Ad tech company Unruly helps brands predict the shareability of their content. We talk to its co-CEO, Sarah Wood, about the company’s fast growth and embracing disruption

At first glance, the converted toy factory in East London’s Princelet Street seems like an unpromising venue from which to unlock the secrets of the world’s digital advertising industry.

But take a step inside and a hive of activity is revealed. This is the office of Unruly, where Sarah Wood, co-founder and Co-CEO, is working with a team of more than 200 to consign to history the old industry cliché that, if half the money spent on advertising is wasted, the problem is knowing which half.

“We’re transforming the way that the industry works,” says Wood, “because we can help advertisers predict the shareability of their content. We can give them the tools they need to create ads that people actually want to watch and share.”

Wood describes how a fast-changing media industry has created the market opportunity for her company: “The last decade has been a major revolution in the media industry. We’ve seen the shift from interruption and broadcast advertising towards more choice-based, consumer- focused, quality digital advertising.”

Unruly: the disruptive company

Does that make Unruly a disruptive company? “Absolutely, but we’re not in the business of disruption for disruption’s sake; we’re in the business of solving brands’ problems and helping brands connect with consumers,” she says. “Disruption is only useful if it solves a business need.”

One of Unruly’s core values is to “embrace change”, and it is through an ever-evolving suite of tech products that the company aims to stay at the front of that disruption.

The Unruly Viral Video Chart first brought brands to the company’s doors, and has since been supplemented by developments such as Unruly ShareRank, an algorithm which predicts the success of branded videos.

The importance of culture in achieving growth

To achieve a fast rate of growth and evolution, thinks Wood, you need “a culture that is primed for disruption… We have agile processes built in to our company, not just built in to the way we develop our technology, but built in to the way we run our hiring processes, our operational processes, our marketing processes… If you’ve got the right people, [change] can happen very quickly”.

Everything at Unruly, says Wood, “stems from our DNA of eXtreme Programming which is about being responsive, being ready to take an opportunity if it comes… and that’s been really key to us continuing to innovate and continuing to be disruptive to our own product set”.

Planning for change

Is there a risk that an environment of perpetual change can undermine the growth and stability of the business? Not if you plan for change, Wood believes. “We spend a lot of time planning for change; building processes for continuous delivery and building training programmes for our people. Yes, we work quickly, but we also invest the time to think about what’s coming next, how we can lead and where we can add value to top brands and their agencies.”

“Being disrupted by the competition is not something I worry about, it’s something I expect.”

A relentless focus on the future also helps keep the competition at bay. “I’m always assuming there are going to be new market entrants and I’m always thinking how we can disrupt ourselves before someone else does.” Being disrupted by the competition “is not something I worry about, it’s something I expect”.

Yet despite the challenges, Unruly has gone from strength to strength in its 10 years of operation. It now employs more than 200 people across 15 offices around the world, and last year was acquired by News Corp for £114 million.

One of the secrets to Unruly’s success, its co-founder believes, is diversity: “I think diversity is at the root of disruption,” she reflects. “Diversity of experiences, diversity of disciplines, diversity of perspectives.”

To that end, the business works hard to bring together its different component parts, particularly internationally: “Often, there’s the opportunity to be brilliantly disruptive, because you can take one perspective, transplant it onto another geography and be six months ahead of the curve.”

Fundamentally, she believes, the guiding star of the disruptor must be optimism. “I’m very positive, very optimistic – always confident that whatever comes our way, we’ll have the people and the processes in place to be able to make the most of it.”