Interview With Sarah Wood, Co-Founder Of Unruly Media On Advertising, Entrepreneurship, London

Sarah Wood Unruly Media Co-FounderAs I'm off to London this summer for business and Wimbledon, I thought it would be a good idea to interview Sarah Wood, Co-Founder of Unruly Media, a social video advertising platform based in London. Sarah has been voted UK Female Entrepreneur of the Year by the Growing Business Awards, one of 15 Women to Watch in Tech by Inc., one of 10 London-Based Entrepreneurs to Watch by Forbes, Digital Woman of the Year by RED Magazine, and a Rising Star in Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Women in UK IT. Rock star!

Sarah is kind enough to take us out to dinner and host us at their corporate apartment somewhere north of Canary Wharf while we are there. If you happen to be in London from June 20 to June 30th, I'm happy to get a drink at your local pub.

I first worked with Unruly Media a couple years ago on a couple car campaigns for BMW and Jeep (video for Veteran's Day). I was introduced by Courtnay, who used to work at another advertising platform in San Francisco and who now works at Unruly. The world is small, so it's always good to maintain good relationships over time. Everybody will eventually know everybody.

London is truly one of the world's great international cities. The last time I was there was in 2011 and I chronicled how much I spent on food, transportation, and shelter. London makes Manhattan look cheap, and San Francisco feel like a developing nation in terms of costs.

Without further ado, here's my interview with Sarah on entrepreneurship, advertising, video, and London!


Sam: Tell us about Unruly Media. What makes Unruly different from other media companies? 

Sarah: We were founded in 2006 and we are now one of the fastest growing technology companies in the UK (source: Deloitte, Hiscox Sunday Times Tech Track 100). We’re the number one social video advertising platform globally, growing rapidly because we sit at the intersection of video, social and mobile – three of the fastest growing ad categories worldwide.

Our product set helps advertisers get their videos watched, tracked and shared across the vast Open Web. It’s powered by a unique data set – the largest historical data set of video sharing behavior on the social web – which covers 430 billion video views and tracks more than 24 million shares every day.

Working with 65% of Ad Age 100 brands, we have delivered, tracked and audited 4.27 billion video views across 3,600+ social video campaigns. We’ve worked with over 650 brands in total, including Volkswagen, Dove, Coca-Cola, T-Mobile, Microsoft, Warner Bros and adidas.

We’ve essentially built out the world’s first end-to-end video marketing platform which gives advertisers and their agencies a fully-formed, data-driven tool at each step of the process, with the aim of reducing risk and maximizing return on their video marketing strategies.

Advertisers can accurately and algorithmically predict earned media with Unruly ShareRank. They can engage 1.17 billion people (comScore Feb 2014) across the Open Web with Unruly Activate, the world's biggest and most sophisticated social video distribution platform. And prove ROI with Unruly Analytics, a cloud-based dashboard providing real-time competitive benchmarks across 6 billion customizable data points.

Essentially, we help advertisers make the shift from keeping their fingers crossed that they will score a viral hit to helping them deliver #winning social video campaigns that are predictable, measurable and repeatable.

Unruly has 12 offices spanning the US (LA, San Francisco, New York, Chicago), EMEA and Asia. Our most recent office opening was in Singapore last month, our APAC HQ. We have opened offices around the globe so that we can service global brands that want to engage a global audience with entertaining brand content.

We employ 150 people and right now we’re currently recruiting for another 20 roles, including software engineers based in London to keep our technology stack at the forefront of video advertising.

Sam: What made you decide to start Unruly? Was it a lightbulb-type moment, collaboration among friends, a problem you had that needed resolving?

Sarah: When the idea of “viral videos” was taking off in 2006, we were immediately intrigued by how powerful a video could become, and the impact it could have on viewers. There was so much content coming on stream and already it was difficult to sort through content and find the hottest videos that were getting people talking. So we built a blog-scanning engine as that’s where lots of the social buzz was happening back then – and created Unruly Viral Video Chart to track and rank the most shared videos on the social web. It ranks videos by shares rather than views as this is a more accurate reflection of what people are actually talking about.

