Bil Bungay: inside the weird, weird world of an adman-turned-entrepreneur
- On May 1, 2020
- By Edward Robinson
Bil Bungay and I first met at a magic show. We were the audience volunteers to the great magician Dynamo as he miraculously predicted every card we drew from the pack. It was an appropriate first encounter because, as you get to know the advertising tycoon-turned serial entrepreneur, you quickly realise he’s into some really spooky stuff. Over sushi a few weeks later, conversation weaves dizzyingly from the dullness of 21st century ads to God, business, rock ’n’ roll and, at length, his charmingly bonkers belief in ghosts. Along the way, he produces from thin air two of his new inventions and convinces me that, for all his oddball nature, it’s no coincidence he’s made himself a tidy sum over the years. Not just from selling his stake in the famous BMB ad agency, but from ventures such as Purplebricks, where he was one of the first investors. Bungay is one of the Bs in BMB where, with Trevor “Hello Boys” Beattie, he came up with classics such as McCain’s “We hope it’s chips, it’s chips”. He was, as a colleague puts it, the McCartney to Beattie’s Lennon, adding his art director polish to Beattie’s snappy words. It’s not a bad metaphor; with his bangles, ponytail and tall dark looks, he could be mistaken for an ageing rock star. He, Beattie and fellow co-founder Andrew McGuinness sold BMB in the Noughties. He remains vice-chairman but has since been angel investing, making movies and music and has more recently turned venture capitalist with his firm Velocity Capital Partners. Velocity backs inventions which either spring from his brain or other entrepreneurs’. To illustrate, he whips out a long tube from which appears what looks like the wooden fretboard of a guitar. “Guess how much this has cost?” he grins. “A million pounds! And can you believe it, I left it in a toilet once!” It’s a prototype of the iTar, an electronic instrument that clips onto a mobile phone or iPad to create a mixture of electric guitar and keyboard. “We’re gonna sell a million of these,” he predicts. “They’re frickin’ brilliant. What do you think? Give it a go.” Racking my brains to recall D major, I strum a chord. It sounds amazing. Then he whips out an iPad with another of his wares, the Aura. It’s a toddler’s e-book that understands regional accents, from deepest Brum to headbutting Glaswegian. The idea is that kids read along with the story and the book understands if they’re getting the words right. It knocks speech recognition software from Google and Apple into a cocked hat, he says. That’s two new ideas before our starters have even arrived. Bungay’s own accent is a mixed bag. The product of a military family, he moved around a lot as a kid and sounds international, veering from Queen’s English to Yorkshire, with the odd American twang. He laughs often and distinctively, with a bark on his inhales like a happy seal. His dark looks spring from his Scottish grandfather’s prolific fathering of illegitimate children while running a tea plantation in colonial-era Assam. “He had 14 kids — seven died — all born out of wedlock. Proper rock ’n’ roll.” Other ventures backed by Velocity include Iynk, a marketing and bookings website for tattoo artists; Zilver, a “gender neutral fashion brand”, and Next Up, a content streaming site for stand-up comics. “I’ve become a proper entrepreneur because I’m excited by ideas. If someone comes to me with one that I like, I’m, ‘great, let’s do it’. Our motto is, if everyone you tell says, ‘that’s a great idea’, we’ll do it. If they don’t, we won’t.” Another motto is one they had at BMB: No twats in the building. “You get these idiots in business, they use aggression as a smokescreen, they constantly put you on the defence, but they’re only like that because they’re covering up for not being good enough. They’re destructive. Get them out.” Bungay got into the ad game when his art school, St Martin’s, launched a degree in advertising. “I’d been studying design and was feeling a bit constrained with doing postage stamps and bottle caps. Not to belittle designers, but advertising offered me the chance to work far more flexibly, with film, sound, different people.” He got a job at a small agency and didn’t bother returning to graduate. “In advertising, they look at your portfolio, not your qualifications,” he shrugs. Bungay is so persistent, you can imagine him succeeding in anything, eventually. He’s always been that way. When he first applied to art schools, he was rejected by them all. So, the following term, while perfecting his portfolio, he started turning up to lessons at St Martin’s anyway. It was a fortnight before he got found out. By then he’d worked out exactly what they were looking for. “I turned up to the interview and the tutors went, ‘Ah, the phantom student’.” He got the place. Bungay and his brother were brought up as strict evangelical Christians. It sounds a horribly restrictive upbringing. “It’s super-intense. You carry guilt with you at all times. It’s utterly inappropriate to condition any child in any abstract notion like that.” The siblings didn’t break out of it until they were in their thirties: “I went totally off the rails. Not in a completely unhinged way, but, you know, I joined bands, my brother saved my life one night when I was totally smashed. In the context of what I grew up with it was pretty extreme.” He suspects part of the reason he keeps so busy is to stop him dwelling on his upbringing. Bungay may have rebelled against the religion, but he’s still open to bizarre beliefs. After making a movie about ghosts, he bought what he says is “Britain’s most haunted house”. The first time he visited, he entered the kitchen, only to be attacked by a series of flying objects — a domino, screws, a red plastic ball. “It’s real, and so freaky. So freaky I will never spend a night in that house.” Nowadays he rents the place out to thrill-seekers. It even stars in a movie he’s launched this week called ParaPod. He also believes everyone has enough “energy” in their body to destroy the world two and a half times over, and that it is controlled by “fluctuating bands of strings” in our protons. “I like that idea, there is some poetry in it and some truth, because that’s how we make music,” he says. Right-ho. I emerge from the restaurant with my head spinning. Bungay is clever; hugely fun. But is he not also, well, nuts? I ask his old mucker Trevor Beattie, a cynical cove. “Nah, Bil’s all right,” he laughs, “He’s just totally open-minded about everything. But that’s why I’ve always said: of all of us, he’s the one who’ll have an idea that makes a billion.” Business can be a cynical old world. Perhaps it needs a few believers.
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