Unruly's Sarah Wood: the tech angel blowing a trumpet for female staff

The lack of gender diversity in the tech scene is well known but Sarah Wood is blazing a trail for women at her company Unruly.

On Princelet Street off London’s Brick Lane, a blue plaque marks the birthplace of a feminist social reformer. "Angel of the East End" Miriam Moses became the first female mayor of Stepney in 1931, and almost a century later and a short distance down the road, another woman is helping further the cause of women in the workplace. 

Step forward Sarah Wood, co-founder of video advertising technology company Unruly and a recent winner of the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award. 

Gender diversity

The lack of gender diversity in the technology scene is well documented but Unruly is one company that is bucking the trend. Almost half (48%) of Unruly’s staff is female and this spread is maintained throughout the company. Some 46% of Unruly’s managers are women and 44% of its board are female.

"It’s not all about stereotypical guys in hoodies, hunched over and tapping away furiously at their keyboards"

Sitting in a meeting room that boasts a picture of Mona Lisa clutching an iPhone, Wood can hardly contain her enthusiasm as she describes how the company’s culture has fostered such diversity. 

46% of Unruly’s managers are women and 44% of its board are female

"I think I may have gone off topic there, sorry!" Wood laughs after her description of the female-friendly culture segues into how the company is instilling the principles of extreme programming (XP), a software development technique, across all areas of the business. 

Unruly has achieved its enviable gender balance by reaching out to young women when they are still in education and then doing everything possible to retain staff by fostering a female-friendly environment.  

Wood studied English at Cambridge and now teaches a course at her alma mater entitled "Mash-ups, memes and LOLitics: online video culture and the screen media revolution." 

When she visits universities and sixth forms, Wood seeks to make her company appeal to a diverse range of students. She recently invited pupils from City of London School for Girls, which her daughter attends, to visit Unruly to find out about the different professional opportunities available at a technology company. 

"It is not all about stereotypical guys in hoodies, hunched over and tapping away furiously at their keyboards," Wood says. 

A level playing field

The XP technique Unruly favours is collaborative and sociable because developers code in pairs. The company has now introduced an "avant-garde" XP process that brings numerous developers around a big screen to take turns to develop new code. 

This fosters a friendly environment that enables ideas to flourish while "robust" discussions take place. "We are very curious but we work in a safe environment – creating a learning environment is a great equaliser," she says. 

Unruly has also sought to create a level playing field in its performance reviews because Wood believes "female employees aren’t always the ones to blow their own trumpet". 

"There needs to be a balance between future-gazing and acting in the present to make better advertising today"
Sarah Wood, co-founder of video advertising technology company

Instead of having a system where employees are asked to tell managers how well they have done, staff are given clear objectives that are easily measurable and discussed at the end of each quarter. 

Female role models are important to Unruly and can be found throughout the company. The senior leadership team includes chief financial offer Lucy Greggains and chief people officer Deana Murfitt. Former intern Cat Jones has risen through the ranks to run a team of 15 that develops Unruly’s ShareRank product. And Claire Roberts, who joined in a part-time role after meeting Wood at a Code First for Girls event, is now responsible for Unruly’s Pulse dashboard, which tracks emotional esponses to video advertising. 

The professional development of staff has progressed as the company has grown – it was founded by Wood, her husband Scott Button and Matt Cooke in 2005. 

Wood decided to quit her previous role as a university lecturer after a near miss during the 7/7 London bombings made her realise that "life is short". The timing was fortuitous because 2005 was the year Button and Cooke sold their previous company Connextra to Betgenius. 

The three Unruly founders also considered setting up an online chocolate retailer but instead collaborated on a web 2.0 comedy site called eatmyhamster.com. 

Perhaps fittingly, considering Unruly’s later acquisition by News Corp (see below), the name derived from The Sun’s notorious "Freddie Starr ate my hamster" headline. 

The analytics from eatmyhamster proved that video was the most popular form of online content and a blog-scanning engine, which searched for the most embedded and shared video links, enabled the trio to launch a viral video chart that provided the foundation for Unruly. 

"What I could see happening in 2005 was a new way of thinking and communicating, and a very meritocratic – much more unruly – media landscape evolving," Wood says. "I believe that online video is the most powerful medium of our age." 

Solving today’s problems

Since News Corp bought the company last year, it has focused on scaling up the business by building up Unruly’s programmatic capabilities and expanding in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Wood says Unruly gains from News Corp’s "highly engaged and loyal audiences" while the latter benefits from Unruly’s expertise and premium video ad formats, which drive higher CPMs (cost per thousand impressions). 

We are living in an age "defined by the scarcity of attention

"The two trillion views we’ve tracked are not all ads and the DNA of that successful video content can be applied, regardless of who builds that content," Wood says. 

While Wood concedes that virtual reality and 360-degree video are "tremendously exciting" for the media industry, she believes companies should focus on solving today’s problems. 

"There needs to be a balance between future-gazing and acting in the present to make better advertising today," Wood explains. "Ad-blocking poses a very real threat to the digital publishing ecosystem and publishers are already losing large chunks of their revenues." 

She believes the responsibility for solving the problem lies with all the parties involved: "There is no silver bullet, no purely technical solution. There needs to be a shift in mindset that requires a collective response from the ecosystem. It is about helping consumers to recognise that quality content comes at a cost, helping publishers to realise their audiences need to be shown ads that are not interruptive, and brands recognising that they have a responsibility to create ads that bring value." 

However, Wood argues a bigger threat to brands than ad-blocking is "content shock" – the sheer volume of content competing for eyeballs means we are living in an age "defined by the scarcity of attention". 

And there are certainly plenty of things competing for Wood’s attention. Dashing off from the interview, she reveals she is now going to mentor some of her staff. It’s the sort of dedication the Angel of the East End would no doubt have admired. 

How unruly caught News Corp’s eye

When Wood shared a stage with Rachel Schutt, chief data scientist at News Corp, at the Web Summit in Dublin in November 2014, it set the wheels in motion for the media giant’s acquisition of Unruly a year later for $176m. 

The pair discussed the nature of each other’s businesses and Schutt introduced Wood to Rahul Chopra, chief executive of Storyful, the social news agency owned by News Corp. 

After agreeing they must collaborate, Chopra emailed Wood to inform her "Rebekah" would come to visit the Unruly office. Wood assumed Rebekah was an operations manager and only found out a couple of days before the meeting that she would be seeing Rupert Murdoch’s trusted lieutenant Rebekah Brooks, now chief executive of News UK.

"Unbeknown to us, Rebekah had been sent by Rupert on a world tour to find the best-in-class video ad technology platform," Wood explains. "News Corp completely recognises the power of video – it understands it is the future of news journalism and advertising."