There’s still a myth that a YouTube view count is a metric of success when in fact more often than not it’s just a measure of media spend. Brands have to track viewer shares and social interactions if they genuinely want to measure social success as opposed to chasing a vanity metric.

Within hours of launching the Unruly Viral Video Chart, brands were contacting us to ask how they could get their ads into the chart, so straight way we could see there was an appetite from brands who wanted to create and distribute contagious content.That’s when we created the first scalable social video distribution platform, Unruly Activate, which launched in 2007 and has delivered over 3,600 campaigns to date.


Sam: What are the biggest challenges for Unruly? What are the biggest opportunities?

Sarah: One of the biggest challenges that comes with growth is ensuring we continue to scale the company by hiring the brightest talent. We need people who can deliver on our company values: to share the love, embrace change and deliver wow.

Ensuring consistency of client experience is also super critical as we expand our international presence across multiple regions. Cracking any new market is tough: there is always red tape, plus legal, cultural and language constraints. Recruiting the right team in a new market is just as tough. We opened our APAC HQ in Singapore this year and hiring the right talent in the world’s fastest growing ad market is high up on our company agenda.

Keeping communications lines open is also a challenge now that we work across so many different offices, but it’s so important to make sure that we’re all pulling in the same direction!

Another challenge is staying agile, making sure we maintain the flexibility and responsiveness of a start-up so we can respond to a fast-evolving marketing landscape and not be slowed down by too much process. Enough process to scale but not so much that we slow down innovation – this is a difficult balance and I’ve found out that you can’t please everyone! One person’s red tape is another person’s perfect process…

Our biggest opportunities come from innovation – because it’s in our DNA! We launched 30+ new features in 2013 and we have the largest historical video sharing data base on the planet, which we’ll continue to utilize to help solve the toughest challenges facing advertisers. Last year, we launched Unruly ShareRank, the only product on the market to algorithmically and accurately predict and improve the shareability of video content in advance of campaign launch. This has proved enormously effective for advertisers that want to create and distribute shareable content repeatably and at scale.


Sam: Where do you see the online advertising spend going over the next few years?


Mobile – We’re finally seeing video ad dollars move across to mobile as engagement rates on mobile devices exploded in 2013. Looking at Unruly’s campaigns, click-through-rates (CTR) on smartphones and tablets more than tripled. In fact, the current average CTR for mobile campaigns (13.64%) is almost three times that of desktop (5.45%). Interaction rates also exploded in 2013 – up to 22.64%, more than double (105.63%) what it was at the end of 2012.

It’s a trend that looks likely to continue into 2014, with mobile video predicted to increase 25-fold between 2011 and 2016, accounting for over 70 percent of total mobile data traffic by the end of the forecast period (Source: Cisco). So I predict we’ll see marketers spend larger chunks of their advertising budgets on mobile.

We’re also investing heavily in programmatic advertising – a market which hit $12 billion in 2013 and that Magna Global has projected will leap to $32.6 billion by 2017.


Sam: What do you think are the biggest mistakes customers make in video advertising? Any quick three tips you have for anybody who wants to create video ads?


1. We often see advertisers over-investing in content and under investing in distribution. A video that is viewed by few cannot be shared by many! Less than a third of views take place on YouTube and YouTube embeds so the smart brands are activating their videos across the Open Web – reaching their audience wherever they are discovering, watching and sharing content.

2. Make it emotional! Creating highly shareable content is all about eliciting the strongest possible emotional responses from your audience. Academic research proves that videos which elicit strong emotions from an audience, regardless of whether they’re positive or negative, are twice as likely to be shared than those which elicit a weak emotional response.

3. Be proud of your brand! Using poorly branded advertising is like throwing away your marketing budget. There is no independent correlation between branding levels and shareability. So when you consider that the average social video has one third of the branding of an average TV commercial, it’s a huge opportunity for marketers looking to make the most of the social web.

Sam: What do you say to the people who dislike viewing online advertising? If there was no advertising, how do providers of free content online make money? Why do you think those who dislike advertising don't understand that it takes time and effort to create things?

