How Utiq Hopes to Become “Fundamental to the Digital Advertising Ecosystem”

Tim Cross 22 April, 2024 

When Google first announced its intention to sunset third-party cookies, a lot of alternative identity providers rushed to position themselves as the one and only identifier needed to replace the cookie. Since then however, with no one solution having established itself at the top of the pile, most have started talking about themselves as one part of a portfolio approach.

Not so with Utiq, the identity solution created by four of Europe’s biggest telcos: Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, and Telefónica. Utiq is currently rolling out across European markets, and is still in development in the UK. But Sara Vincent, Utiq’s UK MD, says the ultimate goal for the identifier is for it to become “fundamental to the ecosystem,” and part of the infrastructure of digital advertising.

“There has to be a portfolio of approaches today, because there’s not one identifier that can cover all use cases that are required with the necessary scale,” she says. “But Utiq’s aim is to have that scale with something that’s as fundamental and ubiquitous as the cookie has ever been, while respecting user consent and embracing the very toughest privacy standards.”

Of course, that’s the position most identity providers would ideally like to be in – the challenge is actually building that scale. Utiq believes its advantage is the telcos which founded it, and which power its identity solution. Their position as the gatekeepers which ultimately provide access to internet-delivered content gives them a unique ability to enable addressability of audiences across not only across websites, but also across browsers.

And crucially, unlike most other instances of telcos trying building ad tech products, Utiq isn’t bundling in any user data. This data can be very valuable from an advertising point of view, but it compromises telcos’ relationships with their customers – in a way which has ultimately scuppered some other telco-owned ad tech businesses. “It’s a common misconception that there’s data involved,” said Vincent, “because when you talk about telcos, there’s this assumption that data is part of it. But Utiq isn’t about data, it’s more pared back than that. It’s all about the core identifier and addressing real people.”

Logged in users, without the login

The methodology behind Utiq’s Authentic Consent Service and first party identifier is fairly unique. While many other IDs are ultimately built on PII (personally identifiable information, such as email addresses, names, phone numbers etc), Utiq’s identifier is enabled by an encrypted signal related to mobile phone contracts.

When a user visits a partnered publisher or brand’s website while connected to the internet via their mobile network, they’re shown a consent banner for Utiq. If they consent, their IP address is then sent to Utiq, which is able to recognise which network that individual belongs to (since each network has a specific band of IP addresses which they assign to their customers).

That IP address is then sent over to the network (assuming they’re partnered with Utiq), which can then match that IP address with a specific mobile phone contract. Once the network has confirmed the individual associated with that contract, they then create a network signal – the core of the identifier. Like most identifiers, it’s a random string of letters and numbers, with no user data associated with it.

This network signal is sent back to Utiq, which decrypts it and encrypts it twice to make it a stable identifier. This identifier is then sent back to the publisher or brand, who can use it for 90 days from that point onwards.

“Publishers and brands can use that as they would use any other first-party identifier,” says Vincent. “So they can put it into their DMP and CDP, they can use it for things like on-site customisation and audience segmentation. From a publisher’s point of view, it’s like having a logged-in user, except they haven’t had to ask their audiences to log in.”

Publishers also receive a secondary Adtechpass which they can upload into the bidstream. This token only lives for one day maximum, preventing third-parties from building profiles off the back of it. But certain trusted partners can essentially unlock this unstable token to see the network pass behind it, allowing them to recognise the same user over time (for example, DSP Adform plays this role). This means this token can be used for things like reach and frequency capping, which works cross-browser since Utiq’s identifier doesn’t live within the browser.

“For brands, Utiq is bringing true people-based frequency capping at scale that they’ve not had before, cross-browser,” said Vincent. “And they’re not spending any of their campaign budget targeting “bots”, because it’s all tied back to individuals’ mobile contracts.”

CTV ambitions

There’s still plenty of work to be done in building out the product.

For starters, the key piece for Utiq in every new market it enters is to get that market’s major telcos on board. Its four founders, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, and Telefónica, cover a large portion of the European population between them. But in the UK for example – in addition to Vodafone – Utiq will need to also sign up  the likes of BT, Three, and Virgin Mobile to realise absolute market scale.

Utiq also wants to build out its functionality over time. Currently users need to first visit a publisher site while not connected to WiFi in order for Utiq to assign an identifier (once an identifier has been assigned, Utiq can recognise the user even when they’re connected to WiFi). So enabling WiFi identifiability is on the product roadmap.

After that, Utiq will look outside of mobile phones. “That’s where it gets really interesting, because we can move into CTV”, said Vincent. “Because that’s IP-based, and the service providers are often the same telcos that operate in the mobile space”.

When all these pieces come together, Vincent says the resulting identifier will be “like taking the best bits of having a logged-on user, a third-party cookie, and a probabilistic ID”. And the company is seeking wide coverage too – aiming to make 80 percent of the open web addressable. This would be a significant increase on the current rate of around 60 percent enabled by third-party cookies, but critically, it would be enabled by a single identifier service.

Consent at the core

While Utiq believes its identifier will in some ways be an improvement on third-party cookies for both marketers and publishers, there will be some aspects of cookies’ functionality which it won’t replicate. After all, recreating all use-cases enabled by cookies would risk recreating privacy risks associated with cookies.

“Not everything that’s done today is going to be privacy safe tomorrow,” said Vincent. “We want to make sure the use cases we enable with our product are privacy first, and so there are certain things we won’t do. We won’t work with certain third-party data arbitration companies for example, because they’re not acting the way that we would want to.”

And the company places a big priority on user consent. “It’s core to our existence, to the extent that we sometimes get mistaken for a consent management platform!” said Vincent. “It’s really important that we adhere to privacy regulation within each market we operate in, and that we’re also aligned with what the data protection authorities have ruled counts as freely-given consent”.

This latter issue is still up for debate. In the UK for example, the ICO is currently fielding opinions on “consent or pay” models, where publishers give users the options of either consenting to use of their data, or instead paying to access content. These sorts of rulings can have a significant impact on opt-in rates for any business. But Vincent is confident that regulators are conscious of publishers’ needs when making these rulings.

“I think there’s recognition across the industry as a whole that these things have a big impact on publishers’ outcomes,” she said. “So if we want to protect the open web, have freedom of speech, and fund quality content, publishers need to monetise. I’m sure there is a solution which is privacy-first, considerate of consumers, and also supports the ongoing businesses of publishers on the open web.”


About the Author:

Tim Cross is Assistant Editor at VideoWeek.
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