Entrepreneur Interview: with Danielle Dunn, DDCA

Posted on the 11 September 2015

Entrepreneur Interview: with Danielle Dunn, DDCA

Danielle Dunn shies away from the label ‘entrepreneur’, despite having earned the title through the establishment of not one, but two successful businesses all by the age of 35.

As we chat across the boardroom desk in the trendy office her business is about to depart in favour of a new nearby location, it’s clear that while Danielle has nothing against the term ‘entrepreneur’, her achievements are more about representing the North East and its digital age. 

As managing director of DDCA, a digital marketing agency based handily close to the creative hub of Newcastle’s Ouseburn, Danielle likes to champion the North East. Within minutes of meeting her for the first time it is clear that she is a lady who is ready to get behind any cause with gusto.

“I just have ambitions, I see an opportunity and I want to go and do something about it. I get a bit embarrassed when people call me an entrepreneur. 

“Aren’t we just the type of people who look for opportunity? We spot it, get our sleeves rolled up and go for it. I think we have that mentality in the North East, we just get on with it.

“If you look through history, there have been a lot of entrepreneurs who have come out of the region. Maybe that’s just embedded in our culture.”  You only have to look at the people who started the Lit & Phil.”

Promoting women in industry is among a few of the subjects that inspire passion in the North Shields mum. Tackling her industry’s skills deficit, and acting as a prominent figure in two branches of the Women’s Institute, she aims to inspire other women across the region to succeed in business. 

“There are a lot of very inspiring women at the WI already. The WI is thriving as an organisation and constantly adapting to change and technology. Their numbers are growing, it’s fantastic.”

After graduating at the age of 21 with a Fashion Marketing degree from Northumbria University, 

Danielle founded her own handmade soap company, Fresh Deli, which received funding from none other than Sir Peter Vardy, a key figure in North East business.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur and was that spirit encouraged when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an editor of a fashion magazine. 

My dad is a builder and my mum did promotional work, so she was a part-time sales advisor. There was entrepreneurial spirit; I come from a family that has all owned their own businesses, but it’s all been building, electricians, joinery, so it has mainly been the male characters in my family who have been very entrepreneurial in their own right.

I think that my mum and dad both raised my brother and I to have dreams, high ambition and to become high achievers. Both my parents gave us that encouragement to reach for the stars, which we both did.

How did founding DDCA come about?
When we sold Fresh Deli, eight years ago now, I realised that options in the North East for digital and design agencies, who also knew how to market websites, were quite limited. The agency was born from me becoming a consultant in digital marketing as soon as I came out of Fresh Deli and I consulted for some quite large companies, including my own. I took on a marketing executive within three months, and then another one, following this we won a job to build a website for a brand new estate agency. Our workload gradually increased and, before I knew it, the business began to grow exponentially. So, as a limited company, we are about four-years-old, and continue to succeed, year on year.

We now have a team of ten ranging from social media executives to account managers to a full design studio and, as an employer, I have always been keen to take on young talent and champion university graduates.  

We are called DDCA, which was originally named after myself, because I had already been an entrepreneur and I wanted to trade from that name. It was an easy transition for me, but we always knew that DDCA would come to represent something else, so now it’s Design and Digital Communications Agency – that’s basically what we do. Our USP really is that we develop campaigns and strategies that are tailored to our clients’ needs and business objectives.

You’re about to move into new offices in the Toffee Factory, but where did it all start for DDCA?
The Dockmaster’s House on the Fish Quay in North Shields was my first office for the agency, because I lived in Tynemouth, my little girl went to nursery in Tynemouth and I needed to live in a very small triangle to get from home, to work, to nursery. That was where I took on my first marketing executive; we were there for two years before moving to an old pub in Byker for a short time, then we moved here, to Union Street.

This office got us near Ouseburn, which has become a creative hub, and allowed for a nice open plan office space really close to things that the team need. Whether that be shops, somewhere to eat, pubs to socialise after work and the parking is also easier than it would be in the city centre.

In September, we move to the Toffee Factory, which is really exciting, for us this means more breakout spaces, more places to have meetings, more areas for people to go and read more difficult communication that they need to get their heads around. In an open plan office space there aren’t really enough places to get some headspace to concentrate and that’s what the Toffee Factory will give us. 

