By Tamara Pupic
Creative producer and communications professional Danielle Nay explains how she came became a central figure in the Emirate’s ever-changing events landscape
“I gave it all up for love,” says Danielle Nay, managing director of Transformers, a Dubai-based special event ingredients company.
It’s not something you would expect to hear from someone whose career has included a series of entrepreneurial ventures, each pushing the envelope in the industry and each providing her with an important learning curve that would help her move onto something bigger and better.
But Nay, a Brit who relocated to Dubai in 2009 after her husband Adrian Bell had set up a communications agency here, says she is simply someone who has a huge appetite for challenge, and admits: “I’m not going to be happy unless I do something and give it a go.”
Arriving in the middle of recession in 2009, when everyone was leaving, she credits her husband and few friends for soft landing but describes Dubai “not as a joyful place.”
However, it was also the time when she spotted the business opportunity.
“I thought there was a very thin supply of interesting stuff here but Dubai has changed a lot,” she says.
“It’s becoming more sophisticated every day. But five years ago it was quite a different place. The talent wasn’t here.
“What I thought was really missing and what I wanted to introduce to corporate events [here] was that sense of theatre and immersive experiences.”
Long before coming to Dubai, however, there were several signs of her strong entrepreneurial panache, including making and selling jewellery made of beads during her gap year before starting university.
And it wasn’t the usual story of a teenage girl dipping her toe into the waters of business, bearing in mind she ended up selling her products to Harrods and many top boutiques in London.
“I didn’t make lots of money but I made pocket money and it got me interested,” she says.
That interest has been stemming ever since from a feeling she describes as “restlessness”, taking the Oxford graduate in classics and modern languages to start her career in 1989 with the public relations consultant Alan Crompton-Batt – the man credited for turning chefs into the new rock and roll stars.
However, it was in 1996 that she started running the publicity department, including the promotions and events divisions, of Channel 5 – launched a year later – which she describes as “the most exciting job,” and seems to also have had a major influence on her.
She says: “We had to do things differently and be very nimble. We had to reinvent the way the publicity was done and events were such a big part of that that we became very famous for our events.
“It was hugely challenging.
“I’ve never been short of ideas but the best thing about working there was that we had the most incredible team. We had a great internal team, which was very small and had to do things in a smarter way, and a virtual team.
“My big learning from there is that you don’t have to have everybody in house. You can cherry-pick brains and talents, and bring them in to solve a problem or work on a task or project.
“The events got me really excited because I realised that you can use events to position a brand differently or refresh perceptions of a brand and create touch points which were not possible through regular relations. “
She also credits Mother, the UK’s largest independent advertising agency, for teaching her a lot about building a brand or creating a simple communication for a brand without a big budget.
“I wanted to harvest on that,” is how she explains the moment she realised that she was happy focusing on events. The future ‘event alchemist’ was born.
She started her own boutique events and experiential agency in 1998 – Dr. Party, dubbed “the media’s party organiser of choice” by the Financial Times. The company won a contract to do all events for Chanel 5, and signalled the fact that she never burns her bridges.
On the contrary, her honesty elevates the concept of networking, which she explains is crucial to her business, to all new heights by saying: “I don’t forget people.
“So when I’m trying to put a project together, I’m able to go through this kind of a mental rolodex to find the right people for the project.
“It’s about having a real talent pool. In my business it is really critical to be able to identify and nurture talent, and to know how to deploy and manage that talent.”
In 2001 she sold Dr. Party to Bob Geldof’s media group Ten Alps Communications plc, where she continued to work as a director of their events division.
“With a small events company it’s hard to grow organically beyond a certain point,” she continues.
“So the chance was to grow organically or team up with someone bigger who would bring influence and contacts.”
One of the interesting things about Nay is that even while she talks about the past, her strong business acumen connects the dots all the way to the present to identify a new business opportunity here and now.
She says: “The reason behind the acquisition is that Bob’s company was producing Skyfests in Sydney, a huge firework displays but with a bespoke soundtrack which was broadcast by radio. So you could watch the displays from around the city and listen to the soundtrack at the same time.
“Whereas here you don’t have that. If you watch the fireworks on the World for the New Year’s Eve, and for example I was at the Burj Al Arab, I couldn’t hear the music.”
She soon embraced a new challenge by stepping into the advertising industry as director of brand entertainment at DDB London
She says: “In those days there were really strict limitations on sponsorships of TV programmes, which was starting to change. It was all about finding other ways for brands to reach new audiences.”
