In September, Unruly announced its acquisition by News Corp for £114 million.
The journey began this time last year at Web Summit in Dublin. I was sharing a stage with Rachel Schutt, News Corp’s Chief Data Scientist. During the course of our fireside chat it became clear that we were both excited about the potential role that data could play in helping to create more engaging content, more relevant ads and more personalized audience targeting. Rachel then introduced us to Rahul Chopra, the CEO of Storyful, the world’s first social news agency, founded in Dublin by Mark Little, acquired by News in 2013 and equally focused on the social spread of video content.
At the same time, Rebekah Brooks was on a journey around the world to find a digital video advertising capability to accelerate News Corp’s digital transformation. When I met Rebekah the strategic fit was clear. News could bring Unruly advertisers unique access to its premium media titles and Unruly could bring consumer-friendly ad formats and digital revenues to News.
In truth, selling the company was not something we were quite ready to consider, but because we were scaling internationally, growing revenues at a healthy clip and innovating like crazy, we were being approached by a number of suitors keen to discuss strategic investments or outright acquisitions of the company.
We’d not seriously entertained any discussions prior to the News Corp approach as we’d recently launched the ad industry’s first video SSP [supply side platform — a tool for selling advertising] to trade on viewable video impressions, and we were really excited with the trajectory and long-term prospects of the company that the three of us had founded in 2006 — myself, Scott Button and Matt Cooke.
What set this conversation apart from the others? Ultimately the decision was made on the basis of our mission, values and vision: Will this deal help us with our mission to deliver the best social video campaigns for our clients? Yes — we’ll be able to give them access to native video placements across one of the largest premium media portfolios in the world — at a time when premium video inventory is scarcer than ever before and demand massively outstrips supply.
Will this deal help us with our core company value to share the love? Absolutely — the deal is an opportunity for Unruly shareholders to be financially rewarded for all their hard work and contribution to building a highly-scaled video ad tech company. And bear in mind that a quarter of the business is owned by employees past and present, who also benefit from the UK’s generous EMI options scheme and entrepreneurs’ relief, so as well as giving the founding team and our hugely supportive Series A investors a financial exit, the deal benefited hundreds of “Unrulies.”
Moments Of Anxiety
Will this deal help us realize our vision to transform digital advertising for the better? We believe it will and that’s where our energies are focussed now as News titles are rolling out Unruly’s non-interruptive native ad units. We have already launched our “outstream In-Article” format across key News titles and with the paywall on The Sun coming down at the end of the month, we’ll see a new era at one of the UK’s best known titles.
So how does it feel to sell a company that you’ve built from the ground up? As the deal neared completion, there were certainly moments of anxiety: we’d spent almost a decade building a strong Unruly culture, with clear values and mission. Would an acquisition blow this to bits in one fell swoop? We spoke to execs at other companies acquired by News and came to appreciate that News had a strong track record of turbo-boosting companies while allowing them the freedom to do what they do best. So the three Unruly founders are here for the long term, running the company as an autonomous business unit, in the same office as before, with the same vision to transform digital advertising for the better.
When we announced the deal on 16th September, we felt incredibly proud. Together with a 200-strong team, the three of us have successfully scaled up a tech business here in the UK and achieved a multi-million dollar exit — something that is all too rare in the European tech scene.
Repay The Trust
And it was the most amazing feeling being able to repay the trust that our investors and staff had placed in us over the years. Some people have bought handbags or cars or put down house deposits, but some will be using the funds to start their own companies in the future and that’s the virtuous cycle that the UK’s digital economy needs.
Beyond the immediate feelings of relief and exhaustion experienced by Unruly’s leadership team, the predominant feeling was one of disbelief that we’d actually made it past the post as well as excitement about the next chapter of the Unruly story. We’ve never hidden the fact that we’re highly ambitious entrepreneurs. We like solving big problems and we like having big impact. We’ve always been passionate about building a business that can service global clients with global campaigns and succeed on a global playing field. The acquisition enables us to do just that.
The deal for us was never about an exit or an ending; instead it marks the start of a new stage for the company we love. It will enable us to broaden our global media footprint, accelerate our technology road map and consolidate our audience data capabilities. In other words, it will give us the opportunity to power up our business and take Unruly to the next level. Same Unruly — bigger opportunity. Now that’s a good feeling.
Sarah Wood is Co-founder and Co-CEO of Unruly