How the 7/7 London bombings inspired a university lecturer to set up an viral video business that was bought by Rupert Murdoch for $176 million

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Unruly co-CEO Sarah Wood, speaking at Advertising Week Europe in London. Luca Teuchmann

Sarah Wood was on the way to drop her children off at school on the morning of July 7, 2005.

She was heading to King’s Cross station on the London Underground.

Commuting was a big part of her life at the time, as she lived in Hackney, East London, but worked as an academic at Sussex University — which is more than two hours away on the south coast.

Unexpectedly that summer day, there was a loud noise and the train halted to a stop at Mile End, where passengers were evacuated.

She had a very near miss. Around three stops down the line near Aldgate East, there had been an explosion.

Terrorists had detonated a bomb on a Circle Line train killing seven people and injuring 171. In total, the series of three suicide bomb attacks killed 52 people and injured 700 more.

Wood had been running 15 minutes late that day, making her feel even luckier to have missed the horror.

A re-evaluation

“It was one of those moments where you feel you had a lucky escape and you re-evaluate: Why am I here? What am I doing?” Wood told Business Insider at Advertising Week Europe in London.

Things have changed a lot for Wood since 2005. She moved from full-time academia to the often-ephemeral world of ad tech.

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Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. News UK

After some soul-searching, Wood decided that instead of studying the American Revolution, she “wanted to be a part of the the bigger revolution outside my door. The internet.”

As a result, Wood co-founded Unruly with Matt Cooke and Scott Button in 2006.

Unruly specialises in serving and analysing the video advertising and brand videos that appear outside of the confines of YouTube and Facebook.

Last September, the three cofounders sold the business to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for $90 million in cash, with an extra $86 million if it meets performance targets.

Wood told the Evening Standard that she was wooed by chief executive Rebekah Brooks over a”casual but very long lunch.”

She remains co-CEO at the company, and also teaches a masters course at Cambridge University, entitled “Mash-Ups, Memes and LOLitics: Online Video Culture and the Screen Media Revolution.”

The London-based CEO also has three young children: Lola Rose, Ezra, and Sunday.

So how does she find the time? “Well I had a great holiday,” Wood joked, “because I spent the holiday marking my essays. Luckily the UK has generous holiday allowances and during those periods I can mark essays and prepare my teaching.”

Wood talked passionately about her university course which takes the form of a weekly seminar during Lent Term.

“It’s enormously helpful, it’s a chance to explore new ideas,” she said.

Her students taught her to understand the importance of GIFs — moving graphic images — for example.

“GIF culture has been huge and not many people in the ad industry talk much about it. GIFs have the ability to be able to connect very quickly in a very visual way with consumers,” Wood explained.

Creating a positive work culture

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Sarah Wood, co-CEO of Unruly. Unruly

Wood is proud that 44% of the Unruly board, 45% of managers, and 48% of the total workforce are female. In tech, these figures are almost unheard of.

“One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is that you create the culture,” she said. “You can create a culture that is open to people of all different backgrounds. You create a culture where being a female isn’t really an issue.”

Pets and children alike are free to run around Unruly’s offices in Shoreditch, East London, which “symbolically” lies a safe distance away from the News UK nerve-center by London Bridge.

Wood said: “I dislike the separation between work and home. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful and when I come to work I want to bring my whole self. I don’t put on a professional shell.”

“I parent like I run a company, for better or for worse. My kids probably don’t enjoy their personal development plans,” she joked.

“Humour is one of the most over-used triggers in advertising”

Wood talked about what it takes to make a brand video go viral. She said there are two key components to driving engagement.

First, ads need to grab our attention by intensely triggering our emotions. It could be hilariously funny, moving, inspirational, mind-blowing, or unexpected.

The second part of the equation is giving viewers a reason to pass it on.

At the same time, Wood said, brands need to be authentic to themselves. A brand can’t successfully pretend to want to make a positive difference to the world if this is insincere, and it also can’t expect a funny video to work if humour does not fit with it’s own image.

She said:

“Humour is one of the most overused triggers in advertising. Lots of brands say ‘we just need a funny video.’ That won’t work for everybody. Not every brand is a funny brand. [Bookmaker] Paddy Power is a funny, controversial brand. Similarly, Mountain Dew is very controversial, very funny, and very shocking. That’s what its target audience has come to expect, but not all brands have permission to play in that space.”

The advice Wood gives to brands is the same she gives to her employees, and herself.

Quoting Oscar Wilde, Wood said: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

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