Imagine working for free for a company that has faked every single detail about itself. BBC Three’s Jobfished investigates what happens when you’ve been duped into working for people that don’t actually exist.
With the pandemic, working from home and logging into Zoom meetings each day has become the complete norm. Nowadays, many people have started new jobs from the comfort of their home and some have never met their co-workers in real life – so is the essence of remote working.
But what happens when the people you think are in your everyday meetings – and that you’ve been emailing or working under – end up being completely fake?
BBC Three’s Jobfished documentary investigates one company – Madbird – that pulled off an elaborate con and tricked 52 people into working for a fake design agency. Reporter Catrin Nye talks to those affected and duped and even, manages to confront the man at the centre of it all – Ali Ayad.
It may sound like something out of a recent Netflix drama or the plotline of a fictional podcast but the BBC Three documentary is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer and we assure you, it’s all very real.
Airing last night, the internet was awash with confusion, intrigue and utter shock at the documentary:
It blew our minds:
And while it may have seemed like a wild story, it really is a scenario that could happen to anyone:
We were left with many questions:
But also was completely living for the interview ambush scene at the end:
And can’t help but think a Jobfished part two wouldn’t be such a bad idea:
So, what’s the story behind Jobfished?
A self-proclaimed ‘influencer’, Ali Ayad’s online presence was undeniable.
He had modelled for Massimo Dutti and was featured in GQ, he had a big following on his Instagram, he was jetting around the world and framed himself to be the next Elon Musk. “He very much had the vibe of Tom Cruise energy,” one former employee states. What was there not to believe about Madbird’s creative director?
In meetings and interviews, he was persuasive and encouraging to his employees. He also had an impressive track record of employment too – he had previously worked as a creative designer at Nike and held multiple degrees from University of Southern California. But none of it was real, the degrees he listed never even existed.
Madbird looked like the friendly, driven design agency that people aspired to work at. It was established, based in Kensington and everyone had their initial interview with Simona, then went on to have a second cheery interview with Ayad.
Stephie already had a good job elsewhere but left it after interviewing with Madbird and being impressed with Ayad’s energy. “He just put that energy in me and I thought ‘Yeah, I can do anything I want to do’.” He was also outspokenly supportive of Black Lives Matter, something Stephie personally admired in a manager.
Ayad was all about hustle culture and spoke “like how these other leaders speak”, former Madbird employees state. He spoke about Steve Jobs, was vocal in his visions for the team and always referred to his other co-founders, Tommy and Dave Stanfeld. But Tommy’s profile was stolen and plastered over the Madbird website without his knowledge and, as for Dave, he doesn’t exist.
But things grow more sinister when you start to think of the very real-life impacts working for Madbird had on those involved. Everyone was told they’d have a six-month probation period working on commission only and, due to the high-profile roster of clients they had, this didn’t seem like such a red flag.
Jordan was another Madbird employee who already was in a job and then joined the design agency. He explains how he thought switching to commission-only work wasn’t that bad “if I could just work hard for six months and get this base salary”.
The new members of Madbird’s sales team gave their all to the role and together, was made up of around 30 individuals who worked tirelessly to network, secure deals and partnerships.
Jordan states: “I worked there for nearly six months and I think I contacted over 10,000 people. People in Switzerland, Dubai, France, loads in the UK and Australia.”
The first company-wide Zoom call was full of some familiar faces but was also the first time many had seen other staff members. Quite a few had their cameras off and were muted but it didn’t seem out of the ordinary.
Tommy – who was asked to get on a call with Ayad and didn’t realise it would be full of people – wanted to use the opportunity to go round the call and find out a little bit more about everyone. Ayad shut that down immediately, leaving a sour and awkward taste in the employees’ mouths.
Then, much like an explosion, a big email was sent round to everyone exposing the truth behind Madbird. All of Madbird’s work was taken from other people (even someone who had died) and other agencies. The headquarters in Kensington didn’t exist and many of the employees were just an amalgamation of stock photos and random bios.
Nobody ever got paid anything and with bills, mortgage repayments and general life expenses, not having a salary for six months led to sales manager Chris racking up a credit card debt of £10,000 to pay his monthly bills.
While employees were under financial strain, the stakes for many people were much higher than others. Elvis, an Indian employee, was promised that Ayad would support his visa application to live and work in the UK. It was a blatant lie and something that could have led Elvis – who was at the time working in Dubai – to have been imprisoned and deported.
Another shocking revelation from the documentary is the fact that most of Madbird’s work was actually stolen from a small design agency called Hatched London.
Madbird’s pitch document and price lists were actually Hatched’s – “even the layout’s the same”, one of the founders states upon seeing it.
When talking about it, the founders of Hatched describe how it feels “pretty sickening to be honest – it feels like we’ve been robbed.
“Because this isn’t like an overnight thing we came up with – this is years of work to get to this stage.”
While it may seem like a far-fetched scenario to imagine, Jobfished shows how in the day and age of online careers and conmen, being duped by a fake company is actually not as outlandish as you may think.
Jobfished is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer.