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Is Three’s network-level adblocker the precursor to an ‘acceptable ads’ programme?

Three claims its ad network ambitions are a means of raising standards in the ever-growing mobile advertising sector

After months of speculation, the aim of Three’s network-level adblocker is clearer. The mobile operator wants to use the adblocking tech to help filter ads that it and the industry agree are acceptable.

It’s not quite the outcome some observers predicted when Three first revealed its partnership with adblocking company Shine Technologies at the start of the year. Despite the scepticism, Three has always maintained it isn’t out to destroy mobile advertising, rather it wants to spotlight the all-too-often implicit "value exchange" associated with ad-supported content.

If that sounds too altruistic for contemporary business, then that’s because it believes there’s money to be made. Imagine, a mobile operator that could charge advertisers more money for data on users who had blocked ads, but are now happy for their data to be shared on the proviso that they’re getting better targeted ads. Get the balance right and publishers could monetise their inventory more effectively, while advertisers could benefit from a reduction in fraud and better viewability of their ads.

The mobile operator wants to test the scheme early next year, and then launch it sometime later in 2017, Three’s UK chief marketing officer Tom Malleschitz told The Drum. “You could argue that you would be able to charge more for the data,” he adds, hinting at what could eventually be mobile packages and tariffs for customers who are happy to have their data leveraged into advertising.

If Three is sitting on more customer data which its subscribers opt-in to sharing with third parties, then it could assure marketers their ads will be seen by real humans, he reasons.

The challenge is will a new ad-friendly mobile package get Three the audience scale and quality needed to create a proposition that works for the ad ecosystem?

Malleschitz likens the solution, dubbed Adstream Plus Plus, to an ecosystem built on four points: “an agreed industry standard" of what is good advertising; a transparent relationship with those customers who sign-up to the service; brands willing to test it out; and a collaborative relationship with publishers.

On the latter two points, Three-owner CK Hutchison could “encourage” its other brands such as SuperDrug and The Perfume Shop to test the acceptable ads on the network, suggests Malleschitz, while publishers are “interested” in how effective these could be.

Three is right on three counts,” claims Tobin Ireland, co Founder and chief executive of Smartpipe Solutions.

“Yes – the data is valuable in the ad market because of its high quality, it generates a strong response; Yes – it is all about supporting the brands and publishers and developing the full ecosystem; Yes – data protection has to be at the heart of the proposition, that is where we have invested and have our patents. After three years of developing and deploying the Smartpipe Platform, our experience tells us that the devil is in the detail – building a platform which performs at programmatic speeds, balances the interests of all players, and protects privacy without compromise is not easy - and it's very important that operators do this properly.”

This might seem like a new direction for Three’s partnership with Shine, but it isn’t claimed Malleschitz. He stressed this isn’t a move away from adblocking per se, rather it’s a case of using Shine’s technology to help replace the the empty spaces were poor ads would normally have sat with better creative. When this happens, there’s a noticeable uplift in the effectiveness of ads, Malleschitz claimed following a poll of 50 senior executives at publishers, advertisers and tech companies it commissioned by research outfit Mobile Squared. The results of which revealed the new model would generate a “25% increase in media effectiveness for advertisers”, and a “20% increase improvement in the value of advertising space for publishers”, with regards to a reduction in fraud, sharper targeting and better viewability.

It shares similarities with Adblock Plus’ plan to sell what it deems acceptable ads. Due to go on trial next month, the controversial service will allow publishers and vloggers to choose to sell and show only whitelisted ads – those that meet Adblock Plus’s strict criteria – on their sites.

Should Three’s own version come to fruition then it would not be the one to define what constitutes a “acceptable ad” and instead is working with industry bodies and publishers to create a new set of ad standards.

Talks have already happened with the IAB and other parties on what an acceptable ad is. Wary of Three’s venture being viewed as it taking money out of the ecosystem and profiteering from it, Malleschitz says the business would not decide on what standard to adopt on its own to protect it neutrality.

“What we’re doing is definitely not an Adblock Plus model where we want to charge brands to be on a whitelist because that doesn’t change the industry or the format – it’s wrong,” he argued. “We believe that with the efficiency angle – less fraud, more efficiency – then we can create more revenue and more attractive ads.”

For every media expert that welcomes what Three is trying to do, there are others who doubt it will resonate with premium publishers. After all there were murmurings as far back as when it was first announced that Three customers would be banned from reading certain sites should the network-level adblocker be turned on.

None of the furore around the network wide adblocker announcement has influenced its current direction, states Malleschitz, who points to research from the first tests of the technology in the summer as proof of concept.

When the test was conducted for 24 hours, 84% of the people who took part said it was effective, and 72% wanted to keep using it. Such was its success that there were no complaints to customer service call centres during the 24 hour trial, claimed Malleschitz.

One issue that could slow the rollout of Adstream Plus Plus is the issue of whether it breaches net neutrality? When Three’s deal with Shine was first announced, a European Parliament source told Forbes that the plan to introduce an adblocker at that scale would be illegal under the EU’s recently adopted net neutrality laws. Adblock Plus also declined to push forward with a similar venture following its own reservations over whether it flouted the regulation. However, Malleschitz argues that the service is legal because it is free and “100% an opt-in”.

Three’s plan is emblematic of the growing need for telecommunications firms to get skin in the advertising game. Frustrated with how the likes of Facbeook and Google have used their infrastructure to reap the benefits of the ubiquity of mobile, Three, Telefonica and Vodafone to name a few are exploring how they can leverage their customer data to secure their slice of the pie.

Hosted in a real-life boxing ring and now in its second year, Programmatic Punch, featuring Three UK on 8th December is a one-day event that asks experts from all corners of the advertising industry to trade verbal blows over the realities of automated media trading.

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