​​The Design Agency That Never Really Existed

A Swanky New Design Agency Came On The Scene, Hiring Over 40 New Employees – But Things Were Not All As They Seemed.

In late 2020, Madbird started up, advertising itself as a “human-centred digital design agency born in London, running worldwide.

The company hired around 50 people – predominantly from sales and design backgrounds –  all of whom would be working from home. Madbird also tapped into the international market, posting job ads online in Uganda, India and more, promising employees overseas a UK visa upon passing their six-month probation period.

When introducing himself, founder Ali Ayad spun a web of different stories, sold to different people – the only consistent narrative was that he had spent time as a creative designer at Nike in the Oregon headquarters, which is where he, supposedly, met Madbird’s co-founder Dave Stanfield.

Ali did a good job at convincing interviewees, who had no reason not to trust him, by coming across as charismatic and confident, convincing people to leave their current jobs to join his team. Alongside this, he had a glowing LinkedIn profile; his co-founder claimed Ali Ayad was “instrumental” and “one of the best professionals I’ve ever worked with.”

The future seemed bright, until the workers noticed a problem. They had agreed to work on a commission-only basis for the first six months of their job, which meant a percentage of every deal they negotiated, and it was only after this time period they would be put on a salary. However, by February 2021 no client contracts had been signed and none of the staff had been paid.

[Image Creds: BBC]

Whilst some employees left after discovering this, many stayed for up to six months and were forced to take out loans to support themselves. As the probation period was almost up, these employees remained in the hope they’d secure the promised salary.

Madbird’s cover was blown when one of the employees, Gemma Brett, searched up the location of the offices and, instead of seeing the bustling new-age offices she had seen on the website, the street view led her to a block of flats in Kensington. When she contacted the relevant estate agent to the property, she was informed that the building was purely residential.

More research uncovered that all work Madbird claimed to be theirs had been stolen, and that many of the colleagues the employees had been messaging did not exist.

The employees decided to take action, sending an email from an alias accusing the founders of being “unethical and immoral” in their actions. This email was sent to current team members, who were shocked to hear that the previous months they had worked for the company might have been a lie. 

The company had apparently only been registered on Companies house since September 2020, after many people had already been employed. Six of the senior employees were fake, with stolen pictures from a multitude of different sources and made up names. Often, when employees tried to get in contact with these staff members, Ali would direct them to him for questions instead. 

When it comes to the brands, BBC news contacted 42 of which they had claimed to work with – all of which denied ever having been involved with them. What’s more, their pitch documents were stolen from local design firms and Alis background (from his job history to universities), made up. Even photoshopped instagram posts were found.

[Image Creds: BBC]

The morning after the email was sent, Ali Ayad sent an email to the team saying “If any of this information came to be true,” he wrote, it is as “shocking to me as it’s shocking to all of you” and said he would take full responsibility. 

The fake CEO then disappeared from the internet and blocked all of the workers. After this, three former workers pursued Madbird through an employment tribunal, arguing they should at least be paid minimum wage for their time at the company. Ali failed to respond, so the judge ordered that they were paid £19,000 in total. When the BBC tried to get in contact with Ali, he was unclear in his responses, backtracking on what he said and arguing he had only created opportunities for the staff.

What is unclear is Alis motivations behind creating Madbird, as the work that was done did not gain him any money or notoriety. For now, all we can hope is that compensation is granted to those who dedicated months of their lives to this design agency, which never really existed. 

Finally, for our previous #SocialShort, click here.