CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - Creative credence drives the man behind 118 118

For Chris Moss, life is short and every second is a new opportunity.

Chris Moss won't ever forget the moment he pulled his car into a layby to kiss his wife-to-be for the first time. "I remember thinking 'I have to do this'," he recalls. Not least because such moments of impetuous passion have defined his life and the way he lives it.

When he gets some spare time - which is not easy when you're driving one of the most relentless brand-building exercises of recent years, the 118 118 "got your number" campaign - he plans to write a book about taking life by the scruff of its neck.

At present, all he has is the book's title, Seize The Second. Life's so short that every fleeting opportunity must be grabbed, he says. "Seizing the second is as true of marketing as of life itself."

Coming from anybody with credentials less impressive than the chief executive of The Number, the company behind 118 118, this homily might sound trite.

But Moss is no junk philosopher.

On the contrary, this is the man who as the marketing director transformed Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic from a flight of fancy into a potent challenger to British Airways. He also steamrollered the lawyers who said it couldn't be done and the company chiefs who said it shouldn't be done to christen a new mobile phone network "Orange", again as the marketing director.

This time round, he's built something as seemingly mundane as a directory inquiry service into a brand synonymous with a slogan so familiar that it has entered the national lexicon - and seen its advertising named as Campaign's Campaign of the Year.

Not bad for a South London kid who started work at 16 without an O' Level to his name. Or for somebody who never realised the cause of his academic underachievement until many years later when he was diagnosed as dyslexic.

He ascribes his attitude to life partly to his father, the managing director of a City insurance company who rued the fact that he never pursued a law career and implored his son never to do a job he didn't enjoy.

The other highly influential factor was his Rudolph Steiner education with its creative curriculum - he was even taught to knit and sew - which not only led to an enduring passion for photography, art and design but also the constant exhortation to his agencies to push their creative capacities to their limits.

The agencies, however, appear to love the stimulation. At WCRS, which has worked with Moss on both the launch of Orange and 118 118, he recently topped the annual Client of the Year poll among all staff by a country mile.

"A lot of creatives could learn from the way Chris gets so involved in the advertising," Stephen Woodford, the WCRS chief executive, says. "It is too important to him for it to be delegated down."

Creativity is a recurring theme in Moss' conversation. Asked to name the most powerful influences on his career, he unexpectedly opts neither for Branson -"He said I was so full of ideas that I gave him headaches" - nor Hans Snook, the one-time Orange chief executive. Instead, he chooses Doug Hamilton, the creative director of the design consultancy Wolff Olins, and the WCRS chairman, Robin Wight, who flanked him at a crucial meeting in Hong Kong when he sold the Orange concept to the sceptical 50-strong board of Hutchison Whampoa.

"I've always had a need to be close to creative people," he says. "And I've never seen anybody with Robin's passion for interrogating a product until he drags the truth out of it kicking and screaming."

This approach has a special resonance for Moss who has always demanded that the brands he has helped launch are enablers rather than just good products. Planes aren't just airborne taxis but the places where holidays begin; Orange was never just about mobile phones but bringing people together. And nobody rings directory inquiries for a number unless they plan to make use of it.

It's an outlook honed and refined during a career that began chasing bad debts for a City finance company - a job that he loathed - and, later, led him to his first creatively based job dressing windows at the Alders department store in Croydon.

Spells at a couple of spice manufacturing companies confirmed a latent talent for sales and marketing. This, coupled with his interest in photography and motor sports, led him to Rally Sport magazine as the ad director.

However, his work across a string of high-performance titles was rudely interrupted when the publishing company went bust. He was subsequently hired by the Toleman group, which had interests in Formula One racing and offshore power boats.

His work led him into seeking sponsorship for an Atlantic crossing by a high-performance powerboat. This resulted in his first contact with Branson, who had just launched Virgin Atlantic with one jet flying to New York.

Moss had no idea who Branson was, but the pair's mutual entrepreneurial instincts made them natural allies and Moss became Virgin Atlantic's marketing chief.

Branson had launched Virgin Atlantic as a Laker replacement. It was all about economy travel, which made its business highly seasonal. Nor was its image helped by its ads featuring the Thin Lizzy singer Phil Lynott, soon to die from drugs aged 34.

"He was the last person in the world we needed to speak to the audience we wanted," Moss says, whose first task was to persuade his boss to boost the quality and have it reflected in new advertising through Still Price Court Twivy D'Souza and, later, at Woollams Moira Gaskin O'Malley.

Lack of enthusiasm or arrogance is anathema to him. He still recalls his first meeting with Hutchison's then UK agency, J. Walter Thompson, in the wake of the company's Rabbit launch fiasco and before Orange's arrival.

"Their people seemed only to be interested in whether or not we were serious about spending money and made no secret of the fact they thought we stood little chance of succeeding. I sacked them."

WCRS was a natural choice when it came to the launch of 118 118. But, if the style and character of the new service fits perfectly with Moss, the advertising starring the ubiquitous moustachioed runners with dodgy haircuts looks more like Mother's wacky work than from a shop best known for its elegant BMW commercials.

The winning idea was inspired by a poster showing the late US athlete Steve Prefontaine. Moss is emphatic that the creatives who produced the idea hadn't even heard of David Bedford. The 70s athlete has subsequently claimed the 118 118 runners were modelled in his image without his permission and has asked Ofcom to ban them (a ruling is imminent).

Meanwhile, there's been the little matter of what Moss calls the "wibble-wobble", a period when doubts about the quality of the 118 118 service were being fuelled by hostile press stories. "We weren't as open as we might have been," Moss acknowledges. "But the problems were largely down to the service's rapid growth. Now it's better than anything else out there."

Obsessive? Certainly. But never one to miss a trick. Moss slipped out of Campaign's photo-shoot in the atrium atop The Number's temporary offices only to return moments later with a pack of 118 118 stickers. He proceeded to attach them to all the plastic players on a table football game. Just seizing the second, of course.


Age: 50

Lives: Newbury, Berkshire

Family: Wife Carol, son Edward, daughter Georgina

Favourite ad: Apple Computer "1984"

Describe yourself in three words - Explorer, adventurer, passionate

Greatest extravagance - A 1975 Ford Escort RS1800. It's a rally car that

I plan to restore

Most treasured possession - A set of cufflinks which belonged to my Dad

who died last year

Most admired agency - WCRS by a mile

Living person you most admire - Prince Charles

One to watch - Apple iPod

Motto - Seize the second