Madbird: what was fake design agency featured in BBC doc Jobfished - and what happened to founder Ali Ayad?

Madbird was a pretend digital design agency at the centre of an elaborate con across 2020

Catrin Nye’s documentary Jobfished, which airs on BBC Three on Monday 21 January, offers an investigation into Madbird – a pretend digital design agency that was at the centre of an elaborate con across 2020.

What was Madbird?

Ali Ayad (who at times went by different aliases) told people he was the co-founder of Madbird, a design agency that he said had existed for a decade, worked on projects for big companies like Nike, and employed a team of around fifty people.

Madbird employees joined regular Zoom calls with the whole company; they worked long hours, and were recognised via an Employee of the Month scheme. They worked from home as well, a result, they were told, of the pandemic closing Madbird’s usual offices.

In reality, though, this was all a sham. The LinkedIn profiles were fake, and the Zoom calls were staged; Ayad was operating a number of different accounts and maintaining different personalities all on his own. His business partner “Dave Stanfield”, for example, was invented by Ayad entirely – the image used on his LinkedIn account and email profile was actually a picture of a beehive maker from Prague, who had no idea what was going on with Madbird.

None of Madbird’s employees were paid. They agreed to spend their first six months on a probationary contract that saw that paid via commission – after that, they were told, they’d receive a salary of around £35,000 per year. Because Madbird wasn’t working with any real clients, however, none of the employees ever actually saw that commission money.

How did Ali Ayad fool people?

According to Madbird employees, Ayad was a genuinely charming and confident person – the kind of commanding presence that seems easy to trust, projecting a certain authority even as it turned out he had none.

Mostly, though, it’s because the people he employed were desperate. A number of them had lost their jobs during the pandemic, and were struggling to find new ones – Madbird represented an opportunity they thought they’d struggle to find elsewhere.

Though some employees did leave the company quickly, many more kept convincing themselves to stay. It became a sort of sunk cost fallacy situation; each time people thought about leaving, they would stay, convinced that a deal might come through soon or that they could just stick it out a few more weeks and get a proper salary. Leaving the company in the middle of the pandemic felt like more of a risk than staying with it.

It was also rare for the employees to discuss their salaries with one another; there was an assumption that their own contracts were unique as new hires, and that their managers and colleagues were likely to be on a fixed salary. In each case, though, that wasn’t true (given that the managers and most of their colleagues didn’t actually exist).

Many of Madbird’s employees worked internationally, and were told that if they met their sales targets and passed their probationary period, Madbird would sponsor them to move to the UK. For those employees, the job represented much more than just a salary, giving them further incentive to stay with the job and make excuses to rationalise the more suspicious aspects.

How was he found out?

Gemma Brett, a graphic designer and new hire, googled Madbird’s offices out of curiosity – wondering about her commute when the pandemic ended. She quickly realised, however, that the listed business address for Madbird was just a residential address.

On further sleuthing, Brett began to notice more and more inconsistencies in Ayad’s story. Brett and her colleague Antonia Stuart investigated further, and started to realise that many of their colleagues didn’t exist at all.

After some deliberation, unsure of the scale of the con or the dangers it might pose to reveal it, they sent a company-wide email under the alias Jane Smith revealing everything.

What happened next?

Ayad claimed ignorance and offered an apology, suggesting he too had been duped. But he quickly disappeared, ghosting his former employees – some of whom had racked up thousands of pounds worth of debt trying to stay afloat while waiting on money from Madbird.

Some former workers have brought legal claims against Madbird. Because the company was insolvent, however, it’s unlikely they’ll ever actually see any money. One employee did receive a nominal fee from Ayad – a little under thirty pounds, in recognition of a short training course they’d taken.

As part of Catrin Nye’s documentary, BBC journalists tracked down and confronted Ayad. He insisted once again that he too was conned, rather than being the con artist behind it all.

Jobfished airs on BBC Three on Monday 21 February at 9pm, and will be available to stream on iPlayer immediately afterward

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