Lee Hunt is a brand strategist, trainer and industry thought leader. He's the founder of Lee Hunt LLC, a Woodstock, N.Y.-based consultancy focusing on brand strategy, on-air architecture, competitive analysis and personnel training for television networks and media companies.
His success in launching and positioning channel brands, in addition to his pioneering work in audience management, have set many of industry standards.
He began his career on the client side in the 1980s, launching and branding Lifetime, VH1 and TNT. In the 1990’s he founded one of TV’s most successful creative services agencies, Lee Hunt Associates. In 1999, he sold LHA to the digital services company, Razorfish. In 2001 he launched the strategic consultancy, Lee Hunt LLC.
What's he know about branding and marketing? Plenty.
I've known Hunt for more than 30 years. I've always been impressed with his work, in terms of both quality and quantity. I sat down with him recently to get his views on marketing and promotion — not because he's a friend but because he has a lot to say.
Sobel: You started your career in television in on-air promotion (OAP). How do you define that?
Hunt: I like to use the definition of Kim Rosenblum, EVP of Marketing and Creative at TV Land. She said, “On-air promotion continues an existing relationship — reminding your audience why they’re there in the first place and keep them coming back for more.”
Sobel: How did you end up in the field, at a Public Broadcasting Station no less?
Hunt: Like many people in OAP, I fell into it. I grew up in Dallas, a fifth generation Texan, and like most of my family I attended University of Texas Austin. After graduation, I moved back to Dallas and started looking for work while supporting myself as a waiter. I saw a classified ad for an associate news producer position at the local PBS station, KERA-TV. I wasn’t qualified of course, but management was kind enough to interview me, and introduced me to the channel’s production manager.
It turned out the station’s studio cameras were the same cameras we had at UT, and the production manager let me work as a volunteer cameraman during pledge drives. Eventually, that led to a part time, then full time job on the crew.
We had a lot of freedom at KERA and I used to come in on the weekends and make pledge drive spots on my own. I’d just turn on all the equipment, bring in my own talent and props, and start making things. Nobody seemed to care. The spots were great fun, ended up getting some attention and won a few awards.
Within a year or so, the director of on-air promotion at the station decided to leave. Normally, his position would have been offered to the crewmember with the most seniority — that’s how people moved up the ladder at the station. I was the lowest ranking person on the crew, but because I had been making pledge spots for the last few months, I was the only one with a reel. I ended up getting the job, even though I had no idea what on-air promotion really was. I learned a lot on the job.
Sobel: You eventually moved to NYC to work at SNC, the Satellite News Channel, a joint venture of ABC News and Westinghouse Broadcasting (now CBS). The company, now known as HLN, was sold to CNN after 18 months on-air. Can you talk a bit about those early days?
Hunt: I was hired as their director of on-air promotion. My boss wanted me to make spots that were “different” from the promotion done by broadcast networks and affiliates because this was a “different” kind of news service. He told me to just be creative and have fun. And I did.
The place was loaded with cutting edge TV equipment — the earliest “paint boxes,” digital effects suites, and top of the line studio equipment. And because we had very little distribution, no ratings, and a small ad sales load, my boss just wanted spots that were entertaining and would fill airtime.
Sobel: After SNC, you spent ten years of launching some of the most well known names in cable television (Lifetime, TNT and MTV, to name a few). In the early 1990s you decided to throw out a shingle and form Lee Hunt Associates. Can you explain the challenges you faced, your acquisition by Razorfish and how all of it impacted you, your clients, your business and your ego?
Hunt: Once Turner bought Satellite News Channel we all got fired. I did a little work at NBC News promotion, spent some time back in Dallas, and finally ended up at Lifetime in 1985. Back then, the channel was positioned as “Talk TV” because it was primarily made up of talk shows. While I was there, our president, Tom Burchill, looked at our audience, noted it was primarily female, and suggested we reposition the channel as a network for women. In hindsight that seems perfectly logical, but back then the idea of disenfranchising 50 percent of the viewing population was a risky proposition. But Tom persevered and I had the opportunity to reposition the channel’s promotion and packaging as “Television for Women.” That was my first brand repositioning. And I loved it.
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