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Three has made its first major move into programmatic, launching a proposition that will allow advertisers to target customers based on anonymised data from the telco.

It’s a far cry from Three’s previous experiment, and subsequent U-turn, around network-level adblocking, but it’s a launch with the same goal at heart: to make mobile ads better, and open up new revenue streams.

Dubbed ‘Relevant Advertising’, the product has been 18 months in the making by the firm's 40-strong digital team, which is spearheaded by Three’s director of advertising Charlie McGee.

“It’s been a lengthy process. Doing this in the year GDPR was implemented was quite choice timing but it allowed us to make sure we got it exactly right,” McGee told The Drum.

The fully-compliant, ID-based tool will not only let brands find new ways to target audiences in a post-cookie mobile landscape, but it will also let them mine the data of around 1 million consumers who have opted in via Three’s Wuntu loyalty app. The process is part of the app on-boarding process and the only incentive is a better mobile ad experience.

For now, brands can target these customers based on their age and gender, as well as their approximate work location and home location.

A 'eureka moment'

Three decided to make the leap into programmatic after gleaning insight from brands, customers and all corners of the media supply chain. McGee said his team was presented with a “reasonably bleak” picture about the state of the industry, with big advertisers conceding they struggled to target audiences or extract value from their media buys and publishers facing off the likes of Facebook.

“It created a eureka moment for us,” he explained. “The one thing that underlines all of this is data, and the opportunity for us as a mobile telco is that we have a lot of high-quality data, if we get it right we can create real value for the ad ecosystem.”

Relevant Advertising was developed in partnership with mobile data firm Zeotap, which already works with nine major telecoms firms around the world.

While Three is the first out of the gate with this technology in the UK, Zeotap’s senior vice-president for EMEA Oliver Sanders told The Drum that it’s in talks with other UK operators to provide similar services.

For Sanders, there's also the potential in the future to connect first-party CRM data provided by telecoms with online identifiers to give customers an even more personalised experience.

Three has conducted its own "friendly tests" around its new proposition but Sanders said that Zeotap’s own benchmarked data showed brands that had plugged into this type of build got up to a 500% boost in engagement. Revenue rates for publisher’s websites and apps, meanwhile, have noted up to 200% more conversions.

Red Bull and a "giant FMCG" firm are among the brands experimenting with Zeotap’s tech. 

Changing tack

Three's decision to monetise its data comes two-and-a-half years after the giant unveiled plans to launch a network-level adblocking solution in partnership with the now-defunct Shine Technologies. 

The aim of the brand-led tool was to filter ads that it and the industry deemed acceptable in order to spotlight the all-too-often implicit "value exchange" associated with ad-supported content.

Eventually the plan was abandoned. While this was before McGee's time he said the business had "come a long way since then and changed our stance to suit the needs of the market".

"If we rewind two-and-a-half years, adblocking was a thing that was more front-and-centre with consumers but we feel there’s a greater acceptance that the ad industry fuels big parts of the industry from a consumer perspective.”

Now, the next step is to scale the Relevant Advertising proposition to woo brands.

Some 1 million of Three’s 10 million customers are currently opted-in. It has a goal to double its subscribers to 20 million by 2021 and it hopes the opt-ins will follow.

To get permission from these new customers, McGee said the option to opt-in would be extended to the app Three customers use to manage their bill payments, MyThree.

The launch from the mobile network follows on from rival O2 saying it would no longer deliver mobile ads via Weve – the joint venture originally set up between O2, EE and Vodafone to challenge Apple, Google and Facebook’s monopoly on mobile.