O2 CEO Ronan Dunne on how mobile operators can emerge as major forces in the advertising game

Ronan Dunne is the CEO of O2, an operator that has evolved from its roots in the traditional telecoms world to one that is now attempting to make itself ubiquitous in its users' lives, and then monetise the insights this brings, with the goal of making a mark in the ad business high among its aims.

This ambition was underlined when it took full control of the reins of Weve – the mobile advertising venture it had attempted to get off the ground in dating back to 2012 - in the second half of last year.

Sources close to the development of Weve say that early attempts to fully exploit the opportunities posed by the combined subscriber base of EE, O2, and Vodafone were thwarted by the natural tensions that will naturally arise when three fierce competitors are asked to act in cohesion.

After launching a fully-fledged advertising offering in early 2014, Weve found itself 100 per cent back in the fold of O2 (which had previously been the most determined of the operators to launch a media arm) a little over 18 months later, and now it is going it alone.

What’s going to be different this time around compared to previous O2 efforts in the media space?


For starters, Weve’s subscriber base, which numbers 31 million, now exceeds O2’s actual mobile subscriber numbers, a feat achieved primarily through the roll out of O2 Wi-Fi, which gives O2 the details of subscribers to rival networks (in addition to its own) in return for using its public Wi-Fi network.

In addition, Weve can now move with a singularity of purpose, according to Dunne. Goals set for its commercial operations can now be pursued without being hampered by potential opposing concerns of three major stakeholders.

An example of this includes the fact that Weve is now working with mobile ad exchange Axonix – a sister entity given the fact that Axonix’s major investor is O2-owner Telefonica – to give advertisers further insight to its 31 million-strong audience base, and better enable programmatic trading.

This means advertisers can load Weve’s audience insights into Axonix’s platform, then use it to bid on display advertising inventory using the ad tech partners of their choice, is the first significant product development since Weve was taken 100 per cent into O2’s ownership.

Weve is no longer conflicted

Such a partnership would have likely been hampered under Weve’s earlier stakeholder arrangement over potential fears of customer data leakage to a direct competitor, not to mention fears over kneejerk reaction from subscribers, or a regulatory intervention.

As iterated by O2-owner Telefonica, the consumer insights proffered by Weve data is extremely valuable. Sources consulted by The Drum have expressed much interest in utilising this, but did express frustration at the limited scope that Weve was able to offer.

For Dunne, the case is simple; protecting consumers’ privacy is paramount to mobile operators, but this does not limit the potential of its uses to those booking as campaigns.

“Because of the fact that it [Weve audience data] is first party data (opted in), and at such a large scale, marketers can get exactly what they need,” he says. “The truth is, they don’t need the name and address, what they need is completely contextual, and actionable insights into groups that are not just based on presumed attribution extracted from others.”

First party insights over third party 'data'

Mobile operators are able to use their insights to track audiences’ movements dating back years, meaning they can offer advertisers insights to actual behaviours, again as opposed to inferred insights offered by third party data providers, which is “everything they need,” according to Dunne.

“So the question of wanting more information, the answer is they don’t need it, because with Weve data, what they have is a proper actionable cohort that can be advertised directly to, that’s the key here. The proof will be in response rates, etc., and helping advertisers close the loop on transactions.”

For Dunne, mobile operators are in a unique position to add value to the advertising market. This stems from the insights they can offer as large-scale media buyers themselves, the vast swathes of first party data at their disposal, plus acting as the conduit for all the content consumed on their networks, including ads.

Mobile operators as guardians of the network

It’s on Dunne’s final point, that much controversy has centred upon at this year’s Mobile World Congress, a trade show organised by mobile operator trade body the GSMA, given the recent announcement that Three has paired with ad blocking outfit Shine Technologies.

The pact means that Three can filter out media attempted to be served by advertisers on its network. The operator, whose parent company Hutchison Whompoa is attempting to buy O2 itself, initially positioned the move as a consumer protection move.

However, given Three's long history of trying to make mobile advertising a key part of its business, it has conceded that it plans to use the pairing as a way to nudge the ad industry into producing more relevant ads.

The pairing itself stirred much controversy on the very stage of Mobile World Congress stage, with Shine Technologies clashing with some of the web’s largest media owners in the guise of Google and Yahoo.

Although, not commenting on the deal brokered between Shine and Three, Dunne points out that mobile operators are responsible for all the traffic on its network. “Whether we like it or not, we have to be accountable for what’s happening in that pipe.”

Ronan Shields

I cover digital media trading and martech for The Drum magazine, plus I write my own opinion pieces, I don't really commission them.

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