Connecting with Bill Sobel

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.

Full Disclosure 

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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.

From there I went on to reposition VH1, headed down to Atlanta to launch TNT, then returned to MTV Networks as Executive Producer of Primetime for MTV.  I was a complete failure at that job and realized that program development wasn’t for me. 

In 1990 I left MTV and started Lee Hunt Associates.  I couldn't think of any other networks I wanted to work with directly, so I thought maybe I’d try to work for all of them. The timing was good.  It was the era of massive cable network growth, so we specialized in launching and branding cable networks, primarily in the US, but internationally as well. 

I was lucky enough to have an amazing group of smart and talented people working with me.  They've all gone on to be leaders in the industry.  I think that is probably what I’m most proud of in my career.  The company was around for a little under 10 years, but just last week we had our 15th company reunion.  And surprisingly, none of us has aged! 

Getting bought by Razorfish after nearly 10 years of LHA was the best and worse thing that happened to the company.  The founders of Razorfish had a great vision.  They realized that the future of the Internet was going to be televisual.  

Remember, this was way before YouTube or embedded video.  They bought us to help them navigate that world.  Unfortunately, their vision was a few years ahead of the curve, and the tech sector meltdown of 2000 ended those opportunities for the short term.  But even if we hadn’t been bought, the days for companies like ours were winding down.  Our primary competitor had imploded. Another, Three Ring Circus, would soon be closing its doors.  It was time for a changing of the guard.

Sobel: in 2013 you gave a presentation that defined what makes a successful brand shine in an aggressive television, radio or Internet market. How different is that from creating brands for other products and/or services?

Hunt: Media brands are different than consumer product brands. They are dynamic and organic, characterized by constant change, activity and progress. They develop naturally and continuously.

Let me give you an example — a consumer product brand like a running shoe.  It’s the same today as will be tomorrow, next week, next month, maybe even next year.  So you can take a snapshot of that brand and it will be accurate.

But a television network changes hour-to-hour, day-to-day, episode-to-episode, season-to-season.  Our brands can’t be static.  They have to be elastic, to be able to grow, to change, to evolve with our programming and our audience.

That makes our brands very aspirational.  We’re constantly striving to make our programming better, our promos better, our advertising better.

I call what we do “dynamic branding.”  And I believe it is a very specialized discipline.

Sobel: At Lee Hunt LLC today, you focus on brand strategy, on-air architecture, competitive analysis and personnel training for television networks and media companies throughout the world. What does that mean and how different is your work in markets throughout the world?

Hunt: Essentially, as a consultant, I specialize in four areas.  

Brand strategy takes up most of my time.  I help networks define and differentiate themselves to targeted audiences, whether it’s a broad position like USA’s “Characters Welcome,” focused to a particular mindset like Hallmark’s “The Heart of Television” or an internal mantra that becomes a consumer facing line like FX’s “Fearless.”

On-air architecture is the total nerd side of me.  For the past decade I’ve been analyzing program clock and break structures on a second by second basis to help networks create holistic viewer experiences that increase C3 ratings. (C3 is a measure of the commercials watched both live and three days DVR playback and is the metric under which much of primetime advertising is bought and sold.) 

I also constantly screen channels looking for new and interesting ideas for my annual new best practices session at Promax (I have a bank of DVRs recording constantly), so a lot of networks hire me to do comparative analyses of their closest competitors, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

And finally, I run training workshops for marketing and promotion professionals around the world. I think at last count I’ve presented workshops in 24 different countries.  Luckily, TV is ubiquitous.

Sobel: What advice can you share about digital customer experience management and building brands?

Hunt: I’m a big believer in what I call “snap judgments.” If your audience doesn’t understand your position instantly in that first communication, you’ve lost them.  To that end I have four criteria for all my brand work:

  1. Is it simple? You don't want complicated moving parts that require several cognitive steps.  
  2. Is it obvious? You want a self-evident solution that is easily understood.  
  3. Is it intuitive? Do consumers get it without having to think about it?  
  4. And finally, is it emotional?  Is there a reason for them to care?  

For me that all adds up to “DUH!”  That’s when you know you’ve got the right solution.