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NI Digital Expert interview: Naomh McElhatton

My NI Digital Experts interview series is going full steam ahead – we’re already on the 8th interview! This one is very special to me, as it’s with a woman who for a long while was almost synonymous with the digital marketing industry in Northern Ireland: Naomh McElhatton.

I owe Naomh a lot: when I first arrived in NI in 2009 and was trying to find my feet, I met Naomh through my wife’s work and she immediately made me feel welcome and part of the local digital business community.

Through her Digital Exchange networking group, which she co-founded with Andy Hill (soon to be featured in this interview series as well), I connected with loads of professionals and it helped me establish myself locally as an SEO expert.

Naomh was also the driving force behind the DANI Awards, which ran from 2011 to 2015. These awards empowered the Northern Irish digital scene to take pride in their work, and be more vocal about their achievements rather than just plough on in that typical understated ‘Norn Iron’ fashion.

Without Naomh’s efforts, the local digital industry would not be as vibrant and healthy as it is today. So let’s hear from Naomh herself.

Tell us about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover digital marketing and become so involved in it?

This is always a funny question as it can be tricky as to where to actually start “my story”. I originally trained as a primary school teacher, however that vocation was not for me, so I somehow fell into advertising and marketing and knew quite quickly that I had a flair for it, when the opportunity presented itself to work within this new digital space I grabbed it with both hands.

For the purpose of making this a “digital journey” I’ll start back in 2008. After my eldest was born I took the risk of working for a company that had an idea of becoming the first online advertising network in Northern Ireland, unfortunately with the lack of start-up investment it didn’t last more than 6 months.

After that I began working with another web design agency as a business development manager. Very quickly we identified that we could in fact try and give the online advertising network another go. Just when momentum was gathering I found out that I was pregnant with number 2, a healthy trout according to my midwife! So that put a spanner in the works.

I must admit I knew from early on that I really loved the variety that the online space offered and knew that I had found the industry that I would like to give my full attention to. After bambino numero 2 appeared I knew it was time for me to take the reigns and become my own boss.

Back in your university days you studied to become a teacher. Do you feel that this education has helped you in the digital industry? If you could go back, would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether?

You know what, if I could do it ALL again I would be a web designer! I love the creativity and thought process behind it. I have just about got my head around building a simple WordPress site (don’t laugh!). Is it sad to say that I find it quite therapeutic?

My teacher training has definitely helped me; in that it’s given me the confidence to stand in front of any crowd and deliver a presentation confidently. However, having spent more time within the education sector teaching, which believe me is so ironic, I can honestly say that university education is not the be all and end all. If you have an interest in digital marketing per say, or web design or coding, there are so many brilliant courses available to you, which do not require you to go through the expense of university. Unfortunately “back in my day” we didn’t have this rich variety.

In 2010 you started Digital Advertising Northern Ireland (DANI) to provide digital advertising and marketing services. What made you start your own business, and what are some of the biggest challenges you faced as an entrepreneur?

I suppose it was a mix of want, need and must do if that makes sense. It was a tough time for me at that stage two babies under 2 and my hubby was out of work at the time, but that’s enough of the sad story!

Anyone that knows me will know how much I love a challenge, excitement and risk, starting my own business sure as hell give me those feelings in bucket loads. I was very lucky in many ways, I managed to secure seed investment to get my venture off the ground. We had some major successes and great times! The problem with running your own business is knowing when to jump forward and when to take a step back. If I am completely honest I was a total greenhorn, little did I know about VAT, PAYE, NI payments, P&L’s etc., thankfully I had a great team and support at the time to manage that side of the business.

When you start a business the biggest trick is learning to manage cashflow, most of the time I ended up robbing Peter to pay Paul. If the truth were told this is what killed DANI in the end, that and the advances in online advertising technology, location and competition.

Maintaining focus was another issue; I’m a dreamer, the queen of procrastination, which is something that I’ve had to work hard to rectify. Someone once call me an Ideas Box. My mind goes into overdrive, I can think of a million things that I would like to do and I get so excited about the thought of it all.

Another peer in the sector once told me that he writes a priority list and does not waiver from that until all the “to do’s” are complete. Such a good discipline and one I now adhere to. Having entrepreneurial blood means that failure only pushes you on, I am more confident now than I have ever been. Mistakes are key to improving who and what you are. Never give up!

You’re most well-known for the annual DANI Awards which ran from 2011 to 2015. What was your main driver to create these awards, and why is it important for the Northern Irish digital industry to celebrate their successes through such awards?

I will NEVER forget the day the light bulb came on for the DANI Awards, we were sitting in the office high-fiving each other for managing to survive our first year in business. Then we talked about what we could do to celebrate this. I know it seems hard to believe but back then the digital space in Northern Ireland was still quite underground and unknown. I decided that it was time to make space for the digital sector in Northern Ireland and for it to be accepted as a serious player in the market.

I look at pics now from over the years and nip myself asking did they really happen? Did I create these? It was brilliant and something that I will always be really really proud of. The delight in winners receiving their award, the competition and the bitter losers only added to how serious they treated the awards.

This is the passion agencies and businesses have their digital marketing efforts. This passion and pride is prevalent within the digital space. I think this is something that still excites me, to see a website launch or a social media campaign activated that goes viral. I think it would be hard to find this feeling in any other industry sector.

Nowadays you’re mostly occupied with teaching digital marketing for House of Comms and the Northern Regional College, as well as serving as an advisory board member for Digital Catapult. What are the most valuable lessons you want to share with budding entrepreneurs and upcoming digital marketers?

Read, read, read! Knowledge is power. Within this fast paced, ever changing industry you need to keep your finger on the pulse. I read the most random articles, I’ve about 25 Google Alerts that hit my inbox daily.

Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office?

Well, I have 2 little munchkins to keep me entertained, so they take up quite a bit of my time. When the mummy hat is off I’ve been known to partake in the odd glass vino or two and enjoy dining out.

I took up golf last year and I have to say I LOVE it (don’t judge me).

Other interests include reading, I recently started a book club, which is going well so far, mind you folk could perceive it as a vino club too, but we do read the books (I promise!) Bar the ole socialising and entertaining I run a bit, have fallen in love with the Body Coach’s HIIT sessions and have started practising Ashtanga Yoga, plenty to keep me going.


Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience.

Hmm… not that it’s underrated but I am loving AirBnB’s app! You can find some of the most AMAZING places to stay at a fraction of the price. I am already planning various little breaks for 2017.

About Naomh McElhatton

Naomh McElhatton
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