FIPP Rising Star Helen O’Donnell: “I am personally very motivated by the democratisation of content”


Helen O'Donnell ()


The FIPP Rising Stars in Media Awards 2019, kindly supported by UPM – The Biofore Company, recognise outstanding work in the global media industry. Winners will be announced at the FIPP World Media Congress Opening Reception taking place in Las Vegas on 12 November 2019. Entries are open now and the deadline is 30 September 2019.


21 questions for FIPP Rising Star Helen O’Donnell


1. What’s your current role?

I am Head of Development for TalentWorks, a new content label that identifies forward-thinking digital talent with whom BBC Studios can collaborate to develop innovative new content. We create content with premier league digital stars including Dan Howell, Phil Lester, Joe Sugg, Caspar Lee, DanTDM, Joe Wicks, and Sam & Nic Chapman. I work across all genres and platforms to develop new projects. I’m an advisory board member and speaker at Vidcon, the world’s largest celebration of digital video and online creators. I’m the Chair of BBC Studios Next Generation Board, and an alumni of the Emerging Leaders Programme at the company.


2. How did you get there?

I studied Architecture at the University of Sheffield. When I graduated, I worked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and at the Manchester International Festival. As part of the festival, I earned an internship in the marketing department of PZ Cussons, a FMCG beauty company in the UK. In this role, I worked in the marketing team of Original Source and St.Tropez, leading to a Brand Management position at Charles Worthington. I moved to London with the company in 2012, and then on to a role as Brand Manager of Comedy at BBC Worldwide.

Since joining BBC Worldwide in 2013, I have specialised my career into content development, working alongside Paul Hembury to develop online talent. We kick started this work by developing a 1 x 90’ show in 2015; Joe & Caspar Hit The Road. Since then we have worked together to launch BBC Studios TalentWorks, which specifically aims to collaborate with digital talent to create long-form content.


3. What are your passions? 

Outside of work, I perform Improvised Comedy with DNAYS Productions, who perform award-winning shows internationally and in the UK. I’ve found it important in my career to have a passion outside of work.

I also manage the crew for Machynlleth Comedy Festival – an independent comedy festival based in beautiful Wales.


4. Where is home and what do you like most about your city?

I live in Tufnell Park, North London. I’m originally from Stockport near Manchester. I love living in London – I love the wide cultural scene, and regularly watch fringe theatre and shows in the West End. Tufnell Park has many great places to visit, try Neighbour for a good brunch, Hampstead Heath for a long walk and Authentique Wine Bar in the evening.


5. What did you want to do when you grew up?

A vet – but I am very squeamish so I don’t think it would have worked out!


6. How’s your typical work day?

I work in a small team, so each day is very varied. You would probably find me meeting new talent, developing some of our existing slate, checking in on productions, researching new talent online, catching up with our development team and watching A LOT of content.


7. An overrated slang word or term in the media industry…



8. How did it feel and what did it mean to be a Rising Stars in Media winner?

It was a brilliant honour. FIPP identify innovation in the industry and it was fantastic to be recognised alongside such creativity.


9. How has this recognition helped you in the past year?

I travelled to Berlin to attend the Digital Innovation Summit, and was invited to attend the FIPP board meeting. At this stage in my career, it was a fascinating insight into how global media executives consider the future of digital.


10. What advice would you give to other young people in the industry?

Having a broad range of experience later in your career is a positive. At the time, it might feel as if you are sidestepping or not on the right path, but it will all add up to a fantastic valuable portfolio career.


11. What areas of the industry excite you going forward?

I am personally very motivated by the democratisation of content. It is interesting to be forming a bridge between a large traditional media company like BBC Studios, steeped in a rich production history, and new generation content creators who can distribution content direct to an audience without the need for a gatekeeper.


12. What are the attributes that you feel benefitted you in winning this award, that you can pass on to others?

The importance of collaboration. My role is focussed on drawing creative people together to produce something more than the sum of their parts. Being able to bring teams together from the traditional and digital worlds is a skill!


13. What’s been the most memorable thing you’ve taken from your job in the past 12 months?

I have just completed the ‘Helen Kellie Development Programme’, a new annual employee exchange programme with the Australian SBS network and BBC Studios, that sees one colleague from the respective businesses spend three weeks with their counterpart organisation; participating in cultural and professional development opportunities.

The programme is in recognition and in remembrance of our former mutual colleague, Helen Kellie, who sadly passed away in 2017.

I spent three weeks with the TV & Online content team at SBS, headed up by Marshall Heald. It was a fantastic experience, to spend time with another PSB on the other side of the world. In particular, it was fascinating to see how they develop new diverse talent. The SBS Voices team are very inspiring.


14. What’s the most recent professional skill that you have acquired?

This year is the first time I have had my own team and been accountable for our strategy for the year. It is important to be clear, and try not to be busy all the time! We can do anything but we can’t do everything, so it is important to be laser focussed on what we want to achieve and what will make the lean department move forward.


15. Who do you look up to in the industry?

I look up to Nancy Twynam, a peerless marketing professional at BBC Studios UK. She makes her high profile and demanding job appear effortless. She remains down-to-earth and consistently supportive of those earlier in their career.


16. What’s the best bit of your job?

Working with new talent, and helping them take the first step in their broadcast career.


17. How do you unwind when work is stressing you a lot?

I watch a lot of live comedy – which is a great way to switch off. Hoopla Improv Club, The Free Association and Soho Theatre always have something on that I will love.


18. A song that pumps you for work.

Shake it off – Taylor Swift


19. What would you tell your 16 year old self?

Really enjoy living in Manchester with your best friends – as you get older you will all live in separate cities so appreciate them being on your doorstep!


20. What’s next in your career?

At the moment, I am focussed on the launch of our department, TalentWorks. With the ever-changing media landscape, it is hard to predict where you will be in five years – so I’m not worrying about it too much.


21. Why should young people in the industry apply for the FIPP Rising Stars in Media?

It is good to be recognised for the work you are doing. It is also valuable to build networks outside of your current role and company, and the FIPP Rising Stars in Media is a fantastic way to do just that. Go for it!

The FIPP Rising Stars in Media Awards 2019, kindly supported by UPM – The Biofore Company, recognise outstanding work in the global media industry. Winners will be announced at the FIPP World Media Congress Opening Reception taking place in Las Vegas on 12 November 2019. Entries are open now and the deadline is 30 September 2019.


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