If you don’t know who she is, you will know her work. Sarah Wood is the founder of Unruly, a leading global ad platform that has revolutionised digital and social video advertising around the world. She holds two world records for the most viewed advert in 2010 and 2013 and has won 22 awards, as well as an MBE from the Queen, for her groundbreaking creativity.
Last month, the attendees of DrupalCamp 2017 were fortunate enough to hear the story of Unruly from the ad-mogul herself. Our director, Leon Tong, lead the DrupalCamp session by interviewing Sarah on her humble beginnings, multi-million dollar deals, and every obstacle in between.
The Beginning of an Entrepreneur
For all the stories told about the beginnings of a successful entrepreneur, Sarah is far from the stereotype. There was no huge inheritance, or loan, or years spent glued to a computer screen. Just a brilliant idea, a fantastic and hardworking team, and excellent execution.
“It’s really important to know that entrepreneurs can come from anywhere – they’re not born, they’re made.”
Sarah was originally an academic at Sussex university until a disastrous event made her re-evaluate her life choices – the 7/7 London bombings. Being close enough to the terrorist attack that she had to be evacuated from her train made Sarah question whether commuting from Hackney to Sussex every single day, whilst rarely seeing her young children, was really what she wanted to do forever: “I realised that I didn’t want to be a cog in the wheel for the rest of my life. I wanted to be with my kids and I also wanted to have more of an impact.”
“When you speak to entrepreneurs you will find there’s a moment – not always a pleasant one – that triggers a change and gives you the confidence to make the break”
Conveniently, Sarah’s husband, Scott Button, was working on a new project with a friend, Matt Cooke, at the time. The pair were looking for a third person to be the glue to their plan. This is where Sarah stepped in: “Give me a problem and I’ll make shit happen. I might not do a good job but I’ll have a whack at it. That’s what you need for a startup, someone who’s gonna have a whack at it. So, we set up Unruly in January 2006.”
Unruly in the Beginning
With nothing but a plank of wood balanced on two traffic cones for a table, and no windows, in a tiny office space in Shoreditch, the Unruly team began planning their first iterations. But it took some digging to plant the Unruly seed: “We didn’t know what we wanted to do, but we knew we wanted to be in Digital and Social specifically”. So, what kick-started it all?
- The first venture: EatMyHamster.com was a web 2.0 comedy site filled with jokes, funny videos and pictures. The idea was scrapped after a few weeks of going live, due to a failure to create a community around the site.
- The second venture: Viral Video Chart tracked the blogosphere (pre-Twitter and Facebook) for the most shared videos on the internet.
Despite both of these platforms failing to be the breakthrough Sarah was looking for: “Eat My Hamster wasn’t the right product and Viral Video Chart was a great product but wasn’t a billion dollar business product”, they went on to be the foundations for Unruly. Sarah explained: “These projects told us that there was a need. Brands and agencies were creating video content for web and struggling to get them seen online. So we built a distribution platform from that.”
“When we started to get clients, things changed. I would spend the day at work and then I would wake up at all hours of the night to find out how hand delivery was going, whether or not publishers had picked up and would be pinging people first thing when they woke up in Australia or wherever”.
The Big Break
Unruly’s very first client was BBC: “They paid us £5000 to tell them what the most shared trailers that they’d ever created were”. But it was an international campaign for the spirits company, Bacardi, that proved to be the make or break moment for Sarah and her colleagues: “That was the moment I had to put down the book I was working on and really deliver. I had to find out who would be able to carry that campaign, and get onto Google Translate to talk to people from around the world about rates and get Bacardi up and running.”
The Unruly Challenges
- Challenge 1: Getting seen and noticed.
In the days when Facebook was still exclusive to universities,Twitter was just an idea, and YouTube didn’t have adverts, there was a great opportunity for a platform like Unruly to be built. But Sarah’s first challenge was getting recognition.
- Challenge 2: Communication.
When scaling into other markets, Sarah said that staying aligned and making sure that everyone knows their goals, aims, deliverables and expectations is still one of Unruly’s biggest challenges.
- Challenge 3: The adpocalypse.
Ad tech companies have had to find methods of overcoming an ‘ad apocalypse’. People can now download software that allows them to block out adverts completely whilst browsing online. So Sarah explained the importance of breaking down the barrier between ads and content in order to overcome this.
Despite facing challenges, Sarah claims that there’s nothing she would have changed in the past. Ever the optimist, she said: “I don’t spend any time thinking of what I would have done differently. ‘Would have’ just isn’t a tense I think much about. It’s always about what we’re doing now and what we should be doing differently now.”
