronic Data & Rates, still count the sites where the electronic systems operate in the hundreds-not the thousands.
These CD-ROMs, first introduced two years ago, contain some of the information available in their printed books, including ad rates and circulation. But the CD-ROMs can cross-reference and sort data according to various criteria, such as the cost of reaching 1,000 readers, total paid circulation and editorial description of readers.
They can also sort by key words. In the early going, SRDS seemed to posses a database advantage while EDR was given the edge on technology.
Each of the two major CD-ROM sellers hotly dispute who is the market leader in the cutting-edge department.
"Clearly in the print side, [SRDS is] the market leader," says Larry Tobin, president of EDR, a unit of Donovan Data Systems, a software and data-processing company. "On the electronic side of the market, we're the market leader."
He says the company has its CD-ROM ad rate directory system in 250 agencies.
In comparison, the SRDS CD-ROM is installed in 100 shops, according to Joyce Cusack, VP-marketing.
"We think we're leading the pack in terms of paid installed users," she says.
But regardless of who is No.1, the market has been slow to embrace these developments.
"I think it's wait and see for a lot of people," says Ms. Cusack.
John Jadick, director of media technology at Grey Advertising, New York, agrees. He had been testing both systems in house for the past nine months. The technology gap is closing. He attributes the lag in acceptance "in part due to the basic inertia of people to accept something new. Most people have been using the directories for years and they're not going to boot up their computers to look up a phone number."
Still, Mr. Jadick calls electronic media kits "the wave of the future-even though there are a lot of growing pains.
SRDS just introduced a Windows version of its monthly CD-ROM updates, and Ms. Cusack says she hopes to introduce an online version by the end of the year.
Talks with online services are underway.
EDR is still operating with an updated version of its original DOS system but hopes to begin testing a Windows version next month at agencies. A commercial rollout is planned for January, according to Mr. Tobin.
EDR is also moving ahead with plans to develop a Macintosh-compatible system. Agency testing is to start in September with a commercial rollout scheduled for next February.
Muddling the adoption of technology by print buyers is the rampant ad rate negotiation.
An electronic database may help planners compile information about titles, but it can't bargain for value-added premiums or guaranteed positioning.
"There is not one universal rate for anything and that makes the whole [print buying] process a lot more complicated," says Harry Glass, senior partner-media at Bozell Worldwide, New York.
As a result, SRDS currently counts "less than 5%" of its estimated $40 million in annual revenue from the CD-ROM version of its directories. The SRDS system costs $1,393 for all 7,500 titles. Media planners can buy either the consumer or business titles for $995 apiece.
EDR costs $696 for a full-year subscription to either the consumer or business directories, or $1,390 for both.
EDR's fortunes were given a boost two weeks ago when Bernie Guggenheim, senior VP-director of information services at Lintas Media, Detroit, selected the EDR system for Lintas offices in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and Winston-Salem, N.C.
He says he picked the EDR system because "their software seemed to operate more efficiently. It seemed to be easier for our media buyers and planners to use."
But he isn't expecting sweeping changes.
"I don't think we'll ever see paper totally replaced," says Mr. Guggenheim. "What we'd like to be able to get rid of is the inefficiencies. We'd like to be able to build a media plan without having to rekey data over and over and over. Some of the things that are going on right now [in the media planning process] are insane."
Both EDR and SRDS systems "have long-term potential" he says, "but I'd call them both `version one."'
Despite the slow progress of these systems so far, some buyers say they see long-term potential for electronic delivery of rates and data.
"My sense is that down the road, they'll be widely used," Mr. Glass says.