Did starting in a recession worry you?
Not really. In a recession, companies have a chance to re-evaluate their sales and marketing strategy and actually I saw that as a huge opportunity to add value to businesses that wanted to adapt and change. I think the recession was good for people in my industry, because businesses took stock.

All businesses have to keep an eye on changing markets, but few are as fluid as in the digital world. How does that affect your business?
There has been a massive shift in marketing over the last five years that most companies can’t keep up with. Instead of us going in quite aggressively, telling companies they are behind the times and need to do X, Y and Z, we have taken the approach of working with business owners to identify key objectives for their business and then evaluated their existing marketing to see what can be improved. That’s where we have been successful, because we tailor our services to suit the needs of each individual client.

Every business is different and they all change in unique ways and have their own needs, whether that be a legacy infrastructure of IT or technology that they have to hold on to. It’s not as easy as a digital agency coming in and just changing everything. Because I am a business owner, I understand business owners’ challenges. A lot has changed for businesses because of the digital age and technological advances moving really fast. I have been there alongside that to help inform businesses of how they can adapt and change at a rate and pace that suits them.

Many of your clients are based in London. Have you found it difficult marketing to the capital as a North East agency?
About 30% of our business comes from London now, the rest from the North East, but we are looking to get more from London in the next six to nine months, that’s the plan. 

I wouldn’t say there is an arrogance towards us being a Northern agency. It doesn’t matter so much. I think with people from London, Manchester, Leeds, and with Birmingham becoming this new digital hub, there is equal respect among the cities and an understanding that we are all good at what we do and if there is business to be had then we can share it amongst ourselves. The way that I have gained business, really, from London is just from contacts, meeting people and talking to other agencies.

Many businesses in the digital sector talk about a lack of skills. Is this something you have experienced?
I have just been talking to the North East Chamber of Commerce about exactly that. I am very passionate about wanting to become a female ambassador in the North East to help facilitate the tackling of the skills gap that we have in our industry. I can get raw talent, which we can train, but I do think there is a gap in terms of talent that can hit the ground running. There is so much opportunity now for young people to get into this industry, because I think there’s going to be a lot of jobs out there for digital marketers in the future in the North East. If they can get that training at a young age then I would certainly give them a job.

It’s a real problem for digital agencies, because graduates come out of university with raw talent, we then nurture them and train them for two years and then they go to an internal role with a company and that’s a real pain. It would be great if agencies could retain these people, if we could get those with commercial experience, but there is a real lack of these people. 

So, how do you go about motivating and retaining your staff?
You have got to be flexible. Not everybody wants to work nine to five, we have got to be able to allow staff to start later, finish later, work remotely or work with clients when required. There has to be flexibility with a creative team. 

We motivate them and allow them a lot of personal and professional development. In terms of culture, trying to introduce some fun into the workplace is essential, whether that be breaking out for a spot of yoga, which we have done, or a football table, things like that. A lot of what we do is strategising, it is reports, and it’s pretty intense time behind a computer screen, so we do have to inject some fun and that motivates people.

It’s also about giving them training opportunities, for example to get a qualification with Google, that really motivates them to discover more, because creative talent needs to be given an opportunity to be able to get better at what they do, and that actually is what drives them and motivates them to do better for our clients, and to help each other. 

Personally, I have just received my Master of Arts in Design Professional Practice at Northumbria University, so I am very much in favour of lifelong learning and professional development.

What is your own motivation?
I’m motivated by seeing change happen within businesses. I love starting to work with businesses that have maybe not started on that journey of innovation and digital and working with them and seeing the results. I get motivated by the numbers and getting results for clients. We are very much a return on investment-focused agency and that’s exactly what motivates me. When they are happy, we are happy because we get more work, they get more business, our staff are happy because they are getting great results, so they are getting praise and then I am happy because everybody within the agency, the staff, the clients, is achieving what they set out to do.

What does the future hold?
We would like to get more business in the North East. I would love to work with some of the older businesses in the North East, the iconic North East brands, such as Fenwick, Ringtons and Barbour, that would be my ambition. Because of my fashion background, of course I would love more retail clients, that would be fantastic. 

The dream, obviously, would be to work with Fenwick, but where we can add real value is by working with those older businesses that haven’t perhaps moved with the times quite as quickly.

I’m very passionate about the history of the North East. We have always been a base for talent and innovation right back through industry. So many famous people have come out of the North East in terms of innovators, so it would be great to work with some of those heritage businesses.