February 7, 2022

Delivering Wow: A Conversation with Sarah Wood OBE

Matthew Birchall

A look of surprise and wry humour came across this interviewer's face when Sarah Wood OBE, the Co-founder and CEO of Unruly, came bursting into the room, fresh off a round of early morning interviews. Rather than the usual C-Suite get-up, Wood was sporting bright yellow pyjamas, an ensemble, she told us, which had been impeccably picked out by her daughter as part of Oxfam’s annual #DressedByTheKidsDay.

After speaking with Sarah about the culture at Unruly, however, my initial surprise quickly evaporated. This, I thought, was a company that liked to do things differently, a company, in short, that was on a mission to deliver “wow.”

We sat down with Sarah to discuss what Unruly’s quest to deliver “wow” entails, how she got to where she is today, and her observations on entrepreneurship and tech more broadly.

Sarah’s Key Learning Takeaways:

  • Be clear on what you want to achieve and where you want to go.Let your goals and objectives drive you forwards, and don’t fight your own inclinations.
  • “Try before you buy” when forming a new team. It’s like a marriage so choose wisely... Trust is paramount.
  • Document your thought process when making big decisions. This helps you build self-awareness.
  • Don’t be afraid to be yourself and show emotion. Strive to deliver “WOW!”

Can you tell us about Unruly?

We’re an ad-tech company that helps brands get their videos seen, shared, and loved across the open web. But what does this mean in practice?

We have software that predicts and evaluates how shareable a piece of content is going to be and what people are going to do with it once they’ve watched it.

We then apply this data to paid distribution, which means that when we send our ads to over 1.44bn users globally we’re reaching those users who are most likely to enjoy it and respond positively; we’re all about creating positive emotional reactions. This is why we sometimes call what we do emotional ad-tech.

Can you tell us about your career journey so far? How did you find the transition from academia to ad-tech?

I never fully transitioned. To this day, I still lecture on online video culture at Cambridge, where I have amazing students, many of whom come to work for us at Unruly. We probably have the highest qualified ad-tech team anywhere!

And I don’t really think that “transitioning” is the right word, the right frame. In all honesty I’ve always been attracted to solving problems; it doesn’t much matter what sort of problem, as long as it’s interesting.

And how did you get to where you are now?

Moving from one place to the next! I’ve had lots of different jobs, ranging from working as an egg packer through to being a station assistant at London Underground. It’s been a fun journey, unified only by a desire to try new things. I’ve never seen my various career moves as pivotal moments. They’ve simply been changes in direction and focus.

“It’s only now, having created a multi-billion dollar business acquired by News Corp, that people ask me, “How on earth did you start that journey?” It only ever looks stark in retrospect. But at the time it was all about taking baby steps: the biggest things in life come from the smallest of steps.”

That said there was a psychological transition that I had to make, and that was simply a matter of recognising that I wanted to spend more time with my family and that I wanted to have more of an impact on the world. I felt frustrated as an academic. While it’s great having students, you do sit in an ivory tower to some extent.

“I was also writing about the American Revolution while there was an actual communications and digital revolution kicking off. This seemed to me rather ironic and I wanted to be part of what was going on. This psychological shift was about me recognising what my priorities and objectives were.”

What was your key learning from this experience?

How important it is to document your decision making process. When you make any change, it’s essential that you understand why you’re doing it and what you want to achieve. And there doesn’t have to be some fancy objective at the end of it. It could be as simple as committing to spend more time with your children.

“When you make these sorts of decisions it’s a great idea to write them down so that they’re on record. This allows you to revisit your thought process later on down the line.”

All you can do is make the best decisions with the information we have at the time. You don’t always know how things are going to pan out: you don’t know if you’re going to enjoy being an entrepreneur, you don’t know if your product/market fit is going to be right, you don’t even know if you’ll find the right team. There are so many unknowns.

You touched on finding the right team members. How was the Unruly team formed?

Scott Button and I have known each other since we were at university and Scott knew Matt Cooke from their previous company, Connextra. It’s such a big commitment starting a company together. It’s like a marriage or having a family.