Nay later established consultancy Brand Angel in 2005 before taking the big leap into Dubai.
It goes without saying that Nay is not your typical entrepreneur, and certainly not cut from the same cloth as the legions of those coming to the emirate just for a short period of time, neither interested to leave the mark nor to give back to the community.
“Everybody is here to do business, and everybody is a networker,” she says. “Everyone is on a fast track. It’s not a place that breeds huge loyalty amongst working population.
“It is a strategic base but those who don’t think they are here for long are not giving back.”
After a few years of working as events director at a leading communications agency in Dubai, when she struggled to source original finishing touches for events, she decided to transform the emirate’s events industry.
She says: “Content and storytelling is what makes an event interesting. That’s what I like doing.
“I like joining the dots. The main thing is to be relevant. I occasionally challenge my clients with my suggestions.
“A lot of what we do is putting smile on people’s faces,” she adds, unveiling the reason behind Transformers’ rich offering aimed at creating instant glamour and a series of event talking points or ice-breakers.
These range from sculptural table centrepieces, exquisite costume characters, interactive digital graffiti wall, to Social Mosa, an Instagram and Twitter Wall, and Transformation Stations, which offer instant makeovers, and many other bespoke products and services.
Adding that she has noticed competitors only for certain segments of her business, she says: “We’re always trying to push the envelope. My business roughly splits into two divisions.
“One relates to interactive technologies. I love the way technology keeps changing. It’s hard to keep up so I do a lot of reading in my spare time. The other side is theatrical.
“There are companies doing one or the other but we combine those things. We are joining it all up and turning it into a narrative or a story.”
In her opinion, Dubai has changed from a place which copied other cities to an innovative market which is now attracting brands in its own right.
She says: “It’s starting to be a secondary market. We have clients and partners who are only in Europe and Dubai or the US and Dubai.
“Partnerships are a big bit of my business. We are an exclusive regional reseller for the whole bunch of clever people from the US, the UK, Canada, and similar.
“Then we have our own IPs as well that we’ve developed over time. So again there are people doing bits of it but nobody doing all of it,” she says.
When asked how challenging it has been to set up and develop such an innovative business in Dubai, she again speaks not about stumbling but building blocks.
She says: “The main challenge of my business is that it’s incredibly seasonal. You have to plan three months of very low or no income. That makes employment very difficult.
“The fact that there’s no legitimate freelance culture is really a big barrier to my and a lot of other businesses.”
Another opportunity to improve business climate in Dubai is to introduce the concept of shared offices.
“There’s a critical mass of people like me now and I think a good opportunity is to allow something like shared spaces,” she says explaining their 25,000sqft storage in Al Qouz exceeds their needs.
Transformers was first established within Creative Zone, a Dubai-based business setup solutions provider, which she praises for good and supportive guidance and recommends to all fellow entrepreneurs, but also had to register as a local LLC company due to their storage capacity needs.
She says: “Starting an LLC is far from being equally straightforward [as in a free zone] and lacks an institution to hold your hand through the process. One of the biggest challenges is just finding all this stuff out. It takes ages.”
However, having sorted all that out and being happy that she “doesn’t have sleepless nights about her partner,” she says: “I’m really happy in Dubai. We are only two years old and I feel that we have barely scratched the surface of Dubai, and even less of Abu Dhabi.
“Dubai and Abu Dhabi are definitely the most sophisticated markets but in different ways.
“I would say that Abu Dhabi is more culturally sophisticated, and is very conscious of that, likes to celebrate that, while most of our clients in Dubai are driving things forward.
“Our clients in Doha, like the Doha Film Institute, are very innovative, well-resourced and they do stuff I haven’t seen in Dubai. They are good at joining the dots – creating interesting experiences.”
Although they have worked in all other emirates and Qatar, her business is mainly split between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and she would like to keep it that way.
“I really want to focus on building my business here rather than spreading myself and my colleagues too thin. We are very busy with what’s at our doorstep,” she says.
Given the opportunities Expo 2020 will bring, she couldn’t be more right.
Explaining that she is already seeing the change, there’s a hint that she is also already preparing: “That’s why I like to have fresh stuff, andTransformers will eventually be seen as a part of that change and innovation.
“The biggest challenge is remaining successful, innovative, and staying ahead of the curve.”