By Patricia Sellers

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I WANT A phone company that will murder my boss,'' says the customer in the TV commercial. ''Fine,'' replies the congenial long-distance representative. ''If you switch your phone company to NCI, we'll even murder your boss.'' You want a pony for your daughter? A phone number with a zillion digits? Leggy ladies for your libido? No problem! NCI delivers. Fast. Many a marketer would be mortified by skewering such as this on NBC's Saturday Night Live. But not the subject of the satire: MCI Communications. Chief Executive Bert C. Roberts Jr., 51, says, ''If Saturday Night Live is willing to spoof you, you've achieved true branding success.'' Yes, the talk about MCI lately has concentrated on Network MCI, the company's plan to spend $20 billion upgrading its network and entering the local phone business. But the real story is how MCI has been generating that kind of cash. Against all odds, this No. 2 competitor in a fundamentally boring industry has become a champion creator of brands. MCI began branding its services only three years ago, when an enlivened AT&T was winning and keeping customers, and MCI's profits and stock had tumbled. Shares in the $65- billion-a-year U.S. long-distance market today: MCI 20% and growing by close to two percentage points a year; AT&T 62% and shrinking at a comparable rate; Sprint 9% and flat. (The remaining 9% belongs to smaller fry.) Since 1990, MCI's earnings have increased about 140%. Roberts, an amateur magician who at employee rallies likes to saw make-believe AT&T executives in half, says, ''These two years, 1993 and 1994, are a watershed juncture for MCI, not dissimilar to the time of AT&T's breakup.'' How do you turn a classic commodity business like common-carrier long- distance service into one where brands count? ''Corporate jujitsu,'' says consumer markets president Angela Dunlap, who at age 37 heads a business with more than $5 billion in annual revenues. A fast-talker who typifies MCI's hip, brash culture, she explains: ''We try to leverage the weight of our opponent.'' Example: AT&T, with six times MCI's revenues, relies heavily on regional phone companies to handle billing and doesn't customize service plans. So MCI concocted a brand to one-up its rival: Friends & Family. Customers get a 20% discount on calls to as many as 22 other MCI users whom they list in their ''calling circle.'' This is marvelous jujitsu. Since 1991, Friends & Family, hawked with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ads, has hooked an estimated 12 million subscribers. Brand extensions such as Friends Around the World (for international calls) are bringing in even more. Loving a fight, MCI folks expressed delight in December when AT&T vice president Daniel Clark publicly declared MCI ''the enemy.'' After failing to blunt MCI's growth with a convoluted discount scheme last year, AT&T is developing a new one called True USA savings. The plan is to increase long- distance rates, then award discounts to high-volume callers. MCI's recent coup, 1-800-COLLECT, shows its agility. Marketing directors Paul Erickson, 33, and Patricia Proferes, 36, decided last spring that AT&T should not keep a stranglehold on the $3-billion-a-year collect-call market. After brainstorming with a team of 15 from diverse areas such as finance and operations, they launched MCI's discount service in just six weeks. By promoting 1-800-COLLECT without mentioning MCI and by billing through regional phone companies, the marketers cleverly attracted AT&T loyalists who don't even realize they are patronizing MCI. AT&T eventually introduced a copycat, 1-800-OPERATOR, but Blake Bath, an analyst at the Sanford C. Bernstein brokerage firm, says MCI scored big: ''1-800-COLLECT is generating $200 million in annualized revenues, at very high margins.'' Clever branding also helped MCI's Business Markets unit reel in more new clients than ever last year. The main lure is ''Proof Positive,'' MCI's pledge to scrutinize a company's calls every 90 days and always charge the lowest possible rate. A recent deal with British Telecom should help MCI grapple with Goliath abroad. Already the fifth-largest and fastest-growing among long-distance players in the lucrative international field, MCI needed a $1 billion joint venture with BT to improve its connection to multinationals. Together, MCI and British Telecom rank second to AT&T globally. British Telecom is also buying 20% of MCI for $4.3 billion. Part of CEO Roberts's audacious plan, disclosed in January, is to spend $2 billion building metropolitan phone networks that will let MCI bypass local phone companies. That will save gargantuan access fees. With brand-building in mind, Roberts wants to direct billions more to what he calls ''the pizzazzy stuff'': wireless communications and deals with companies positioned on America's information superhighway.