You obsess over the name, for starters, and that’s to say nothing of the values that you want to guide the business. These are the same sorts of things you talk about when thinking about starting a family.

“When you’re a parent you have to stick together, you want to be co-parenting with someone who has very similar values otherwise it will be a nightmare. It’s the same when you’re starting a business. You want to know that your co-founders share the same values and ideally aspirations.”

So trust is key. This is why you often see brothers, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and old university friends coming together to create businesses. You know you can trust them.

Any practical tips for building trust?

Try before you buy! Why not work together on a project for a few months? Concept the idea, have clearly defined goals, work together, see what comes of it, and see how you enjoy the experience. You might have the luxury of doing it for three-months, or it could be weekends only. It doesn’t really matter – it’s about the philosophy that underpins it. Spending real work time together is the only way you’ll be able to get to genuinely know someone.

Who do you find inspiring?

Heroes don’t excite me. What I do get really excited about are the people I work with every day. They’re extraordinary. I feel very passionately about this. Yes, it’s great to have role models and to see that women can be successful business leaders, for example, but when it comes down to it my role models are the people who work at Unruly.

“When I watch, say, our sales team approach a deal I see first-hand how tenacious they are. They don’t let a sale go, and I find this really inspirational. And it forces me to think, right, I’m going to have to up my game.”

Another example is DW, who runs our content and PR. We had a really good story from France, but we had no French speakers. DW speaks about ten words of French and he used those ten words to call up French journalists to pitch our story. When I see that, I think, wow, that’s impressive, and it encourages me to get out of my comfort zone to push myself that little bit more.

Is there anyone in your network that you look up to?

There are plenty of amazing people in my industry. Joanna Schill has always been a very big supporter of Unruly, and Edwina Dunn, who founded dunhumby and now runs the Your Life campaign, is brilliant, as is Dale Murray, whose Telco company helped inspire mobile payments. She’s been a great source of advice to me personally and I really respect what she has to say.

I always learn a lot from spending time with peers too. Kathryn Parsons from Degreed, Alicia Navaro from Skimlinks, and Emma Loisel from Exchange Labs are all inspiring women in tech.

“Matt Stevenson-Dodd, the CEO of Street League, is another person I look up to. I was with him the other night and we were arguing about best practice around emotion in the workplace. We actually met each other on a gap year when we were in a monastery in Uruguay!”

We’ve never been afraid to challenge each other and as a result we have great conversations. Because he’s not in ad-tech he brings something different to the table. This is often the case – people who are a little removed from your discipline can have the most positive and constructive feedback. He brings a different perspective to bear on the key challenges Unruly faces.

And speaking of different perspectives, what’s the culture like at Unruly? Can you tell us about Unruly Panda’s?

We look for people who are positive, think anything’s possible, have a nurturing spirit, are determined to achieve their goals, and who are action oriented – people, in other words, who get things done. It’s a simple acronym but it reminds us of what we’re looking for when we’re looking for our future colleagues.

“It’s also a manifestation of our values; it underpins what we do and what we’re about. Our values are threefold: deliver Wow, inspire change, and share the love. And this filters down through everything we do. People who have the PANDA qualities help us deliver on our mission statement.”

Hiring the right people is more important than ever before. As you grow into multiple markets it’s important that you actively try to maintain the cultural DNA of your company. That’s why Unruly looks for independent learners: people who can teach themselves new skills and take control of the situation. What really impresses us are people who can take a project, make it their own, and deliver it with aplomb.

Are there particular places that Unruly looks for employees?

Lots of our employees are friends of or colleagues of or co-students of other Unrulies. So that’s the way we find the majority of our applicants. And it even works globally! We have people in New York who had friends in our European offices say, “You must apply to them in the US!”

To supplement this we do a lot of direct recruitment and sourcing on LinkedIn. And then we meet people at events. We have extreme programming meetups in our London office for people who are interested in peer programming, for example, and we bring all our programmers in for this so that people can meet the team.

We also do a lot of internal promoting, a strategy which in many ways builds off our strong internship programme. We actually launched our internship programme before we had any clients!

What’s been your best learning experience so far?

