Nostalgia was in the air for SingTel during the opening session at this year's CommunicAsia on Tuesday, as the Singapore incumbent discussed the opportunity to extract value from customer data.

"I feel like we're back in the days of the gold rush," said Grant Watts, head of global advertising at SingTel. "But we're still building the picks and shovels, and designing the next pair of Levi jeans for the miners – we're not yet extracting the gold."

SingTel Group had 468 million mobile customers at the end of March, a customer base that represents a challenge as well as an opportunity when it comes to big data.

Continuing with his gold rush theme, Watts said SingTel "has got a lot of land (data), but it's mostly dirt – there's not a lot of gold – we need to go out and mine it".

Watts previously managed the Asia operations of mobile advertising specialist Amobee, which was acquired by SingTel in 2012 for $321 million. SingTel is now putting this asset to work across its group businesses in a bid to offer advertisers a highly targeted ad platform.

However, Watts explained how it is also enabling SingTel's Australian arm, Optus, to serve more relevant adverts to its customers via its partners.

For example, if an Optus customer visits Australian current affairs Website, it will automatically send a tag to Optus identifying the customer. If said customer is coming towards the end of their contract, will instantly serve an Optus ad featuring its latest offers.

"It's a big challenge because new privacy laws in Australia make it difficult" to reach out directly to customers, he said.

Indeed, amendments to Australia's privacy act were passed in November 2012 that include specifying what information can be used for direct marketing. The new legislation, which comes into effect next year, carries fines for violators.

As such, Watts was careful to emphasise that the work Optus is doing to improve the relevance of advertising for itself and its ad customers is done so in a "privacy-compliant" way.

Nonetheless, he said there are some interesting advertising opportunities when the right customer data is available.

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