Belfast Telegraph

'If my cartoon Pablo can raise awareness of autism around the world, then I will have done my job'

The Big Interview: Gavin Halpin

By Emma Deighan

Gavin Halpin, the managing director of one of Northern Ireland's most successful creative media firms, says he does his job for the love of it rather than the profit.

But regardless of non-mercenary motives, Holywood-based Paper Owl Films, which he set up with his two business partners in 2012, has "hugely improved its turnover" in recent years and has plans to almost double its staff and move its headquarters in 2019.

Its success is global too, with its Pablo series - a children's animation based on a five-year-old boy who is on the autistic spectrum - something of an "international calling card", beckoning even more deals.

And it counts CBeebies, RTE, Netflix, Universal Kids, Nat Geo, Nickelodeon and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) among its clients.

It was also nominated for a Children's Bafta this year and recently won Best Marketing Campaign in the European Diversity Awards for Pablo.

Born in Drogheda, Gavin, a father-of-two, moved around a lot when he was younger to accommodate his father's accountancy career. Meath, Galway, Letterkenny, Dublin and Belfast all play a big role in his life but Letterkenny is where he calls home.

But do attributes developed to cope with moving around a lot come in handy in his career today? "I always like new things and change and I'm always able to make friends quite easily. It's given me good social skills, being that new boy at school every second year," he says.

And it is those social skills that are the foundation of his ability to attract funding and contracts with new clients, he says. They're also the backbone of the company's ability to tell stories across a range of genres - from Pablo to Irish language series and over 45 television documentaries.

"Our identity is not defined by the genre but more by the philosophy of the stories we want to tell and that gives us ability to work quite passionately," says Gavin. "If you were doing what we're doing for money you'd be mad but that's not the main driving force," he continues.

Gavin has always been passionate about the creative industries.

He recalls his childhood watching Westerns with his father which led him to apply for a degree in film and broadcasting at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) where he achieved first-class honours.

"My main focus then was practical. I wanted to shoot and edit documentaries and DIT's philosophy is to produce graduates who are employable. While the course is academic, it offers a good bit of practical skills," he says.

It was when Gavin's technical flair was challenged by industry changes in 2007, as post-production technology became more available to the masses, that he moved from the practical side of work to put his own ideas into action. Among the projects that followed were visual campaigns for economic development agency Invest NI.

A multi-skilled creative, Gavin's abilities saw him continue to work on many other projects, winning prestigious commissions in the Republic.

An Irish speaker, Gavin's other ambition was to create an Irish language series, which became the firm's first production - Bia Linn - a 26-part children's cookery series which still airs on TG4.

It was the title that started the firm's upward trajectory, which today amounts to around 150 episodes of children's television and "well over 20 hours broadcast documentary" including a three-piece series, Shaping the Coast, the unknown story of the creation of the Antrim Coast Road.

It's no mean feat considering the business was set up at a kitchen table in 2014 with nothing more than a laptop and a "£50 printer".

Four years later and, on reflection, Gavin admits that a certain amount of risk-taking paid off for the founding trio, which also includes Grainne McGuinness and Stephen Petticrew. "When we look back at all those risks, that weren't very strategic, it paid off," he says.

"We worked up ideas on how to get funded and got a few things off the ground quite soon because we had, as individuals, a good set of credits in the eyes of the broadcasters, even though we didn't have infrastructure or even a decent printer. There was good faith from those people and that was what built a good platform."

Today Gavin can be found travelling the world to sell and seal deals with some of the biggest channels on TV. It's a role that calls on those interpersonal skills that he developed so well when he was moving around as a child, he says.

But it's also the part of the job that he finds the most challenging as he leaves his wife and two children, Fionn (5) and Sean (2) behind.

"You're trying to get people excited by your ideas and you need to convince them that your show has an end audience and define what makes it different.

"There is a myriad of questions to answer when you pitch and it can take three or four attempts and when you're travelling a lot it is hard.

"I had to explain to Fionn why I go away recently and I said 'I talk to people to raise money to make more Pablos' so he shuffled off and came back with his piggy bank to try and help."

Funding from NI Screen has allowed Paper Owl to draw up concepts and designs which it can then bring to the international market.

It also contributes to transport costs when the firm attends international shows. Other funding is then sourced from a "cocktail" of broadcasters, distributors and UK tax credits.

The capital raised for Pablo is what Gavin deems the highlight of his career so far. He says that finance was the biggest commercial deal it's done so far.

"That's the highlight for commercial reasons because that finance allowed us to move to Holywood and grow our staff and none of those things would have been possible without Pablo. It gave us the ability to create a solid infrastructure." There's no doubt that Pablo is the production firm's biggest success story, and will be, for many years.

In fact Gavin refers to it as the company's "international calling card". A second season has already been commissioned by CBeebies and Pablo has also paved t he way for another stream of revenue - merchandising and books.

"The book deal is almost signed and is in development and we are looking at a theatrical show - Pablo the musical - that can travel around the world. That will also bring merchandising opportunities," adds Gavin.

Pablo's success, and its USP, is its message.

"We know what the editorial perspective is and these programmes should be nourishing and I think we do have to guard against a plethora of mind-numbing nonsense and educate and inform," says Gavin.

"It has to be entertaining and funny but also send a message subliminally that you don't bully an autistic child. Pablo is unique in that he is a champion for autism and if he raises awareness, around the world, for autism, then I feel my job is done."

But Paper Owl's job is far from done. The future for the firm and its sector is filled with potential, Gavin believes - thanks to blockbuster TV series Game of Thrones, which is filmed here.

"It's a brilliant time for the creative industry in Northern Ireland. Game of Thrones has really put us on the map and that's had a knock on effect for any company talking to international broadcasters.

"Northern Ireland isn't some backwater that hasn't been heard of. It is finely regarded in the industry and everyone benefits from that. What we want now is for the industry to get stronger. We want to let talent know that you don't need to go to London or LA, you can achieve a global reputation from here.

"We could benefit from a collegiate ecosystem whereby we could help each other share contacts and from my perspective if we can help each other it will come back to us in a way. Gone are the days of covering your homework."

Belfast Telegraph

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