Originally Published: April 18, 2005
"Laughter is the best medicine, I take great joy in making people laugh," says Turner Entertainment Group president Mark Lazarus. Mark is responsible for making millions laugh daily through tbs and Cartoon Network, but his own brand of self-deprecating humor tends more toward jokes about the kid from Westchester who played hockey, almost didn't make it through high school, went to Vanderbilt ("where the number of Jews is like the Nielsen sample, very small"), likes to hunt and fish, and is a major NASCAR, Atlanta Braves and New York Giants fan.
"People don't laugh enough," Mark told me during our lunch at Michael's as Maria Shriver and her guests were visibly and loudly cracking up at table one. "Not everything is a joke but having a sense of humor is important to being well rounded. It's an important emotion."
Mark's humor almost cost him his job in his first meeting with Turner Broadcasting's then-president Jamie Kellner. Years before, Kellner had been responsible for firing Mark's dad, the legendary John Lazarus, at Fox TV where he was the first head of sales. As he shook hands with Kellner, Mark joked "are you going to fire me too?" Kellner was not best known for his own sense of humor, but a year later Mark was promoted and has been successively elevated to his current position by former Turner president Steve Heyer and current president Phil Kent.
As a media industry legacy (his brother Peter heads sports sales at NBC and brother Craig is a senior producer for ESPN), Mark had little difficulty getting his first job as an assistant media planner at Backer & Spielvogel Agency. But he admits his dad and mom were uncertain he'd successfully navigate high school and college. "I guess you can say I was distracted and interested in things other than school," he admitted as Rosie O'Donnell loudly criticized Broadway critics to Liz Smith at a nearby table. (Note to Rosie: I gave her show, "Taboo" 4 1/2 jacks out of 5.)
"Let's just say my first junior year didn't take," Mark laughed. "I made a decision with my parents to 'follow a different path' and went to the Gunnery School, a boarding school in Connecticut. It was definitely a change. I learned about both being on my own and living with others; made good friends; played hockey, lacrosse and football; and 11th grade was much easier the second time so I did well. It was the best decision I ever made!"
Choosing between his dad's alma mater, the University of Vermont, and Vanderbilt, Mark liked the idea of a southern school and spent four years in Nashville, joining Sigma Chi where he was rush chairman ("qualifying me for sales") and ran the kitchen ("qualifying me to eat"). So his move five years ago from New York to Atlanta with his wife (who he met during their first year of college and married sixteen years ago) and children (ten year old son who's into hunting and fishing, seven year old daughter who's a softball star, and three year old son who plays "magnet soccer") was a relatively comfortable transition.
"I'm a rehabilitated New Yorker living in Atlanta," Mark jokes. "I love that you can see your house during daylight. I can go home, have a normal life with my family, and then go back out and have a business dinner. Atlanta has a growing arts community and you can get involved in philanthropic work and really make a difference in the community."
The personal causes he champions include the Mary Hall Freedom House, a shelter for women and children founded by Lucy Hall, whose family worked for Mark's grandmother and who he has known for more than 30 years. He's also actively involved with the March of Dimes, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the High Museum, the Path Foundation (creating green space for a safe environment), and the Benefits of Laughter adult mental health facility. Corporately, he actively supports Cartoon Network's "Get Animated" healthy lifestyle initiative and is co-chairman of the committee organized to bring the NASCAR Hall of Fame to Atlanta.
While he's obviously passionate about sports, Mark grew up watching "The Brady Bunch," "Speed Racer," and "The Partridge Family." Today, he watches movies, news and "surfs a lot," but his favorite show is "West Wing" and he admits to "watching 'Desperate Housewives' to keep my marriage intact. I love shows that are about relationships," he says. "It's important to understand and examine relationships and motivations."
Mark believes understanding relationships is relevant to our business where "the greatest challenge is predicting consumer behavior in a tough competitive environment. Understanding how to build strong relationships is basic. You have to earn credibility with viewers, the creative community, and with marketers and agencies. We need to grow our existing platforms while we build programs for wireless, broadband and video-on-demand. We need to develop the perfect mix of acquired, original and sports programming on tbs and TNT and we need to relate to kids, who have a different mindset and want new original stuff."
Relationships among the employees at Turner Broadcasting are equally important, Mark added. After CNN founder Reese Schoenfeld stopped by to say hello, Mark acknowledged "the company and the industry miss Ted [Turner], who was a provocative spirit. But he established a policy of management being accessible and supportive that's still in place. I want our culture to center around employees feeling Turner is a great place to work where we have open communications, where they have opportunities to succeed and grow, where they get support for what they care about outside the company, and where they can tell their friends and families they love their jobs."
Mark understands the role of humor, of commitment and responsibility, of relationships and feelings, of traditions and legacy, and of taking risks and forging a new path when necessary. His climb to the senior ranks of the media industry at only 41 hasn't been as meteoric as it might seem. He attributes it to a team he's worked with for 15 years at Turner and with whom he shares "very close relationships and," he adds, "a lot of laughs."
To contact Mark Lazarus, send an e-mail to email@example.com