Monday 22 January 2018

Your Business: Digital expert cracks code to create leading online agency

David Douglas tells Sean Gallagher about his journey from bedsit to owning a leading digital agency

David Douglas of Ebow with Sean Gallagher at his Dublin office Picture: David Conachy
David Douglas of Ebow with Sean Gallagher at his Dublin office Picture: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

The challenge: Looking to markets outside of Ireland has never been more important for Irish companies. However, firms often don't know where to begin when making that all-important first step into a new market. It may be worth investing even a small amount of capital in a new location in order to fully assess potential. I spoke to David Douglas from digital agency Ebow about how he expanded his business into the US.

In 1999, David Douglas, then 22 set up his own business Ebow - the digital agency, which has since grown to become one of Dublin's leading and most creative digital agencies with a staff of 24 and an annual turnover of almost €2m. However, back in 2015, he felt that the Irish market was becoming saturated.

To counteract this, he took the brave step of setting up a satellite office in the US, in Philadelphia, to explore opportunities there.

Because resources were limited, he decided against the usual approach of opening an expensive office and opted instead to develop a dedicated US website and hire an experienced and already well-networked business-development executive there, former Howard Stern executive, Keith Fenimore.

In addition, David flies to the US every couple of months to meet prospective clients. It's a strategy that is paying off and already the company has on boarded a number of high-profile clients such as the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Global food giant Aramark and children's entertainment channel, Nickelodeon.

"Everything we deliver there is actually created here in our Dublin office," he says.

"I can only do what I do because I have a fantastic team. I am more like the ideas generator and brand ambassador for the business while my operations director, Sharon Murphy, looks after the operations side of the business," he adds.

"We are specialists in all areas of digital marketing and technology," says David as he shows me around his more-than-cool office on the corner of Castle Street, near Christ Church in Dublin's city centre. In so many ways, this space is a sign of just how far he has come during these intervening years.

"In simple terms we design and build websites and look after the marketing strategies and technologies that go to make them a success. This includes everything from online positioning and email marketing to search engine optimisation, social media and blogs.

"In addition, we integrate these digital elements into a company's existing traditional TV and print media strategy," he adds.

Scrolling through samples of websites his company has developed, David points to what makes sites great such as clear design, simplicity and great content.

"However, while we conceive and build great marketing strategies, we never lose sight of the ultimate goal of delivering results. At the end of the day our objective is to drive relevant traffic to our clients' sites and to deliver conversion results whether that is in the form of increased engagement, better brand awareness or actual sales," he says.

Drawn from across both the private and public sectors, his customers include well-known names such as Irish Ferries, an Post, Ornua (formerly the Irish Dairy Board), the Health Service Executive, the National Transport Authority, Kerrygold and Bewley's.

For David and his team, whose average age is 28, their office environment matters. Hot-desking is the norm and thanks to the advantages of wifi, staff are free to move around as they wish.

"We've developed the office as a creative think tank space which has become an important part of our creative process," says David.

"Freedom of thought and expression are enhanced when people feel less constrained, physically. I like staff to talk to me as well as to each other so we try not to be too politically correct and instead adopt a much more upfront and direct approach."

Without fail, he likes to walk down Grafton Street every day.

"I look at everything, from people's clothes to what shoes they are wearing. It's a must to know what's trending and what's important to our customers' customers," he adds.

David Douglas grew up in Blackrock, in Co Dublin. His father, Edmund Douglas, a well-known estate agent, is part-owner of the DNG group and for a time it seemed that the young David would follow in his father's footsteps. But he dropped out of a property economics course and enrolled instead in Trinity College to study computer science at night.

"To keep my head straight during the day, I would get out of bed every morning, sit at the desk in my bedroom and pretend to have 'a company'. With nothing to do I began to teach myself how to code," says David.

One day while listening to New Adventures in Hi-Fi by REM, he was stuck by a song entitled, E-bow the Letter and decided to adopt this as the name of his future company.

"The initial idea to start the business actually came from my brother, Donald, who runs his own mobile and app development company, Return2Sender. He said I should capitalise on my design capabilities and set up a web design agency as every company was soon going to need a good website," admits David. "I'm delighted that he did because, given my love of music, I might well have ended up as a washed up or burnt out rock star by now."

Having rented a small office in the city centre for €50 a week, he and a few friends had just begun working on his new business idea when he received a call, out of the blue, inviting him to pitch for the job of developing a website for Budget Travel. "It was early in 2000, and it was the time that people were beginning to book travel on line. Because we were the kids of the industry at the time and because we really understood the web - we were able to come up with some pretty cutting-edge stuff which won us the contract," says David.

"I've never forgotten that it was Budget who gave us our first big break and I will forever be grateful to them for that," he adds.

They went on to secure A-Wear and American Holidays as clients and in 2008, won the business to develop the website for the GAA, which they looked after for the following nine years.

Things were going swimmingly well until the downturn hit. "The recession, though hard at the time, ended up being good for me," says David. "When I opened the business I thought nothing could go wrong and that we were all going to be millionaires quickly. But everything can go wrong and we're not all millionaires - yet. In particular, the downturn made me realise what was important in business - that it wasn't about what I wanted to do but what my clients wanted, that was really important," he says.

Business has been good in recent years. In 2012, they secured the National Transport Authority as a client and then, two years later, their largest client, Irish Ferries. "For the moment our focus is on really looking after our existing customers and growing gradually from there," he says.

I ask if he is tempted to go into the property business now that his father may soon be facing retirement? "I'd never rule out going into property at some point and I realise that I'd have big shoes to fill but for now, I love what I'm doing and glad that I went down the creative route."

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