How Academia Helped Unruly
Going from a lecturer to the founder of a 300 strong company spanning 20 locations across the globe doesn’t seem like a likely transition. But Sarah insists that the two roles are more in tune than one might assume: “If you’re curious and interested in researching and exploring and finding things out and asking why, then it’s great to be an academic. These behaviours work well with being an entrepreneur too”.
Sarah was able to leverage her background as an academic into something powerful and special that no competitors would be able to imitate. After creating Viral Video Chart, Sarah and her team were approached with a question as to why are these were the most shared videos. They began to get involved in discussions with many other academics about this question and allowed these academics to interrogate the data they had collated. Wood stated; “we knew where people were viewing, what they were doing next, which parts of the video were successful. But with academia, we’ve then been able to explain why those videos are successful.”
What Makes a Video Go Viral
In a thriving digital age, with infinite amounts of content being produced at a relentless rate, it’s a wonder how a brand makes their content stand out. More importantly, how do you get people actively involved and reacting to that content? This where Ms Wood has all the answers. When asked what makes a video go viral, Sarah explained that there are two key drivers for virality:
- Emotional intensity: Make people laugh, but make them laugh so much that they’re laughing out loud. A snigger isn’t enough.
- Social motivation: Once you make someone feel a certain way you must do something with that. Think about why someone would want to share that video.
But she noted that, beyond these factors, it’s about distribution: “What you pay for distribution is more important than the quality of the content itself. That’s increasingly true as the whole digital space gets more cluttered.”
Sarah’s Secret: It works much better if you go for a positive emotion, as people are more likely to share those. But there are exceptions, such as anger.
So, how can you tell if your video has been a global success? Sarah says that measurability is key; “brands were and still are searching for is how to measure success on Digital. We see brands still measuring on impressions or views and not understanding what that means. We’ve always been focused beyond the view. How do you want them to feel? What do you want them to do next? Whatever the action is, we’re very focused on brands being able to measure what comes next.”
The Unruly Mission, Vision, and Values
The Unruly mission is to “deliver the most awesome social video campaigns on the planet”. It could be argued that Unruly have already completed this mission.
The vision is to “be the team and the tech that transforms digital advertising for the better”. In order to follow through with their vision, Unruly filters out only the most passionate, dedicated candidates to work for them. This is done through a *PANDA test process: “When we hire people, we hire people who really care about this and want to come in and do the best that they can and have an impact. We want people who want to deliver and do great work and be in it to be part of an A team”.
The Unruly values are to “deliver wow, inspire change, and share the love”. As the company evolved, so did the values. ‘Inspire change’ was originally ‘embrace change’ but Sarah realised that her company weren’t just embracing, but were inspiring change in the industry and business culture.
“We’re not driven by our values, we’re powered by them.”
So, as a brand that aims to influence and persuade others, what is it that inspires the inspirer? Sarah said: “I’m inspired by my team and their dedication and the awesome things they do that surprise me. When you’re surrounded by people who are inspiring, then you want to be your best self.”
The Million Dollar Deal
When you’ve taken your company as far as possible within your capability, what steps can you take to ensure that it keeps going from strength to strength? In 2015, Unruly was sold to News Corp – a deal that saw Rupert Murdoch hand over a whopping £114 million for the ad tech platform. When questioned on why she chose to sell to News Corp, Sarah described the decision as being “more natural than you might of imagined” and explained that: “Running a public company isn’t something that any of the founders have ever aspired to do. There’s a lot of admin and bureaucracy that comes with it. News Corp knew that video was important to the distribution, making and advertising of news. When they came to us they saw a partner that didn’t just deliver ads, but understood video content and had video expertise that could be really powerful. We saw an incredible opportunity to partner with a global media company that want increasingly valuable audiences, quality media and passionate audiences that care about a subject”.
The Future of Unruly
Despite the fact that an Artificial Intelligence company has been around for nearly 2 years now, Sarah believes that we’re still a long way from machines creating better content than humans. She says that one day it may be conceivable to have a scenario where there is a nuero-network creating ideas, followed by a second neuronetwork rating those ideas, and then a human ultimately deciding what ideas to run with. But for now, it’s the communicators who are leaders in Sarah’s eyes: “People who can communicate are the ones who will win in our industry. Because they’re the ones pulling all of the partnerships together and making something which is of value to the brand”.
With a tough slot to fill on a late Friday afternoon, Sarah’s energy and enthusiasm during her presentation was exactly what the DrupalCamp London audience needed. Her passion and positivism was infectious to all of those in the room and left everyone feeling inspired and optimistic. Like a living metaphor for Unruly, Sarah really did Deliver Wow, Inspire Change and Share The Love during her interview. Many attendees took to Twitter to comment: