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Why Unruly CEO Sarah Wood Keeps Powering Forward

Sarah Wood Unruly
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Unruly CEO Sarah Wood has been named one of Debrett’s 500 most influential people in Britain, and described by Baroness Martha Lane Fox as “one of the most inspiring leaders I know”. Here’s her story so far…

On 7 July 2005, Sarah Wood was taking her long commute to the south coast, 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, she’d been a fundraiser and development officer at the Old Vic Theatre, before landing the role at Sussex University.

Although she was passionate about teaching, she was beginning to feel that if she stayed in academia she wouldn’t be truly fulfilling her potential. That thought was possibly occupying her head when her tube train unexpectedly terminated at Mile End. There had been an explosion near Aldgate East, three stops in front. A terrorist’s bomb – one of four to explode in the capital that day – had killed seven people (with 52 lives lost in total). Wood’s proximity to the tragedy made her pause, re-evaluate her life and decide what she really wanted to do.

It gave me a reality check and set me off on the path to making it happen.

And, after spending the summer on the conference circuit travelling around Australia, she resigned on her return.

I’d been teaching about the American Revolution but the web revolution was going on outside my front door – I wanted to be in the 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: a company that helps others turn their advertising into social media sensations, Unruly.

Wood wasn’t the only one to quit her job that autumn. Scott Button and 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,” says Wood. “For us it was our sole focus.” As Unruly’s tagline says:

We don’t make the ads, we make them famous.

In 2013, she is among the finalists of the everywoman in Technology Awards (Entrepreneur category). The company has since grown 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 Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year, while the following month brought even greater returns: an OBE alongside colleague (and husband) Scott Button. She still walks to work nearly every day from her home in London’s Victoria Park, which she shares with Button and their three kids. “It’s exercise and a time to reflect,” she says. She still teaches a Master’s course at Cambridge, titled Mash-Ups, Memes and LOLitics: Online video culture and the screen media revolution.

In October 2017, 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. While Decoded co-founder Kathryn Parsons called it “a manual for the leadership generation that want to create their own future.”

And, thinks Wood, that future should feature more women in tech business, as only 17 per cent of the UK tech workforce is female. “Not enough women have engineering, science or maths qualifications,” she says, and Unruly certainly practices what she preaches: 44 per cent of the Unruly board, 46 per cent of managers and 48 per cent of the total workforce is female.

Does she ever look back in wonder at how much she has achieved in little over a decade? “No, I don’t. I am an optimist but I am very action focused. So as soon as one thing is done, I am thinking about the next thing and there is so much opportunity out there, especially at the moment. There is so much more to do.”