Choice Comments from YPA Las Vegas

It was a full day here in Las Vegas €" the land of free drinks that can cost you every penny you have, and where the hotels invest very little in clocks and windows.

The YPA annual meeting was packed with industry luminaries answering (or trying to avoid answering) the basic questions that drive the future of this business €" where will growth come from, what will happen with spin-offs and consolidations, will publishers be the real winners in digital directories, and where is the true innovation in this industry coming from?

Here are some of my favorite comments from the day, with some effort to put them into context.

SEMPO President Barbara Coll, at the end of a tour through €œher world€ of Bay Area digeratti, asked a rhetorical question that cuts to the chase of all the questions being asked about when we will reach the tipping point where digital dominates usage and revenue, and print becomes a secondary product.

€œHow many years before there are computers in the kitchen?€ More to the point, how long before we all have computers in our kitchens that will initiate a local search by voice command while we are chopping onions?

On the financial guru panel, Morgan Stanley€™s Adam Shepherd said that based on the numbers, the odds of another large U.S. telco selling its directory unit are about €œ50/50.€ However, the fact that SBC and probably Verizon will be busy absorbing major mergers makes that eventuality much less likely, at least in the near term.

On an international publisher panel, Lyle Wolf (known as the father of the modern Chinese Yellow Pages industry even though he€™s from New Jersey) calls China the €œlast frontier€ of the global Yellow Pages industry, noting that directory revenues in China are growing at 50 percent to 100 percent per year.

On the same panel, R.H. Donnelley CEO Dave Swanson made it clear he understands what drives this business when he said, €œGrowth in product usage is the number one metric that we focus on.€

From the Presidents€™ Panel:

Dex Media CEO George Burnett was the only incumbent publisher to answer the question, €œWhat independent publisher presents the biggest challenge in both print and online over the next 18 months?€

Burnett€™s answer was that €œThere is no doubt that Yellow Book is our biggest and toughest competitor.€ He also said that independents in general are vulnerable on the digital front, because they have underinvested and lack the footprint in most cases to have much of an impact online.

Verizon President Kathy Harless, whose company engaged in a bitter lawsuit with Yellow Book, was nudged by her co-panelists to answer the following question, €œAre the independent publishers competing fairly?€

Her answer: €œMost independents do. The record stands for those who don€™t.€

Many of the written questions appear to have been sent up to the podium by frustrated CMRs. One on directory extensions elicited a consistent response from the incumbent in publishers, which was that extensions have been driven by accounting issues lately, that the worst is over, but publishers will commit only to minimize but not eliminate the practice.

The lone independent on the panel, Gerry DiPippo, drew applause when he said that advertisers deserved to have books publish on the timetable that they are led to expect, every 12 months.

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