Profile: William Ostrom, The Number

William Ostrom shrugs off a bad press to revel in brand-building success

William Ostrom seems a happy man. The director of communications for 118-118 directory enquiries firm The Number bagged some free publicity last week when the 1970s-style runners fronting the company's publicity onslaught appeared on Channel 4 reality show The Salon. That, and the runners' appearance on BBC sports quiz They Think It's All Over (PRWeek, 3 October), sealed their cult status.

One hiccup was that, this week, solicitors acting for 1970s British athlete David Bedford asked The Number for £200,000, alleging the company's moustachioed duo traded on his persona without his permission. This is a charge it flatly denies, arguing the look was inspired by the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper, but in in a way it is a reflection of its very success.

But while the marketing of the 118-118 runners has gone well - despite, Ostrom says, being dismissed originally by The Number's American management at InfoNXX as a pair of jobbing terrorists - the same might not be said of the company's PR.

The Number's senior management attended a meeting with telecoms regulator Oftel last week, after a Mail on Sunday undercover investigation alleged staff were being paid to limit the time they spent on calls and were consequently making mistakes. The Number has sacked 30 staff, who Ostrom says 'didn't have the right attitude'. Oftel says it is satisfied with the company's call-monitoring and its pledge to keep the regulator informed.

Ostrom dismisses criticism as 'a rite of passage' and 'part of being tested as a new business'. 'In terms of establishing awareness of the brand, we achieved the brief,' he says.

PR was 'instrumental' in this. Ostrom claims his break with Jackie Cooper PR (PRWeek, 15 August) was motivated by differences on strategy, not cost - nor was it a move to downgrade the firm's PR effort.

The Number also dropped Le Fevre Communications as its business and corporate adviser, pooling all its PR into Brazil, the agency founded by former Le Fevre associate director Joshua van Raalte - who was a former colleague of Ostrom's at Cellnet.

Ostrom says his initial priority was to establish the brand, rather than market the business.

'You don't have breakfast with your partner on a Saturday and talk about directory enquiries,' he points out. 'Competitor communications have failed because they have made it uninteresting. BT's Post-it notes are marginally less interesting than directory enquiries, while Conduit's approach of dressing up as a number is fatuous.'

Ostrom's emphasis on advertising is understandable, given that most people can recall 118-118 better than its competitors. It makes even more sense when you consider Ostrom's solid marketing background and penchant for big projects in different sectors.

His first job was as an account executive for J Walter Thompson, where, at 20, he worked on the launch of the Andrex puppy and the Oxo account.

He was then information officer at the Health & Safety Executive, before a six-year stint at the Electricity Council.

It is at about this point that Ostrom's career starts to tick off what he describes as 'a kind of list' of sectors in which he fancied working.

His first PR job was as PRO for oil and gas company Conoco, which he left 'having exhausted every opportunity there is to say anything interesting about oil rigs' to take up the job of PR and communications manager at Mercury Personal Communications.

His last job before joining The Number in July 2002 was as head of PR for O2, having overseen the demerger of Cellnet from BT and the subsequent rebranding.

Former colleagues allude to Ostrom's extrovert social life. He is a keen guitarist and apparently does good impressions of Formula 1 commentator Murray Walker and former prime minister John Major. And you can see some of this in the way he operates, they say.

'He is unflappable, enjoying sparring with journalists and getting stuck in at the sharp end, as well as high-level strategy,' says former Cellnet colleague and O2 media relations manager David Massey.

But as interest in The Number's cult runners wanes, so must the challenge of running communications. What is there, in Ostrom's terms, left to do at The Number?

'I am a restless soul, it has to be admitted. I need to think about it in the new year' says Ostrom, when asked where his next career change will take him.

Then, quickly remembering his brief, he adds: 'But it is hard to imagine a similar challenge to doing the PR for a directory enquiries company.'


1971: Account executive, J Walter Thompson

1979: Marketing executive, The Electricity Council

1991: Head of PR, BT Cellnet (later O2)

2002: Communications director, The Number

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