Red Sky places a premium on creative genius

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A 1933 Ford V8 truck is parked in the lobby of Red Sky Interactive. Upstairs, the main offices look like a cross between a trendy bar and an art gallery. The floor of the office of founder and CEO Tim Smith is strewn with juggling pins and balls.

"We purposely tried to set a mood," said Mr. Smith, "Like when you walk into a movie theater, and suddenly it's all quiet, a kind of neutralization zone. It changes your expectations."

Likewise, the company aims to redefine interactive design. The San Francisco-based agency set a new standard for online advertising with its 1996 Pong ad banner for Hewlett-Packard Co. The banner allowed Web surfers to play the 1970s computer game Pong in a distinctly '90s setting within the Web banner ad. The ad won numerous awards including honors from PC World and Communication Arts magazines.

`CREATIVE WINS'

Red Sky has also done work for Lands' End's online store; project work for Nike--including its award-winning 1996 @tlanta Olympic site; Dreyfus Corp.; and an upcoming site for Seagram's Absolut vodka.

One of Mr. Smith's many mottoes is "Creative wins."

Red Sky's creative department has the final word on all projects, superseding the engineers, production teams, number-crunchers and other company business units.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Smith, 38, started life as a computer geek. By age 18, he was managing three IBM mainframe systems for pharm-aceuticals giant Schering-Plough Corp. After receiving a B.S. in business from the University of California at Berkeley, he was on his way to a partnership at accounting giant Ernst & Whinney (now Ernst & Young), when career angst struck.

"I filled a backpack with every book I could find on the future of the computer industry and set off around the world," he said. After nearly a year in Africa, India and the Far East, he had an epiphany and a business plan.

`CREATIVITY IS ANTI-COMMODITY'

"The epiphany was this: creativity is the anti-commodity," he said. That is, he had come to realize over the years that good programmers were, for the most part, the direct product of good training, and as such were of unlimited supply and always replaceable, a belief that's not shared by many companies struggling to find tech professionals.

Good creative minds, however, were rare and unique, he believed, so there would always be a demand for their talents.

The business plan became the foundation for Red Sky. In 1993, he sunk his remaining savings in computer hardware and with a sleeping bag on a friend's floor, he convinced early clients such as Wells Fargo & Co. that Red Sky was the best design developer to bring them into the digital age.

Now one of the leading interactive design shops, with a staff of 42 and plans to spin out software products in the near future, everything is going according to plan.

"At a recent company party, I pulled out this notebook with the business plan I wrote five years ago on my trip around the world, and I quoted from it for the staff. It was amazing. So far, we are dead on schedule for everything it says."

Copyright March 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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