Lee Hunt is known for breaking the rules. As head of media and entertainment for new-technologies marketing firm Razorfish, the on-air-promotions veteran is helping to write new ones.
The signs were there early. In college, he painstakingly compared literary classic Beowulf with ABC's The Six-Million Dollar Man for a college English project, leading his professor at the University of Texas at Austin to suggest, "Maybe you ought to be in the TV department."
He took that advice and, throughout 20-plus years in the TV business, has stayed true to his mantra of breaking the rules.
"[NBC's West Coast President] Scott Sassa once told me when we worked together at TNT, 'Lee, the one thing about you is that you only do what you want to do.' And I asked, 'Well, is that good, Scott? 'He said, 'Well, it's good for you,'" laughs Hunt.
But taking the road less traveled does mean encountering some potholes.
When Hunt first got out of college, the only TV-related position he could nab was as a volunteer cameraman at Dallas' public station KERA-TV. Eventually he became the channel's director of on-air promotions, but was turned down for several commercial-TV openings because "public TV was always thought of as an alternative medium, so my experience there was considered irrelevant."
Broadcasters' rejection was a blessing in disguise, however. "Cable was just starting to emerge, and it was also considered an alternative," Hunt recalls. "They welcomed me with open arms."
Hunt moved to New York to head on-air promotions at ABC News Satellite News Channel. Eight months later, after Ted Turner bought the service, Hunt was hired as the director of on-air promotion at Lifetime Television. That was in 1985. Getting in on the cable game early, with few executives in place to look over his shoulder, Hunt had the freedom to do what he pleased.
"I created the whole look and style of Lifetime's branding [when then-president Tom Burchill was repositioning it as television for women], and it was real successful," Hunt says. "I thought, 'God, this is great!'"
He followed that with stints as creative director at VH1 and TNT, the latter hailed by the American Marketing Association as best new-product introduction, thanks to Hunt's 1988 launch campaign.
Those credits on Hunt's résuméled to his securing the post of executive producer of program development at MTV in 1989. As always, he viewed the job as an opportunity to take risks but, in doing so, hit his worst speed bump.
He crafted an interactive variety series The Big Blank Show, which was envisioned as "Ed Sullivan on acid." Viewers would play games over the phone and decide the program's title each week, but "it was an absolute, complete, total failure," Hunt says.
Nevertheless, he recalls the team that created it as "the greatest collection of talent." Besides meeting his wife, Marilyn, on Big Blank, Hunt also worked with Debbie Leibling (Blank's producer), now senior vice president of original programming at Comedy Central.
Following that failure, Hunt plunged into forming his own company, Lee Hunt and Associates.
"I didn't really have a big plan. I just wanted to do whatever I wanted to do," says Hunt, who served as the firm's president. "If you can do the things that you're passionate about, you tend to do them well."
His first task was to steer E! Entertainment's launch in 1990, and he later lent a hand to positioning Discovery Network's The Learning Channel, MSNBC and The Disney Channel, among others.
After nine years, though, "I looked around and saw that our industry was on the verge of going through some really dramatic and traumatic changes. And I saw Razorfish as a company that was really at the head of the curve in terms of technology."
In December, new-technologies marketing firm Razorfish acquired Lee Hunt and Associates, aiming to shepherd Hunt's clients' content to the new wave of available platforms. Most recently, Razorfish conveyed PBS content onto a slew of different screens: television, Internet, broadband-enabled TV set-top box, personal digital assistant (Palm Pilot) and cell phone.
Currently, the company is designing Internet portals for two television studios (both under non-disclosure agreements).
Hunt recalls, "[Nickelodeon Online President] Fred Seibert called a while after we did the acquisition and said, "You did it a month early. You did what AOL and Time Warner did: You were an old-media brand and got yourself acquired by a new-media brand! "That was really flattering."