Sarah: Sharing of branded content has increased 50x from 2006 to 2013, which suggests that when brands create truly entertaining and moving ads, viewers are more than happy to share them! Asking permission is important though. Social advertisers need to seek permission from consumers – offering them content they want to watch and giving them control of the experience (ability to share or skip!) rather than interrupting them with pre-roll ads that suck. That’s plain anti-social. The smart brands are becoming entertainers and storytellers, creating content which people enjoy and want to share.


Sam: Many of us in America are wondering how are things going in the UK from an innovation standpoint. You guys have a long history, but it seems like America has overtaken the UK in terms of innovation with inventions from Google, Apple, Facebook, AirBnB, Tesla Motors, cloud storage, messaging and so forth. Is it a cultural difference or a lack of interest in technological innovation? Perhaps it's just a numbers game because of the larger American population?

Sarah: It’s twenty five years since a Brit invented the Internet – that was Tim-Berners Lee. And there are plenty of innovations coming out of the UK – though they may not be making headline news in the USA! In practice, the UK often acts as a bridge between East and West, US and Europe, sitting as it does at the centre of time zones, which makes it ideal for servicing a global client base.

Conditions for entrepreneurship are extremely benign, with some great incentives such as the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme making it extremely tax efficient for early stage investors to support new ventures. Plus it has access to an international talent pool and a fantastic mix of creativity, technology, capital. A dash more self-belief is all that's missing!

Sam: Do people in London feel that London is very expensive? I've only been once and it was about 25% more expensive than Manhattan, which is 25% more expensive than San Francisco. In other words, I couldn't believe how expensive things are in London! I don't know how people can comfortably survive and save for retirement with the cost of food and housing. How do people do it?

Sarah: Like any large city, London can be pricey to live in, though the big museums and galleries are free to enter and the buses are a cheap way to get around the city. It’s an awesome place to live and work – genuinely invigorating, energetic, storied and and extremely diverse – a real cultural and creative melting pot!

The rest of the UK has plenty going on too – Unruly was recently named as one of the London Stock Exchange’s ELITE companies and it was inspiring to see that 12 out of 19 of the high growth companies featured had set up their businesses outside of London.


Thanks Sarah for spending time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions. The advertising space on the internet feels like the Wild Wild West at the moment with mobile and video driving growth. I feel like videos need to be very short (sub 30 seconds), punchy, and hilarious to capture the audience's attention. The emotional aspect also needs to be there as Sarah said. I look forward to incorporating more video work on FS and working on more opportunities with Unruly.

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6 thoughts on “Interview With Sarah Wood, Co-Founder Of Unruly Media On Advertising, Entrepreneurship, London”

  1. Hi Sam, I live in London and will be around when you are here. Would be great to get a drink if you are up for it. I work in Farringdon and live close to Canary Wharf, so if you are free just drop me a line to the email I mentioned above. Regards, Jennifer

  2. This was a great interview – thanks for the insight into how Unruly Media works!
    Personally, I’m not a big fan of video ads – but that being said, some of my favourite ads out there are videos. Like Sarah said, the only videos I really share or see shared are the ones with the strong emotional response.

  3. Thanks for the insightful interview. I need to learn much more about video and advertising. If teenagers are any indication of where media is going, any graphical representation is the way to go. I see my students and other young people on the their smartphones every waking moment. They are looking for any kind of entertainment which includes videos, pictures etc. Add the mobility and you can start to see it is a trend.

  4. Awesome and very honest interview Sam.. Have a great trip to the UK, am sure the weather will be nice and barmy for you over there..

    Would be interesting to watch how Sarah’s company continues to grow over the next few years

  5. constance k

    Great interview I have to admit I’m one of those people who didn’t give Unruly Media a fighting chance maybe it because video advertising was big then and didn’t look much going forward, but things has changed big time now.

  6. Great interview! And wow what an impressive list of rewards and recognitions Sarah! I admire anyone who has the dedication and drive to launch and lead a business. Sounds like Unruly is doing lots of great things, and that’s nice to hear the company is growing. 150-170 is a nice size for a company too. Not too big that you don’t know who anyone is, and not too small either. Video advertising has come a long way and I think we will continue to see more and more.

    I’ve been to London before and had a nice time. I loved that the museums were all free and found the public transit system really easy to navigate. I did find that it was crazy expensive. I can see it as an exciting city to live and work in.

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