Unruly CEO Sarah Wood, one of Debrett’s 500 most influential people in Britain in 2016, has been described by Baroness Martha Lane Fox as “one of the most inspiring leaders I know”. At the end of 2017, Wood transitioned from CEO to chair of the business she founded more than 12 years ago with Matt Cooke and husband Scott Button. Here she shares her views about leadership, data governance and why 2018 could be augmented reality’s year…
On 7 July 2005, Sarah Wood was commuting from London to Sussex University, where she was a lecturer in American Studies. A Northumberland-born Cambridge graduate, with a first in English and a PhD in early-American literature, Wood’s passion for teaching burned bright. But she was beginning to feel that academia wasn’t fulfilling her potential. That day, she was evacuated from her tube train at Mile End. There had been an explosion near Aldgate East, three stops in front of her. A terrorist’s bomb – one of four to explode in the capital – had killed seven people; the attacks claimed 52 lives in total. Wood’s proximity to the tragedy made her pause and re-evaluate her life.
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“It gave me a reality check and set me off on the path to making it happen,” she says. After spending the summer on the academic speaker circuit, travelling around Australia, she resigned on her return. “I’d been teaching the American Revolution, but the web revolution was going on outside my front door. I wanted to be centre of the action rather than sitting on the sidelines in an ivory tower.”
And hence an idea she’d had in her mind for quite a while was born: Unruly, a company that helps others turn their advertising into social media sensations.
Building a business, and a culture
Wood wasn’t the only one to quit her job that autumn. Wood’s husband, Scott Button, and his colleague Matt Cooke from advertising software firm Connextra also left to join her in the new venture. Using proceeds from the sale of Connextra, in which Cooke and Button held shares, the trio set up in the Truman Brewery, on Brick Lane in London’s East End. “We wanted to be somewhere we could start building a culture, as well as a company,” she says.
Unruly got its first big campaign in December 2006, with an analysis deal for the BBC. “Brands and agencies wanted to know what they could do to create ads and get them to go viral,” Wood says. “For us, it was our sole focus.” As Unruly’s tagline says, ‘We don’t make the ads, we make them famous.’
The company grew from a start-up into a multi-million buyout. In September 2015, News Corp acquired Unruly for £58m, with a reported further £56m dependent on meeting performance targets. There are now 300 employees and new offices in Tokyo, Melbourne and India.
In May 2016, Wood won the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year award, and the following month brought both her and Button OBEs.
In September last year, Wood was named overall Champion of Women at a glittering ceremony at London’s Park Lane Hotel held by Maggie’s, a cancer support charity. The following month, her book Stepping Up: How to Accelerate your Leadership Potential was published to acclaim: “Anyone wanting to become [an inspiring leader] should read this book,” said lastminute.com founder Baroness Martha Lane Fox. Decoded co-founder Kathryn Parsons called it “a manual for the leadership generation that want to create their own future”.
On the still-exciting UK tech sector
Wood believes that the future should feature more women in tech, as only 17 percent of the UK tech workforce is female. “Not enough women have engineering, science or maths qualifications,” she says, and Unruly certainly practises what she preaches: 44 percent of the Unruly board, 46 percent of managers and 48 percent of the total workforce is female.
She is also adamant that the UK tech sector is more exciting than ever, citing the connected home as the big opportunity for advertisers. “This new frontier is really exciting but also poses a unique set of challenges,” Wood says. “As smart devices and voice assistants start to make purchasing decisions for us, advertisers need to act smart and fast to find new ways to keep their brand on the tip of consumers’ tongues and avoid being ‘bypassed’ by B2B (bot-to-bot) purchase decisions.”
Wood also believes that 2018 is going to be the year that augmented reality really takes hold, with affordable and accessible tech allowing brands to create apps that let consumers engage with virtual versions of their products. She gives a range of examples – from testing whether a product might fit in their home, and then immediately purchasing it, to virtual cosmetics and fashion apps that allow customers to ‘try before they buy’.
“Just last week, we premiered the first holographic cookery demo in the Unruly Home of the Future. A professional chef on the other side of the country was streamed into a pair of augmented reality glasses and gave live cooking tips there and then,” Wood reveals. “Marketers are eager to see how new technologies will unleash a third wave of digital marketing, driven by personalisation, powered by AI and offering the potential to embody a brand in ways previously only imagined in sci-fi books and films.”
Gaining the public’s trust
But any giddiness is, of course, balanced with a very real concern about the current crisis in media. Last year’s Edelman Trust Barometer revealed the largest-ever drop in trust across the institutions of government, business and media – and the industry is feeling the ramifications.
“Long-standing fears over fake news and deceptive data usage have turned out to be a reality, and trusted publisher brands have an increasingly important role to play in the digital advertising ecosystem,” Wood says. “The incoming GDPR regulation is already lighting a fire under the ad industry, highlighting bad actors and practices while clearing the way for innovative new players.”
Wood believes that while it will bring uncertainty in the short term, the shake-up will ultimately be good news for consumers, whose fears around privacy and poor ad experiences have brought about the change of legislation. A reappraisal of cookie policies, and a restructuring of how data is handled and shared, means brands will have to be more imaginative and add real value when they use customer information. And, Wood says, “where there is disruption, there is always opportunity for entrepreneurs.”
This big-picture view is something that will rise up Wood’s agenda now that she has moved from CEO to chair of Unruly – it’s a role she embraces.
“I’m very excited about the transition from CEO to chair. It’s a long time since we were three people in a leaky-roofed office in London’s East End. There are 300 of us now, and we’ve built the most trusted ad marketplace in the industry. It’s been 12 years, the business is in great shape, revenues continue to scale, and the leadership team is second to none. It’s the right moment to step back, and I’m really delighted to be taking on the role of chair of the board, supporting the new CEO as he leads Unruly into the next chapter of its phenomenal story. And supporting Unruly’s incredible global team, which is working tirelessly to transform advertising for the better.”