Sarah Wood has broken all the rules with Unruly

Some might have expected Sarah Wood to walk away from Unruly after selling it to News Corp for £114m. But, as she tells Adam Pescod, this is just the beginning for the groundbreaking adtech company

Sarah Wood has broken all the rules with Unruly

Six months after its £114m acquisition by News Corp, things have never looked better for Unruly, the social-video company founded by Sarah Wood, Scott Button and Matthew Cooke in 2006. And while Unruly’s tech credentials might have been the dominant factor behind Rupert Murdoch’s decision to splash the cash on the Shoreditch startup, Wood’s effervescent personality probably went a long way to helping seal the deal. Meeting Unruly’s CEO in the flesh, it’s hard not to be struck by her accommodating nature and positive perspective on the travails of running a global tech firm. “I have just always loved working,” she says.  

The daughter of a teacher and trade unionist, Wood moved to Brighton from the north-east at the age of ten. Her early jobs included egg-packing, dog-walking, car-washing and waitressing. “I also got a job making pancakes on Brighton Pier,” she smiles. But despite the success of her current venture, business ownership wasn’t on the agenda back then. “When I was growing up, entrepreneurship wasn’t really seen as an option,” says Woods. “People used to think about being a teacher, a dentist, a doctor or a lawyer. There was a more prescribed approach to the careers that teenagers should be taking.” 

You could say it was a blessing in disguise as Wood went on to enjoy an academic career that saw her pick up a BA in English and an MPhil in American literature at Cambridge, followed by a PhD in early American literature at UCL. This was interspersed with numerous gap years. “I am really open to new experiences,” says Wood. “That’s not unusual for entrepreneurs.” 

And Wood’s passion for academia didn’t end when she graduated: in 2004, she took a job as an American Literature lecturer at the University of Sussex. “In one respect being an academic is a great career because you are constantly exposed to new ideas,” she says. However, by the end of 2005, she was struggling with the commute from London, where she had settled down and had two kids with her husband and Unruly co-founder Button. “Every week I had to leave my children and that broke my heart,” she says. Such was her love of trying out new things, Wood also felt it was time to take a break from academia. “As an academic I feel that you are sometimes locked in ivory towers,” she adds. “I have always enjoyed coming down from those ivory towers and going out into the real world.”

Living with Button had gotten Wood familiar with the world of digital advertising. In October 2003, her husband led a management buy-in at Connextra, an ad-serving and analytics startup. And it was here that he met Cooke, Unruly’s third co-founder. 

Coming shortly before the launch of Facebook, the social web was still in its infancy at this point. But Wood, Button and Cooke had already recognised the potential it had. “We got a big kick out of watching the internet shift from being an information highway to being a connected tissue where people could share ideas, post their own content and like each other’s content,” says Wood. 

Their first attempt at tapping into the social space was, which invited people to upload jokes and videos that could then be shared by other users. While it wasn’t the most solid of business propositions, it gave the trio some invaluable insights. “It was disastrous in terms of building an audience but what we did find was that video content was the stickiest,” says Wood. “It was getting the most engagement; the most shares.” 

By that time, everyone was hooked on YouTube, which had launched in February 2005. However, Wood and her co-founders were already ahead of the curve in seeing the value of virality. “Everyone was focused on views –  or ‘hits’ as they used to be called – but we could see even back then that it was a nonsense figure because brands could pay for views,” says Wood. “A share is far more valuable than a view because if somebody shares your content, it means they are engaged with it and prepared to put their emotional brand behind it.” And it was this that informed their second project: the Viral Video Chart.

While ranking the internet’s most shared videos didn’t appear to offer much in the way of commercial potential, Unruly’s founders soon realised they had created something of real interest to a number of the world’s biggest brands. “We had lots of brands and agencies coming to us and asking how to get their video on the viral video chart,” says Wood. “They wanted to know how their video could be seen by more people.”

The next step was to build a distribution platform that would see brands’ video content streamed on the sites of online publishers. In return, those publishers would be paid whenever somebody viewed it.

Building the platform would require a serious injection of capital, which presented itself when Button sold Connextra to BetGenius for a cool £1.7m. It also necessitated the appointment of Tim Pickles to work alongside Cooke as a senior developer. “Our first hire was a tech hire because we wanted a pair of developers,” says Wood. “If you just have one person understanding a code base, it can be a real brake on growth if that person leaves, is sick or on holiday. Working in pairs is critical to Unruly methodology.”

Within weeks of launching the platform, Unruly had signed up dozens of brands and publishers and it wasn’t long before the company had opened offices in France, Stockholm and New York. However, by mid-2011, it was evident that Unruly could only grow so quickly under its own steam. “We had all this data on how and why people were viewing and sharing video but we weren’t able to productise it because we didn’t have the engineering resources,” says Wood. Also keen to ramp up its international growth, the company raised $25m in a Series A round. “It gave us the money to diversify, make use of our data products and grow our global footprint,” she adds.

And a year later, Unruly unveiled the product that truly brought it to the world’s attention. “ShareRank was the product that everybody said was impossible,” says Wood. “And that’s why we built it.” Put simply, ShareRank can predict how shareable a brand’s viral ad will be prior to launch. This prediction is based on the vast array of data that Unruly has managed to amass since first launching the Viral Video Chart. “Back in 2007 and 2008, everyone was saying viral is a black swan, black arts, bolt of lightning, black box – all of those phrases that suggested it was something unknowable and unpredictable,” says Wood. “But by 2012, we had academics decoding our database who had started to disentangle the different variables that drove virality.” 

With this treasure chest of data at its disposal, Unruly was able to further enhance its ad-serving platform; allowing it to target a video at the people who are most likely to share it, while delivering it in a range of user-friendly formats. “All of our formats are non-interruptive, non-invasive and user-controlled,” says Woods. “It’s about creating a balanced ad economy where the consumer isn’t forced to watch ads that they have no interest in.” 

Such was the height of Unruly’s stock – it now lists over 90% of Ad Age 100 marketers among its clients – it was only a matter of time before potential buyers came knocking. And having met News Corp’s chief data scientist Rachel Schutt at Web Summit, Wood had already identified the media giant as a company she’d like to work with. “We were together on stage talking about data, content and the importance of marrying the two,” she explains. “I came away from the conversation thinking: ‘Wow, we really should be working with News.’” 

But it was only when Rebekah Brooks paid a visit to Unruly HQ that the idea of an acquisition was first floated. “That’s when we first started talking about a more strategic partnership,” says Wood. Despite the controversy surrounding Brooks – who was reinstated as CEO of News UK in September 2015, a year after being cleared of all charges in the phone-hacking scandal – there was an immediate chemistry with the Unruly founders. “We really hit it off,” says Wood. “She was very focused on digital transformation and the importance of video.”

In the end, the deal was a no-brainer. “We could see immediately that we were going to be able to deliver even better campaigns for advertisers,” says Wood. It also helped Unruly hook up with other publishers – something that Wood wasn’t necessarily expecting. “We were really surprised by the camaraderie of the publishing world,” she adds. But, more than anything, it was just reward for a decade of hard graft by Unruly’s founders, employees and investors. “Having an exit event like this was a really good opportunity for everybody to be rewarded for all the work we have put in over so many years.”

A couple of weeks after the acquisition, Unruly launched its In-Article ad format and, just last month, it unveiled its latest innovation: Unruly Pulse. “This shows how different brands are using emotions to drive engagement with their content,” says Wood. “We are always looking for new ways to innovate”

It’s clear that being part of News Corp hasn’t robbed Unruly of its startup spirit – the company’s HQ has retained the obligatory beanbags and Ping-Pong table. However, recruitment is more of a challenge than it once was. “In the early days we attracted a very different type of person,” says Wood. “When you’re a larger company, you attract people who want to have breakfasts laid on for them. Our challenge now is to weed out those people and bring in the people who really care about this industry.”

Yet as one of Tech City’s biggest success stories, Unruly is now in a positon to give something back to the startup community. Nestled within the walls of the company’s offices is Unruly Hive, a co-working space that gives fledgling tech startups a chance to bounce ideas of each other and enjoy access to Unruly’s expertise and clients. The company also plays host to City Unrulyversity, a pop-up university run in partnership with City University that brings academics and entrepreneurs together to help inspire the next generation of business stars. 

And with multiple awards to her name, Wood is a regular fixture on speaker line-ups around the world. It gives her a chance to address subjects ranging from the future of online video to the challenges facing women in tech. She believes the main thing holding female entrepreneurs back is a lack of confidence but adds that companies can help by handing more senior positions to women. “We have a lot of senior women in our business and that’s what’s powerful,” says Wood. “Just one woman at the top – that looks like tokenism.” 

Wood’s love of academia hasn’t dissipated either: since 2012, she’s been lecturing students at Cambridge about online video culture. “I think of myself as an accidental entrepreneur and serial academic,” she laughs. 

Adam Pescod
Adam Pescod

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