A pioneer of digital design, Ross Sleightenjoys being one step ahead of the game.The multi-tasker talks to Lynda Relph-Knight about the early days of no rules, making mistakesand why he still likes a good argument
‘He’s Gandalf,’ says Simon Waterfall of Poke. This is how the flamboyant former president of D&AD reverently introduces Ross Sleight. And he’s patently not referring to Sleight’s shock of reddish hair or his vintage – he may be one of the founding fathers of digital design, but he’s still only in his early 40s. The comparison with JRR Tolkien’s white-haired wizard is probably more to do with Gandalf’s position as leader of the Fellowship of the Ring in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
There isn’t much fantasy about Sleight, though. He counters Waterfall’s pronouncement with a shrug. ‘I’ve been around the industry so long and always tried to be a few steps ahead,’ he says. Sleight is technically an ad man. In his time at BMP DDB in the mid-1990s, his bosses were persuaded to invest in Online Magic, which became Agency.com. It was mainly a production company for websites and games, but Sleight could see its potential as a strategic marketing tool.
‘There were no rules then,’ he says. ‘No one was right.’ He admits it was a battle to persuade the powers that be of the potential of online media. ‘From 1997-1999, I spent three hours a day arguing,’ he says. ‘The battle isn’t over. It’s not just about digital media now, but how best to serve the customer.’
Like many in the digital arena, Sleight came into the field through an unlikely route. He studied English at York University, specialising in medieval English and modern art history. He was also a DJ – a precursor to his media interests, perhaps. But it was the influence of his sister, now marketing director at Coca-Cola, that brought him to advertising. On graduating in 1992 he applied for jobs at Saatchi & Saatchi and BMP DDB, choosing the latter because of its connection with legendary ad man John Webster.
Employed as an account manager, Sleight was more interested in planning and youth marketing, and managed to make the leap. ‘The management of BMP DDB was fantastic,’ he says, singling out chief executive Chris Powell for praise. ‘He believed in it, and we were learning by making mistakes.’
His biggest mistake at that time, he says, was pushing interactive TV in 1994, some ten years before anyone was ready for it. ‘I was two years out from being a graduate,’ he says. ‘I had the most amazing belief [in it] and made it my personal battle.’
Fast-forward a few years and he was developing Fingertips, a personalised online entertainment guide. Then came the dotcom crash of 2001. ‘It was the first time I’d actually failed,’ he says. But he moved to Howell Henry and talked about customer relationships, but that wasn’t for him. There was a brush with online gambling via Virgin Casino, using rich media and so on. It was great creatively, he says, but, again, it was ahead of its time.
Nevertheless, Virgin chief executive Simon Burridge – at Richard Branson’s behest – asked Sleight to help it set up Virgin Games. ‘Virgin was always a brand I wanted to work with,’ he says. ‘But I never wanted to work full-time for anyone.’
Sleight is now a consultant with a finger in many pies. He got involved in children’s book publishing and is a director of Pat & Pals. He remains strategy director at Virgin Games and owner of consultancy Phathouse. ‘I need to be working on several things at once,’ Sleight says. ‘I can make my own mistakes and not worry about the financial impact. I can assess things properly. I’m getting better at it – it’s about excitement.’ But he points out that while he is entrepreneurial, he is not an entrepreneur. ‘I have been lucky to work with people I can spark off of,’ he says, citing Howell Henry’s concept of ‘sharing ideas lightly held’ as a great motivator.
And his view of Waterfall? ‘He’s the Gandalf. He’s built on the success of the medium,’ Sleight says.