Fake London design agency dupes 50 staff members into working for free

JobKeeper

The BBC spent a year investigating Madbird, a fake design firm.

More than 50 staff on a commission-only salary were horrified to discover the glamorous UK design agency they worked at — some for nearly six months — was completely faked.

The BBC spent a year investigating Madbird, which turned out to be an elaborate rouse led by a charismatic yet duplicitous CEO named Ali Ayad.

The agency had proactively hired dozens of staff across sales, design and managerial positions, and plenty of staff lived outside the UK too — Madbird’s HR department posted job ads for a team based in Dubai, while a dozen people were hired in Uganda, India, South Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere.

One of the new recruits was Chris Doocey, a 27-year-old sales manager based in Manchester, UK. Doocey was hired in October 2020 and wasn’t surprised to hear it was on a remote basis at first. He said was excited about his new gig at Madbird, as the agency described itself as a “human-centred digital design agency born in London, running worldwide” and was led by Ayad, a model and influencer, who said he’d ‘worked’ as a creative designer at Nike.

Ayad had over 90,000 followers on his Instagram account, and his Linkedin page was bursting with glowing endorsements, including one supposedly from a creative director at Nike that admired how “meaningful and thoughtful his approach was”. Another of the endorsements was from Ayad’s business partner Dave Stanfield who staff understood had co-founded Madbird with him.

Madbird’s new staff were apparently impressed by Ayad too, describing his charisma and charm as akin to actor Tom Cruise, though Ayad preferred a comparison to tech legends like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. “Elon Musk works 16 hours a day, I’m trying to do 17!” Ayad reportedly wrote in one email.

Staff outside the UK had something else fuelling their fire. According to reports, Ayad had promised a working visa sponsorship in the UK if staff met their sales targets and survived their six-month probation period.

But it wasn’t easy to make it through — Ayad had told all staff they’d be paid on a commission-only basis during the first six months and given a A$66,240 salary afterwards. Some staff left after a few weeks, while others stayed the course, but by February 2021, the agency had not nailed down a single client even though past clients supposedly included Nike, Tate, and Toni & Guy.

Gemma Brett, a 27-year-old designer from west London, searched the location of Madbird’s London headquarters on a whim, finding it was a swanky Kensington apartment block instead. Together with a colleague who was leading the company’s expansion into Dubai, Brett started sleuthing and, through the power of reverse-image searching, discovered all the previous design work Madbird boasted about on its website had been ripped from other designers and high profile agencies.

The pair then sent an all-staff email from an alias Jane Smith with all the detective work they’d done, accusing Madbird’s CEO of “unethical and immoral” behaviour — including “fabricating” team members.

At first, Ayad acted flabbergasted himself, saying: “If any of this information came to be true,” it is as “shocking to me as it’s shocking to all of you,” and then later promised to pause all work until “we can fix this”. But in what would be the last correspondence from their ambitious job fishing boss, he sent another note: “I have put 16 hours every single day for months and done the best that I could to make this work. I should’ve known better and for that I’m truly sorry”.

His Linkedin disappeared, and he stopped answering his phone, even blocking some bewildered staff.

The BBC found that at least six of the most senior employees profiled by Madbird were faked, using photos taken from the internet. Ayad’s business partner Stanfield was made up, even though he had a Linkedin profile and had even sent emails to staff. Reporters tracked down the man in Stanfield’s photo, who turned out to be a Prague-based beehive maker named Michal Kalis.

Nike confirmed Ayad had never worked for Nike, and the elite universities he supposedly attended in the US and Canada had never had a student with his name. Further, they didn’t offer the degrees he said he’d studied. Ayad had even reportedly faked a modelling job in GQ magazine, which showed him in a pensive pose for high fashion brand Massimo Dutti, an apparent digital alteration.

Staff were devastated, with several overseas approaching the supposed six month probation period’s completion. Doocey, from Manchester, had a $19,000 credit card bill from surviving without pay, while another employee realised he would’ve broken Dubai’s strict business laws had he locked in a deal.

The BBC actually confronted Ayad in the street who was a confusing bundle of denial, misdirection and boastfulness about the “good” he’d done hiring staff during COVID. Later he responded to a string of accusations from the broadcaster saying some were true but most were “absurd” — though Ayad never pointed out which was which.

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