One of my best experiences was just last week. Every quarter we have something called Oneruly day, where the whole company focuses on the biggest strategic objective of the quarter. Sometimes that’s opening a new office, like we did last year in Australia.

This year our emphasis is on building our programmatic expertise across the company. We have a fantastic programmatic video proposition called UnrulyX, where buyers communicate server to server, rather than person to person. It’s basically computers talking to each other!

“This is massive for our development team – they’ve been building it for the past two years. But we’re at the point now where we need more of the company to understand and appreciate how far we’ve come, what this means for the company going forwards, and what opportunities it creates.”

These Oneruly days are great for getting the whole team together so that we can get a holistic overview of how we operate.

My other great learning experience comes from teaching at Cambridge. It’s a brilliant opportunity to spend time with bright minds interested in online video culture, and my students end up writing fantastic dissertations on subjects such as giff culture, dash cams, and social media for social good. It never fails to remind me that video is the most powerful medium of our time.

What’s the approach to learning at Unruly?

We take learning very seriously. When we hire people we often try and see what they’d be like as teachers, because we want people who have the generosity and will to take the time to share that knowledge.

“On a day to day basis the best way you can share the love is by sharing knowledge. Being as inclusive as possible with learning is a key part of our culture here at Unruly.”

That’s why we operate City Unrulyversity, a pop-up university, open to all, for free. We have neighbours from down the street come to it and we have ex-students who attend who want to bridge the distance between being a student and being an entrepreneur. It’s a really great opportunity to get practical advice on how to build a startup while at the same time continuing your theoretical learning journey.

What are the academics saying? How do they think you should be writing a business plan at the moment? What are they saying about project management? This all gives you great exposure to really robust research and big-picture thinking, and you then get to balance this up with the nitty-gritty experience of what it’s like to work in a start-up.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into entrepreneurship?

Ultimately you learn by doing. If anyone wants to be an entrepreneur then they should simply get themselves a page on Etsy or a page on notonthehighstreet.com or create a website and start to monetise it.

“The barriers to starting a business have never been lower; it can actually be frictionless to start a business. Buy the name, build a website, incorporate the company, and start marketing it. You can do this without any experience!”

Google is your friend – it’s very straightforward to put an idea into action. Scaling a company is an entirely different matter, but I would say to any would-be entrepreneur to just get started. It doesn’t matter if you purchase ten domains and nothing comes of it. You’re building experience as you go.

What are the trends to watch out for in tech in 2016 and beyond?

There has been so much change over the last decade and it is nothing compared to the changes that we’re going to see over the next ten years. The internet of things is huge, the connected home, automated driving: all of these developments will continue to speed up, as will the transformations in education and medicine.

“We are still at the very early stages of a 4th industrial revolution, which is going to transform the way we work and live. Yet while our life expectancy and quality of life may be improving, we’re battling issues like climate change and mass migration.”

So looking ahead at the next twenty years I see tremendous opportunity but also lots of risk. This is exactly the sort of environment that entrepreneurs flourish in.

What resources would you recommend to people wanting to learn more?

City Unrulyversity would obviously be at the top of my list! Aside from that, Google Campus organises a lot of interesting events, meetups and boot camps. They always have great speakers. If you’re an entrepreneur with a specific interest in multimedia then I’d suggest taking a look at the events run by Collider. They always have a practical payoff.

I personally subscribe to HBR. While I don’t always agree with what they say, I find that reading it is the most efficient way to find out the latest developments in business practice. For tech trends I turn to Wired, and for the latest from the advertising industry I read Ad Age.

The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal is a brilliant book on how to do business; and Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters is particularly good for advice on how to run a successful start-up. Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing about Hard Things is another book that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t believe in 90% of Ben’s book but the ten percent that I do agree with I put into practice. And I think that’s the key.

If you read something that you believe in then put it into practice; don’t just read it and forget about it. At the end of every book or HBR article that I read I write down what I learnt and how I’m going to put it into practice.

Sometimes that’s just about sharing an email with the rest of the company or sometimes it’s about initiating a new recruitment practice. Make learnings your own and apply them to real life scenarios. Read, adapt, apply.

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