TECHNOLOGICAL GAINS HAUNT DONOVAN;AGENCY DATA PROVIDER FEELING SQUEEZE FROM SHOPS, FOES

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With about 70% of the agency media billing/tracking business, Donovan Data Systems is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in its market.

Yet despite its No.*1 position, the company finds itself under increasing pressure from its agency customers and competitors to upgrade its customer service, technical capabilities and product offerings.

There's so much pressure that Donovan executives at times find themselves bewildered at having to defend themselves. For more than 30 years their products, which electronically match ad orders with TV station confirmations of the order being received and the spot running as scheduled, have helped reduce the blizzard of paperwork in agency media departments and the number of transaction discrepancies.

"In the client's mind, we never do enough or do it fast enough," says Michael Donovan, chairman.

For instance, he says, the creation of a program based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system software "has turned out to be much more complex than anyone previously thought, as well as more expensive."

In addition, he says Donovan doesn't have the programming manpower of well-known major software companies.

Donovan's position does have some credibility, agency executives admit. If programming code were so easy to develop, every agency would have its own MIS department write a program tailored to its needs. Relatively few agencies, such as True North Communications and Leo Burnett Co., have written their own programs or customized existing products.

"We have five people within our media department who are responsible for analyzing what the department requires and building those systems," says Alan Higley, associate manager of media systems, Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. "This has given us a system focused on our media [department's] way of doing things.... not dependent upon systems that don't meet our business requirements."

The concerns about Donovan expressed most often by agencies is that the company creates new programs too slowly, and that it has been reluctant to write client-specific systems.

"They operate from the perspective that one system is applicable to all," says a New York media executive whose agency is a major Donovan client. "But agencies have clients that have different needs and require different ways of handling media traffic. That's where we and Donovan have very different opinions; we want them to help us develop solutions to specific client media problems."

"The major problem with Donovan is that they are slow to respond," says a Midwest media executive. "They wait until all 11 or 12 of their major agencies literally force them at gunpoint to make changes. It's too hard to get any kind of customized billing system from them."

Those concerns led True North to do an in-house customization of an existing product about three years ago, after using Donovan systems for many years.

"We felt that we could do a better job at customizing our systems to meet our clients' needs," says Fred Wray, president, TN Media, the independent media-buying subsidiary of True North Communications.

Perceived gaps in Donovan's media offerings also have opened the door to competitors, such as Datatech Software Group, which promotes itself as more receptive to individual agency's needs.

Those competitors, of which Datatech is believed to be the largest and best-known, have slowly whittled away at Donovan's market share, 70% today from 90% in 1980.

"Our whole business is based on accessibility, whether it's directly to us or whether it's 24-hour, seven-day-a-week access to media data," says Ronald Levy, a VP at Datatech. "We really work to facilitate communication between departments and between agencies and the media outlets they're buying."

Among the agencies and media services working with Datatech are TN Media; Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif.; Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston; Focus Media, Los Angeles; Media That Works, Cincinnati; Houston Effler Herstek Favat, Boston; and Anheuser-Busch Cos.' Busch Media Group.

Donovan, which declined to disclose its client list, also says it has added several "major" new clients in the last year or two. And the company has successfully won additional business from existing clients, notes Mr. Donovan.

"The trend is to use an entire suite of products," he says. "They are tending to replace older programs with our products, and more and more agencies are going to full-service."

Donovan offers a full range of Windows-based front-end programs and promises total Windows support by 1996.

"We've already done the ones that we think will have the most impact," says Mr. Donovan. "We've had good reaction to that."

The company offers a range of electronic data interchange products, including the Direct Agency Rep Exchange system and EI Express system, for spot TV and cable TV, respectively. Those two products are joint ventures between Donovan and Jefferson-Pilot Data Services, which provides automation needs to major TV rep organizations.

Aside from these products, Donovan also now offers a generalized upload program that can handle most of the other data agencies now want delivered electronically. It also has three client/server products that will run on both Windows and Macintosh computers.

"The new technology and the EDI capability, that's what clients have been asking us for..... That's what we've been working on delivering," says Mr. Donovan. "For the moment, we have a lot of new products for users to absorb."

Mr. Donovan asserts the company, employing 600 in North America and Europe, is "investing more than ever before" in software development, making "various special efforts" for clients in addition to their proprietary programs.

As for the competition trying to further whittle away at Donovan's commanding hold on the business, Mr. Donovan flatly states that "competition is a fact of life" and the company's response is to better "answer our clients' needs and upgrade" its service.

But unlike 30 years ago, Donovan Data Systems knows only too well that agencies have alternatives if Donovan's products and service don't measure up to today's higher expectations.

"We are very much our service and products," Mr. Donovan says.

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