Advertisers are very good at understanding people’s online journeys. But offline? Not so much. Cinnara believes MNOs are sitting on location data that can fix the problem – and unlock huge revenues. MEF talked to Cinarra’s CEO Sundi Sundaresh.

Original Interview by Tim Green, Features Editor at Mobile Ecosystem Forum. Published September 18, 2018
Sundi Sundaresh

Sundi Sundaresh

President & CEO

If data is the new oil, then mobile network operators are sitting on lakes of the stuff.

Your carrier knows your name, address, gender, age and more. It also – crucially – knows where you are and where you’ve been.

Now, that all sounds pretty frightening. But consider if the operator could anonymize this information. It could say to advertisers: this unidentified person looked at your ad last week, and now he/she is walking past your shop.

Or: you debuted your ad on TV two weeks ago and today 500 people in your target demographic and specified geography walked into your showroom.

This is powerful insight. After all, digital advertisers have developed all manner of cookies and identifiers to track a person across the web. But they still struggle to correlate a person’s digital journeys with their physical whereabouts.

Now, some adtech firms claim to have cracked this. They offer tracking tools that live inside apps, and use GPS to locate a user in the world.

However, these can be blunt tools. They don’t track a user in real time. They can’t account for vertical elevation (what floor are you on?) and they drain batteries.

So can operators offer something better?

A number of tech providers are working hard to ensure they can. And the leader of this small group is undoubtedly Cinarra.

US-based Cinarra has developed a proposition that does two things. First it gives operators what it calls a ‘privacy by design platform’. This extracts the location data, de-identifies it and links it securely via an API call to Cinarra’s own cloud server. It then makes the data available to advertisers.

The second part is commercial. Cinarra believes most operators don’t have the means to the desire to develop relationships with publishers, brands and agencies. When they don’t, it does.

Cinnara has been pursuing this vision since 2012. In 2013, it raised a $4.5 million Series A round, which it followed two years later with a $20 million Series B led by SoftBank Corp.

At present, the company has one live project running (unsurprisingly) with Softbank. But now Cinarra is preparing to take its proposition to operators all over the world.

Sundi Sundaresh, president and CEO of Cinarra, talked to MEF Minute.


Can you outline the Cinarra offering?

Essentially we help MNOs monetize their data. We give them a data platform and we take care of the go-to-market strategy. We then create multiple audience segments and provide insight into their physical journeys. Advertisers can use this to do more relevant advertising – or simply track the effectiveness of a campaign.

Why is this better that app-based location ad products?

Well, for a start we use first party data – based on wifi and 4G – that we know is real time and accurate. There are no cookies; the phone itself is the identifier. App based services use GPS, which is not real time and drains the battery. They tend to be less accurate in dense urban areas, and they can’t track vertical elevation. Also, unethical providers can falsify the location data to skew towards locations that advertisers pay more for.

Can’t operators unlock this data themselves?

Some can, and some are obviously looking at the opportunity. AT&T just bought AppNexus, for example. But the vast majority would prefer to work with a partner like Cinarra. It takes a lot of effort and research to make this work. You have to understand  network parameters and deliver results at 120 milliseconds. Then there’s all the effort required to build relationships with the ad community. Most MNOs are happy for us to do that for them.

People have talked about operators monetizing their subscriber data for years. What is different about now?

The tech has taken some time to get right. It wasn’t ready before. But I think the biggest factor is the emergence of programmatic digital advertising. Previously, operators would have had to deal independently with every publisher and advertiser. Now, they can just plug into demand and supply side platforms to reach just about everyone.

How much population coverage do you need to make this interesting to advertisers?

They tell us anything above 25 per cent. In most regions that means we need to work with more than one operator.

How is the roll-out going?

We’re live in Japan and talking to a second operator. We’re in discussions with multiple operators all over the world and expect to announce more launches very soon.

How much is this opportunity worth to operators?

If we take Japan as an example, we estimate it has an $8bn mobile ad market, of which $4bn is search. We believe 70 per cent of the rest goes to Google and Facebook. That leaves around 10 per cent – and we think operators can capture the lion’s share of that in every market.

But I think there’s a much bigger opportunity beyond advertising. Operator’s location data can be used in any number of ways. Many people will know about the potential for credit card companies to correlate the location of a person’s card usage with their phone. If they are in two separate locations, that can flag criminal activity. Clearly, card fraud costs billions every year. Operators could raise substantial revenue by reducing it.

I think we will see many more creative applications of the technology as the market evolves.