The Boss Who Can Help Your Video Go Viral

Moving from a career in academia to co-founding an ad technology company that's later snapped up by News Corp, all the while scooping countless awards including an OBE, is an unusual path to becoming an entrepreneur.

Yet this is the route trodden by Sarah Wood, the co-founder and co-chief executive of Unruly, a video company that can help adverts garner millions and millions of hits worldwide.

So how did a lecturer in American literature at the University of Sussex end up launching a company that aims to make ads go viral?

"The internet was changing from an internet highway where people seek out information to a social web of people sharing and rating content," says Wood, 43.

"I was researching political and social revolutions at the time and realised that there was much more of a relevant revolution taking place with the internet and maybe I could be part of that revolution rather than just write about it."

Driven by that interest in internet culture, and with her husband Scott Button embedded in the sector as chief executive of ad serving firm Connextra, the couple, along with Button's colleague Matt Cooke, saw an opportunity to enter the burgeoning video space.

Using proceeds of the sale of Connextra, which Cooke and Button had shares in, the trio quit their jobs in 2005 and at the start of 2006 launched eatmyhamster.com, a comedy site based on people sharing and rating funny content. That was followed by a viral video chart, ranking the most popular videos across the web.

"From there we realised there was a business model to distribute brands and media agencies' content at speed and scale," says Wood.

A year later they launched Unruly's video distribution platform, pushing for brands' videos to be shared across the web.

Wood, who runs a Masters course in online video culture at Cambridge University, says their mission is to "deliver awesome campaigns, help brands create content and make consumers go 'wow', whether that's making them laugh out loud or cry tears of joy".

Emotional response

Famous campaigns Unruly has been involved with include Evian's Roller Babies campaign and Dove's Real Beauty Sketches, which both appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most viewed ad in 2010 and 2013 respectively.

But what gives the London-based company its USP (unique selling point) - its ability to evaluate content before it is distributed? "We measure the emotional response to that content, which is an unusual approach," explains Wood.

"We have a number of different methodologies such as panel-based surveys, facial coding and audio tracking so we're able to track the emotional intensity of the video, with the facial coding picking up micro-expressions too. This isn't a soft metric, emotional campaigns perform better when it comes to ROI [return on investment]."

Like other ad firms, Unruly also uses demographic and behavioural targeting so ads are shown to the right audience.

Many outsiders have seen Unruly's potential. In 2012, the company received its first significant round of funding to the tune of $25m (approximately £16m at that time) from Amadeus Capital Partners, Van den Ende & Deitmers and the Business Growth Fund, with the money used to launch in the US and Germany.

'The chemistry was right'

Three years later Unruly became headline news through another deal. Wooed by News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks, the business was acquired by News Corp for £114m in September 2015.

"We weren't looking for any investment," says Wood. But when the founders met Brooks and News Corp, they were impressed by their drive.

"We could see from day one that it would deliver more kick-ass campaigns. News Corp is committed to digital and they had been looking for technology to power their ad strategy.

"We could see the immediate benefits to Unruly - we would sail faster, launch better campaigns and deliver financial returns. It felt like the right decision because the chemistry was right."

Were there any plans to exit the business? "We didn't do the deal to sell but to scale Unruly," insists Wood. "When we did the deal, we were clear that we would remain autonomous, so we're still in the same offices."

Since the investment, she says the company has integrated Unruly ad units into News UK titles including the Wall Street Journal.

Unruly, which has 15 offices across the world and employs more than 200 staff, is focused on increasing its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, says Wood.

Video expansion

The company's expansion comes at a time when, despite the rise of ad blocking, video ad spend in Europe is expected to more than double between 2016 and 2020, growing from €3.6bn (£3bn) in 2016 to €8.9bn (£7.5bn) in 2020, according to research firm Forrester.

Samantha Merlivat, an analyst at Forrester, says Unruly was ahead of the game in realising the potential of the video sector. "Unruly focused on video when it was still a very nascent market, and has benefited from the rapid growth in video advertising and marketing in the last few years."

In an industry known for its lack of gender diversity, Wood is a big champion of equality, ensuring there's strong female representation within Unruly, with 48% of staff women.

"I believe our strengths lie in delivering a culture as well as a company that is diverse, creative and has a positive impact on the world," she says.

Despite now being a millionaire and able to enjoy the fruits of her success - Wood recently returned from Cannes, where she enjoyed private performances from Take That and Fatboy Slim on a yacht - it was a very different story at the start of the venture.

"The first 18 to 24 months when we were developing the business and had no revenue stream and running out of money were tough. Luckily we had neighbours who would give us black bin bags of clothes for the kids. We sold our flat in 2009 to raise money but we were confident we had a good business model."

It's a vision that has proved very right.