Entrepreneurial journey of Unruly

News 13 minutes read June 2017

Unruly: the adtech firm’s CEO talks growth and going viral

Sarah Wood, CEO of Unruly

‘We don’t make the ads, we make them famous’ is the tagline of Unruly – the dynamic firm that helps others turn their advertising into social media sensations. Founded by former lecturer Sarah Wood – this year named one of the 500 most influential people in Britain – the company has grown from start-up to a £58m News Corp buyout. Director met her to talk growth, culture and female tech talent

The first thing that you notice about Sarah Wood is her energy. It radiates. She arrives at the studio for Director’s cover shoot, holding a cappuccino and beaming. She’s wearing a black trouser suit, T-shirt and trainers. It’s a beautiful day and she’s walked from her family home in London’s Victoria Park, which she shares with husband and co-founder Scott Button and their three kids. “I walk into work nearly every day, it’s exercise and a time to reflect,” she says.

Almost 12 years ago, on 7 July, Sarah was taking her much longer commute to Sussex University on the south coast. She was running late and heading to a mainline station via the Underground when her Tube train ejected its passengers at Mile End. There had been an explosion, near Aldgate East, just three stops in front of her, killing seven and injuring 171 – one of four bombs to explode in the capital that day. It has been widely reported that it was her proximity to the tragedy that made Wood stop and re-evaluate – a life-changing moment that led to the founding of Unruly. Has that been overplayed?

“No, I don’t think it has,” muses Wood. “It was the trigger that helped me make a move on what I knew I always wanted to do. I still wonder whether you need a life-defining moment to make that big leap. I’d had the idea [for Unruly] in my mind for a while but wasn’t sure about making the change. I was teaching [American Studies] at Sussex University, it was a long commute, it took me away from my kids and, although I loved what I was doing, it wasn’t having enough impact. I could see the profession stretching out ahead of me and felt that if I stayed being an academic then I wouldn’t be fulfilling my potential.

“I loved my work – teaching is my vocation and research is my passion – and was part of an incredible department. I was teaching revolution but it was revolution that happened hundreds of years ago whereas the web revolution was going on outside my front door. I really wanted to be part of that cultural moment that I could see was redefining communications, the way we talk to each other, the way we consume, the way we live our lives, the way we form our relationships. I wanted to be in the centre of the action rather than sitting on the sidelines in an ivory tower. 7/7 gave me a reality check and set me off on the path to making it happen. I spent the summer on the conference circuit travelling around Australia and remember thinking this is as good as it gets in academia but it still doesn’t feel like this is what I want to be doing. I resigned on my return.”

the Unruly team

Wood with husband Scott Button and Matt Cooke (seated) in company offices

Starting up

Wood co-founded Unruly that autumn with Button, then chief executive of advertising software firm Connextra, and his colleague Matt Cooke. Cooke is an exponent of tech wizardry known as extreme programming methodology (EPM), which has been at the heart of Unruly from the beginning. “It’s about pairing new writing codes so you have very low error rates and rapid planning, so you plan every two weeks and can respond to the market and take market feedback into account,” explains Wood.

Using proceeds from the sale of Connextra, in which Cooke and Button held shares, the trio quit their jobs in 2005 and set up in the Truman Brewery, on Brick Lane in London’s East End. “We hired somewhere straight away as we wanted to make it real,” says Wood. “You can build a billion-dollar business from your kitchen table but we wanted to be somewhere where we could focus, where we could start really building a culture as well as a company.

“Our leadership roles were pretty defined to start with: Matt built the product, Scott sold the product and I delivered the product and we all knew our areas of responsibility and that gave us each the space to grow. Although in the very early days, I was very much just the glue and the dogsbody – coming up with ideas for names, making sure the office space was in good shape, hiring,” she laughs. “Chief optimist officer is the other role that I played and that was really important because you need to have someone on the team who is confident that things are going to go well. Then when we got our first big deal and delivered our first campaign, that’s when
I started delivering.”

That breakthrough came in December 2006 and was an analysis deal for the BBC. “The overwhelming feeling was one of relief!” laughs Wood. “We had built something and somebody wanted to buy it. We knew there was a market as we could see that brands and agencies wanted to know what they could do to create ads and get them to go viral. They were struggling – they couldn’t stop thinking about TV, newspapers and outdoor [advertising], so digital was one more channel that they had to get their heads round. For us it was our sole focus, so we were brought in from the ground up thinking about video – our speciality was what types of video were going to be successful for brands and how to distribute those videos in order to have an impact.”

Today Wood describes Unruly as an “ad tech company”, but the unique offering of the business it that it tests, in advance, for emotional impact and authenticity. Wood is passionate about emotions in advertising. “Lots of tech companies are about the pipes and the plumbing,” she explains. “But we really believe that you need both – you need fantastic content that has a strong, emotional impact and then you need those pipes and the targeting which will enable you to get the best ads in front of the right audiences.”

Unruly’s clients vary considerably in size, sector and demand. The firm works with media agencies who have a budget and want to buy, for example, a million ‘views’ targeting students, and it also works with brands before an advert is even a glint in the creator’s eye. “Brands come to us before they decide what ad they want to create, and we talk to them about what works for their audiences, what works for their demographic, what they are sharing and talking about, what are the emotional triggers to resonate with specific audiences. We also help them to pitch and create digital briefs as many of the smaller brands haven’t done that before and it can be a daunting experience.”

“We don’t make the ads, we make them famous”, is one of Unruly’s catchphrases but the business does play a big part in content creation – putting clients in touch with preferred creative agencies. Unruly’s ‘Meet the Makers’ initiative, for example, sees them introduce clients to next-generation creative geniuses: video makers, mobile creators, vertical video creators, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) creators. “We want our brands to be sure they are working with the people who understand the media because it is very different creating an ad for mobile than it is creating a 30-second TV ad,” she says. “Those different channels require different treatments of creative, different interpretations for different channels.”

Once the content is created and pushed out, Unruly then provides real-time insight. Brands can look at their campaign stats in real time, including share rates, engagement, click-through rates and then – at the end of the campaign – they will also receive a deeper insight from the data. “That’s much more than about the campaign statistics and how the video performed, it’s about how people feel about the brand and the impact that it has on sales as well. We have started working with partners in the US where we can actually measure the sales uplift coming off a campaign and that’s been really popular with clients. We are also seeing big strides in shoppable video, so I do believe this is the holy grail. I do believe it’s possible to do both. You can create a fantastic campaign that people love but also drive sales. This is where VR is going to be huge.” 

Sarah Wood, CEO of Unruly

Wood relaxing in east London

Next chapter

Today, Unruly proudly states, “we help 91 per cent of Ad Age 100 brands inform and inspire 1.44 billion people around the world”. Back in 2015 it was this burgeoning impact and potential that caught the eye of a certain Rebekah Brooks, newly instated as News Corp’s chief executive. Wood wasn’t looking to sell Unruly and Brooks was just one of many suitors, but there was something about this approach that was different. “This was the first time we felt the opportunity was so tremendous it was worth pursuing a conversation,” she says.

In September 2015, News Corp acquired Unruly for £58m [with a reported further £56m dependent on meeting performance targets]. It was big news – the biggest acquisition for News Corp since the phone-hacking scandal and a huge milestone for Unruly. Existing investors Endeit Capital, Amadeus Capital Partners and Business Growth Fund exited as part of the deal and Unruly started its new life operating as a separate business unit within News Corp.

“We saw a massive opportunity to scale the business,” explains Wood. “We have three really clear values that we use to make hard decisions. They are: deliver well, share the love, embrace change. This deal enabled us to do all three. We wanted to embrace change and open a new chapter in Unruly’s history, we wanted to reward our Unrulies (company staff) and, as for ‘deliver well’, we knew we would have unique access to some of the most recognisable media brands on the planet.”

