Thursday, 29 November 2012

Is Blackrock/Appco a scam?

I have not posted in a while because I've been busy with what I thought was a new job - but what it actually turned out to be was nothing like I'd expected. A scam? Or just a very dodgy business scheme?

Appco/Cobra Group

Blackrock Advertising is a smaller franchise of Appco (formerly Cobra Group) which has branches worldwide. Now, Appco/Cobra is actually quite well known for running these dodgy schemes. Unfortunately for me, throughout the interview process I was led to believe that Blackrock was just a small and successful business that was rapidly expanding. We were told a fake story of how the office manager started up the business on his own, after selling Daft Punk tickets at university. Obviously 'this company is part of a huge corporation that deals in screwing people over' doesn't sound quite as cute. The first I heard of Appco was when it came to signing the contract, and by then it was a bit too late to do my research.

The job was advertised over at, and was admittedly very vague. But then, I'm used to applying for vague jobs. It was posted through a recruitment agency and they often only include the most basic details in their job ads, so this didn't set off any alarm bells.
Want some fun, in a lively environment whilst building a career? If so, then read on! Due to demands from our newest, exciting client we are rapidly expanding and opening new offices in 2012. We are, therefore looking for 15+ people to fulfil a number of roles in various sectors of our business, including Sales, Customer Service, Marketing and Business Development.
Now maybe I'm just stupid, but when I read that description, I do not immediately think 'door-to-door cold calling'. And I expect that's the whole point - because who would sign up for that job willingly unless they were extremely desperate? When sending off the application, they actually ask you to select which of the four different sectors you wish to work in - again, leading applicants to believe that they will be working in an office doing a specific job, not herded along with everyone else into a cold calling role. The 'lively, fun office' doesn't really count if you're only in there for an hour each day.


I was given a phone interview a few days after applying. The guy who interviewed me sounded really nice, friendly and genuine. He asked me a bit about what marketing experience I had /(all of which was irrelevant) and then told me I'd ticked all the boxes they were looking for, and would I like to come in for an interview? A few days later, sat in the office waiting to be taken through to be interviewed, I heard the same guy interviewing another candidate over the phone, and he said the exact same things, word for word, like he was reading from a script. So much for being genuine!

The interview itself was extremely brief. Again, the interviewer (who turned out to be the office manager) was very laid back and friendly, and in fact he barely asked me any questions. Never mind, I thought, as I got invited to the second interview, so obviously I was the ideal candidate! (I'm so naive)

The first day of the job, me and eight other new employees were given a brainwashing session with free sandwiches, where we were told all about the humble roots of the company and how lucky we were to be offered such a great opportunity, with earnings of £200-£600 per week, plus great bonuses, and the chance to progress to team leader and then finally to run our own office. And because we were getting SO much commission, we didn't even need to be paid a salary! Wow! No. The sandwiches were nice though. Somebody must have let on the secret of my one weakness.

Anyway, it came to signing the contract and I had a pretty bad feeling when I read that when working for this company, we would officially be considered self-employed. So no national insurance, no long-term security, no nothing. At this point we still hadn't been really told what we'd be doing. We were shown a video about the British Red Cross charity and told we'd get to run events at football matches, shows and days out. We'd get to travel and receive great rewards. I just thought, 'a job is a job. I can't really complain', and decided I'd stick it out for at least this week and see what it was like.

The 'lively office environment'

The next day, two of the new employees who were in the room with us yesterday had already disappeared. I wish I'd done the same thing, because the day that followed was the biggest waste of time and energy I will probably ever experience! Each of us was placed with an experienced employee and told we were to follow them around all day and see what they did.

Everyone in the office was loud, excitable and very friendly. The morning meeting was just the manager reading out a list of how many sales each person had made the following day, and each person would get a loud 'WEYYYYY' and a high five. They loved their high fives. It was like a parody of an office, like you'd see on TV. Everyone was so ridiculously happy and friendly, at the time I was starting to find it very annoying and thinking 'I would want to kill these people after a week'. It turns out, from reading stories online from people who stayed with the company for longer than I did, that the current employees are all told to be especially nice to the new people, and to make them feel like the office is a super fun place to work, WEYYYYY have a high five, have some banter, here's a funny nickname LOL. But that after a few days, their true colours would begin to show, all the drama and office politics.


I was put into a group with four others. We had to get a train to the next town over and knock on all the doors in a large residential area, say the rehearsed 'pitch' and try and get people to sign up to donate to charity. They seemed to love their job. Going on about how to keep their attitude up, how they were sooooo excited to make some sales today, gosh wow they loved speaking to all these people door-to-door, it was just so rewarding!! Looking back, I'm wondering if they were told to play it up for my benefit, or if they were just genuinely victims of brainwashing. Each person went off on their own to cover a specific street. Except for me and my mentor, who were obviously paired up. I worried about doing this on my own in the following week, traipsing around the streets from 12 til 8pm, being expected to go inside people's houses if invited, with nobody knowing exactly where I was. It seriously didn't feel safe at all.

I wasn't dressed for the weather either. We were told to dress office smart, so I had on a dress, tights, slip-on flats and a smart coat. It was freezing cold and raining on and off, and there wasn't even anywhere to have a break, so I was outside for eight hours. Towards the end of it, I just felt like crying. I felt humiliated talking to these people at their front doors, when they were clearly settling down for dinner and a night in, not wanting to be pressured for money by an annoying salesperson. I felt daunted by the prospect of doing this every single day. And even if I'd made the target of two sales each day, which seemed like an impossibility because who on earth actually signs up to these things? The amount I'd earn for the week would be barely scraping minimum wage. I'd be better off in McDonalds, at least then I'd be warm and safe, and actually getting paid for the work!

Back at the office, everyone high fived me and congratulated me on how well I did, how I was sure to get a shout out at the meeting the next day. As soon as I left I decided never to go back there.

So, is it a scam?

The people there seemed to genuinely enjoy what they did, but to me it just felt that they were being taken advantage of. Most of them were not much older than I was, and seemed to think they were getting a great deal out of it. I'm sure technically there must be a loophole that allows companies to make their employees do what amounts to free work, relying on generous members of the public to ever make any money. It just seems so, so dodgy. I don't think it's fair to falsely advertise a job as something completely different to what it actually is. Everyone I spoke to about what happened said I did the right thing by getting out of there. My brother said he had a similar experience with a company in New Zealand. But obviously these companies are legitimate, as they are so well known that if they were doing anything illegal they would be shut down. I guess having the employees sign a contract stating that they are self-employed means that the employer technically doesn't have to pay them anything.

Anyway, so that's my story. A word of warning to anyone thinking this type of job sounds too good to be true - it really is. If you start to get bad feelings about the legitimacy of a job, listen to your gut feeling and get out of there before they waste your time. I'm back to where I started now, unemployed, but at least I'm not being taken for a ride, and I'm not putting myself at risk.