Unruly behaviour

Sarah Wood, co-founder and COO of social video company Unruly, talks to Stuart Crainer.


On 22 January 1984 in a break in the Superbowl, Apple screened a groundbreaking ad for its soon-to-be-launched Apple Macintosh. Directed by Ridley Scott and only aired twice, the ad won a host of awards and is regarded by many as a pivotal moment in the development of the computer industry and of advertising. The ad was seen by a television audience of some 77 million Americans.

Thirty years on, it is a lazy afternoon and I’m wandering aimlessly in cyberspace. I find myself becoming the 76,703,191st person to watch the Evian roller babies video on YouTube. You know the one. It features a group of toddlers improbably wearing roller skates and performing various tricks in Central Park. Very clever. Very popular. 

Next up is T-Mobile’s excellent spoof of the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton. Essential viewing for some 27 million people and counting. 

The benchmarks for advertising have shifted. A social video campaign can propel brand awareness and sales into the stratosphere. Social video advertising has emerged as one of the most potent, engaging and effective digital ad formats. Predictions are that global spending on online video advertising will reach $22.5bn by 2017 (up from $8.3bn in 2013), with internet ad spending expected to account for 59 per cent of the growth in total ad spend between 2012 and 2015.

Helping light the metaphoric touchpaper is Sarah Wood and Unruly, a social video company that works with top brands and their agencies to predict the emotional impact of their videos and get them watched, tracked and shared across paid, owned and earned media.

Unruly promises that by using its proprietary predictive algorithm, brands can predict the social success of video content before spending a single media dollar. It is persuasive. Unruly has delivered, tracked and audited 4.69 billion video views across more than 9,200 campaigns to a global audience of 1.27 billion monthly unique users.

Unruly started life in 2006. There was, Sarah Wood laughingly admits, no master plan. Indeed, there was no plan. “The idea didn’t come first. The idea of Unruly came after we’d founded the company,” she says.

No idea

This, I observe, is not the conventional approach. Most companies have an idea, but no idea how to make it a commercial reality. “I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way,” Wood asserts. “Hopefully we’re proof of that. When we founded the company we could see there was a real tipping point in the online culture. This was the shift from web 1.0 to web 2.0, moving from the web as an information highway to being a two-way conversation.

“There were already sites like Flickr, Digg and Delicious. It was a really interesting intellectual opportunity because you could see all these people were talking back, talking to each other, talking to brands. The web was no longer about having roadcasters sitting on top, dictating what people were going to watch, what people were going to say. It was much more of a two-way street. It was much more unruly and that’s where the name came from because the whole media landscape was very unruly.”

Wood joined forces with Scott Button, who she had known since university, and Matt Cooke. Button and Cooke had worked together at Connextra and used some of their profits from their stakes in Connextra as seed funding for the new business. The trio reckoned they had enough money for 18 months: “A runway big enough to have lots of ideas, but short enough that we needed those ideas to get traction and if they didn’t work we needed to move on to the next one”. Though Wood describes herself as an “accidental entrepreneur”, there is nothing accidental about her or the company’s ambitions. The trio of Unruly founders may not have had a killer idea, but they had something which can be as powerful: bold ambition. “We did have an end game and it was to build a billion-dollar business and we were very clear about that right from the start and we still are. We want to build a billion-dollar business. That’s still what we’re shooting for and that really helps us make decisions because, when we’re looking for new products and we’re making decisions about who we acquire, we say to ourselves: Is this helping us get to be a billion-dollar business?”

Unruly began unruly and approximately one billion dollars short of reaching its objective. “We tried a lot of things,” Wood remembers. “Largely it’s about having a positive mindset, because creating is difficult and it’s the easiest thing in the world to knock an idea, but it’s the hardest thing in the world to build an idea and to keep faith in an idea when you have a bunch of naysayers around you.

“So I think what we did very well in the early days was just to generate a lot of ideas and we still do this. We’re a safe space for people to come and have ideas. Back then we were coming up with all kinds of ideas, trying lots of things. Most of them didn’t work.”

Hamsters for starters

The first idea tried out by Unruly was a comedy portal called It was a beautifully designed aggregator of comic content. It seemed like a gap in the market, but building a community was a painfully slow process. Unruly moved on but had learned that people were really struggling to find fresh content and to do so quickly. It then built a blogscanning engine and came up with the idea of the Unruly Viral Video Chart, which has now tracked 521 billion video views since 2006.

Making sense of the explosively growing social video world became Unruly’s big idea. It has worked. The company now has 13 offices and employs over 160 people globally. In 2012 it secured a $25m Series A investment, the largest ever for a private company in the social video space. Bolstered by the investment capital, Unruly targeted the largest ad market in Europe, Germany. It launched in Berlin and bought a local competitor to accelerate growth.

Launch then lunch

Along the way, the company’s ability to pick winning ideas has evolved, fast. It is looking for simplicity, the potential to scale and an addressable market. But it remains close to its roots, says Wood: “We still operate in a lean manner. We like to be able to launch products with a minimum viable product, test it in the market, see how the market responds and then build it out from there. So we tend not to have big projects in the works that we launch and are complete. We launch and then build.”

Unruly ShareRank is its most eyecatching success. Basically, it allows companies to predict how successful their videos will be. There are, of course, hundreds of variables. Unruly has identified those that are most significant and likely to have most impact. Its algorithm can predict with 80 per cent success (90 per cent in local markets) the share-ability of a video in advance of its launch. It is not simply a matter of putting cats and babies in front of cameras.

“It’s about emotional intensity and giving people a motivation to share. They’re the two big things. So when we talk to brands we’re always encouraging them to decide what their emotional triggers are,” says Wood. “So, we understand the nature of going viral and we also understand the limitations. It’s not an end in itself. What is the point of getting a million views, five million views? First of all, you can buy five million views. It’s not that expensive if you’re a big brand. But what does it prove? What value does that bring to your business? For us it’s about looking beyond the view. It’s not about vanity metrics; it’s about business metrics.

Growing Unruly

“So when we talk to our clients we’ll say, yes, sure, you can count the views, but we can also track conversions. We can also track brand uplift. We can track requests for test drives, coupon downloads, footfall increase. So it’s about going beyond views and moving all the way down the funnel and thinking where video can take you.” 

Of course, rapid growth and large scale investment bring about their own pressures and expectations. Rules for the unruly are required. “It’s about the size of the company rather than having investors,” says Wood. “As the company gets bigger, structures and processes need to be put in place. There are some people who really enjoy the scrappiness of a startup, where you can try your hand at lots of different areas and have a great sense of impact, who just don’t enjoy the next phase. As you grow there is a need for different people, a different type of person to come in, but only sometimes. One of the mistakes that we made was layering.

“It’s very hard when people go because they’re an integral part of your tribe. Now it’s about building an alumni network and seeing ourselves as being part of a broader tech ecosystem. “I’m always really excited when someone from Unruly goes o  to Google or Twitter or to another British startup, because I feel that we’re part of that ecosystem and coming through Unruly is a mark of distinction.”

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