Eighteen months on and Unruly has scaled – there are now 300 employees and new offices in Tokyo, Melbourne and India. So has the deal matched expectations? “It’s been exactly how I thought it would be – brilliant. We talked a lot before and we were really clear that we wanted to maintain the Unruly culture and Rebekah was just as passionate about that. We run our own P&L, we have just moved into our own offices.”

Wood is clearly proud of the new office space – just down the road from the original Truman Brewery site – for which she was heavily involved in both look and feel. “When we were thinking about the new office there were just three words I had in mind: uncorporate, unexpected and unruly – and the office is all of those things. It is the most creative space, it’s a place where people really enjoy coming into work and there’s lots of open space for collaboration and there are unexpected secret spaces! It delights every client and every employee.”

Indeed, there’s even an AR climbing wall in the reception: “Our development team boulders [climbs] during lunchtimes – they always have done – so when we were thinking about the space we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to have our own bouldering wall? Our own bouldering team helped devise it and then came up with the idea to project an augmented reality game over the top. I wouldn’t have thought that it would work in any other business but it feels very true and authentic to Unruly.”

As Unruly’s culture has cemented, the leadership team has evolved its roles to meet the challenges of scaling up – Cooke is still chief technical officer, but Button is now chief strategy officer and Wood CEO. “We really needed someone to focus their attention on the data strategy as data is becoming an increasingly big part of what we do which differentiates us from our competitors – we have emotional data, we have audience data and we don’t just target demographics, we target emotions, psychographic and social data. We partner with IBM Watson [to achieve this] and a lot of the work has happened because Scott has been focused squarely on having a data strategy.”

As well as being a pioneer in the dynamic tech world, Wood also spins many other plates. She is writing a book – the subject is under wraps but it will be out this October – and still teaches a Master’s course at Cambridge, titled “Mash-Ups, Memes and LOLitics: Online video culture and the screen media revolution”. Added to that Wood is passionate about diversity in tech businesses – particularly as only 17 per cent of the UK tech workforce are female. 

“The UK has the worst skills shortage in the world. There is a huge gap between where we are today and where we will be in the next five years. We will continue being global and the government is making moves in the right direction. Having coding as part of the curriculum is encouraging but we need to increase the uptake of Stem students at all levels.

“The technology sector has a problem. Not enough women have engineering, science or maths qualifications. We see ourselves as a creative country but we need to make sure we don’t fall behind on creativity due to our lack of technology skills. Unruly promotes flexible working and one of the many reasons why is to help women come back into Stem after maternity leave – technology moves so fast it can be quite daunting if you are returning after leave. But technology can also help us lead more relaxed lives, if that’s how we choose to use it, and promote agile practices – for example women working part time can join us on Google Hangouts.”

Unruly practises what Wood preaches – 44 per cent of the Unruly board, 46 per cent of managers and 48 per cent of the total workforce are female. Does she ever look back in wonder at how much she has achieved in little over a decade? “No, I don’t. I am an optimist but I am very action focused. So as soon as one thing is done I am thinking about the next thing and there is so much opportunity out there, especially at the moment. There is so much more to do.”

Sarah Wood winning the Businesswoman of the Year award

Winning the Businesswoman of the Year award

Sarah Wood CV

Born Ashington in Northumberland

1995 Graduated University of Cambridge BA (1st) English

1997 Completed University of Cambridge MPhil American Literature

2002 Completed UCL PhD Early American Literature

2002 Fundraising and development officer at the Old Vic Theatre

2004 Lecturer in American Studies, University of Sussex

2006 Co-founded Unruly

2012 Associate lecturer and course convener, University of Cambridge

2015 Unruly sold to News Corp for £58m

May 2016 Wins Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year

June 2016 Awarded OBE alongside husband Scott Button 

Jan 2017 Named in Debrett’s 500 list of the most influential people in Britain

Unruly info

Unruly: the adtech firm’s CEO talks growth and going viral

To see Sarah Wood talk about Unruly’s work visit youtube.com/user/unrulychannel




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