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One big step for EDI

TV's transition to EDI—shorthand for the industry's efforts to create a computer-based, paperless system for buying and selling ads—took a step forward last week. But it has six more steps to take before the job is done.

A committee formed by the Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) approved a universal format that agencies and clients can use to request information about available inventory from TV stations via the Internet. The mission of the committee—known as the EDI Technical Standards Task Force—is to create standards, written in the Internet language known as XML, for the seven steps that it usually takes to execute advertising buys.

Last October, when competing EDI vendors agreed to develop the XML interface, a number of task-force members thought they could get language written for all seven steps by the end of 2001.

That turned out to be overly optimistic. But the fact that there's language for the first step—known as the "avail request," in which clients ask stations when and where they have airtime to run commercials for a specific ad campaign—is a major breakthrough.

The problem the industry has faced for years is that more than a dozen incompatible EDI systems have been duking it out in the marketplace, trying to become the

de facto standard by gaining the most market share. Nobody has emerged strong enough to knock off the rest of the competition, though, so EDI (technically, Electronic Data Interchange) has languished.

Late last year, 15 EDI-software and -hardware vendors, including powerhouses Donovan Data Systems and Encoda Systems, agreed to develop a standard. Among the vendors that helped devise it was MediaPort, a start-up company with the backing of three of the biggest agency holding companies in the world: WWP, Interpublic Group and Omnicom.

MediaPort's goal is to develop software that would directly link sellers and buyers in a way that would eliminate paperwork from every advertising transaction: print, broadcast and cable, Internet, as well as cross-platform deals.

Now, says TVB Executive Vice President Abby Auerbach, writing XML programs for the other steps should fall into place fairly quickly. In fact, she says, language for step two, when stations respond with the airtime opportunities they have available, will be ready by the end of this week. Language for all seven steps—including orders, make-goods, invoices and discrepancies—ought to be completed some time in the second quarter, she says.

Others aren't so sure of that timetable but agree with Auerbach that 2002 will be a breakthrough year for EDI.

"We'll make more progress this year than we have in the last 10 years," says Tony O'Brien, of Encoda, which markets advertising traffic and invoicing systems (among other products) to ad sellers and buyers.

One issue the industry needs to address, he adds, is the process by which the XML standards, once they've been developed, will be maintained and managed. "Things change," he observes, with wry understatement.

O'Brien sees a need for a "centrally located and operated entity and process to guarantee that, after the [standards are completed], somebody is managing and monitoring them."

According to MediaPort CEO Michael Lotito, talks are already under way regarding establishment of an independent group that would maintain the standards.

For national spot TV, the paper trail has been particularly problematic—and a turn-off for many clients.

Even with EDI systems in place at many agencies, rep firms and stations, the process of buying and selling ads has been labor-intensive. Because their systems aren't compatible, submissions frequently have to be retyped into the buyer's, agency's, station's or rep's computer program at each step in the process.

Multiply all that keystroking by 50 markets, and the waste becomes clear. And the potential for mistakes. Auerbach says that almost 80% of national spot-TV invoices have discrepancies that need to be reconciled.