18 July 2006

The Cobra Group

The following text is different from the rest of the day diaries, in that it was written in the heat of the moment on the evening of the actual day the main event described took place - Tuesday 18 July. It outlines some of the back stories (replicated in previous day diary entries) in order to contextualise events, so that it can also read as a standalone piece.

On Wednesday 12 July, after discovering that I was no longer required at Gleeds, the construction company where I had worked as an office temp the week previous, I bought a copy of the Evening Post. Wednesday was the day for the weekly recruitment section.

Reading through the paper, I quickly discovered that many of the jobs were things that were skilled, permanent or would not start for a few weeks. Nothing that would suit my needs as an employee of Prime. Now two-and-a-half weeks into the commissioning period I required something immediate and temporary. I had already planned that my last working day would be Friday 21 July.

The only jobs I could find that had the words I was looking for in the specs 'no experience necessary' and 'immediate start', were mysterious looking - attracting your attention with catchphrases and claims of high earning. There was no mention of the company you would be working for or the job you might be doing.

The next day I called two these numbers (I have both these conversations on tape). The first turned out to be a marketing company called Endeva Advertising. I spoke to a friendly Australian lady called Belinda. She asked me what experience I had and why I wanted to work for them. I found the second a little difficult to answer, as I didn't really know anything about the company, but just made up the usual nonsense about learning new skills and meeting new people.

Belinda seemed pleased with my responses and offered me an interview the following day, Friday 14 July. I was really pleased, at this rate I might be able to start on Monday and to clock up some more hours towards the 'quota' imposed by Prime.

By this point of the commissioning period, I had pretty much given up caring what sort of work I was looking for. I'd do anything and I'd do it now (at least that's what I thought). The situation (being employed by Prime) reminded me of when I was a 15 year old; when the national curriculum dictated that I must find 'work experience' for the final two weeks of the academic year (coincidently the last weeks in July!)

When it came to the point when I had to find this 'work experience' I started with high hopes. Idealistic (in a similar way to the start of Prime), that I could find something 'interesting' and 'relevant'. When I discovered that this was a lot harder than I imagined, my expectations dropped to the point that I would, in fact, do anything. In the end my dear mother stepped in and found me a role at the college that she worked in - Uxbridge College. I spent two weeks as a scivvy for one of her colleagues, photocopying and having tasks fabricated, with the sole intention of occupying my time.

History aside, my spirits lifted when I secured my interview at Endeva Advertising. After my experience at Gleeds (which I now realise I was exceptionally lucky to find), I was quite looking forward to working in the office of a city centre advertising company.

I turned up for my interview on Friday about 10 minutes early. The office was in an old building above Cafe Rouge on Barker Gate, which is one of the most expensive shopping streets in the city. I rang the intercom and Belinda buzzed me in. I walked up the stairs and into the reception. There were nine people sitting around in what was quite a small, but pleasant room. Could they all be here for the interview? It transpires that they were. I had to complete an application form. I decided to go for broke and write that I had a degree and was self employed as a 'freelance artist'. I really wanted to get this job and it looked like I had a lot of competition. I also had to rate myself out of 5 for things like 'communication skills' and 'self confidence' I went for 5 for most of them (why not?)

Belinda, who sat behind a desk, was in a jolly mood. She kept throwing questions out to the nine of us, as if to make one big happy conversation. What are you lot all doing this afternoon then? Who do you reckon is getting kicked out of Big Brother this evening? Or how long have I got to put up with this cricket for (referring to the radio commentary)? These all sound more authentic in an Australian accent - please try at home.

I couldn't help but feel that I was already being tested. Were the ones who responded to Belinda's chitchat, the ones more likely to be employed? There was a wide range of magazines on the table, some 'men's magazines' like GQ and Esquire, some 'women's' like Elle and Red and some 'unisex' like Empire. Would you also be judged on the magazine you picked up? I went for Empire. I giggled to myself about the conspiracy theories I had concocted, but also, more importantly, because I (more than anybody else in the room), had a secret agenda for being there on that day.

A tall man came into the office and called four of us out for the interview. We followed him into a small board room, where he said 'sit wherever you like' - another test I thought; there were five normal chairs and one larger, more ostentatious office chair. Each of the candidates, including myself went for the regular chairs around the sides of the table. Chris (the tall man) sat at one end and his colleague Nick sat at the other (in the big chair).

The interview focussed almost entirely on the information we had supplied on our forms. He quizzed us each one-by-one about the information we had supplied, questioning whether we had been correct to rate ourselves so highly. One man, who was Polish, stood up half way through this process, said 'sorry I have to go' and left. I didn't blame him really, it was quite an intimidating experience and Chris was quite an authoritarian character (despite being only 25).

He explained that Endeva Advertising was 'his company' and that it was a 'fun place to work'. He was only looking to employ a few people and was interviewing 34, so it was very competitive. If we were successful today, we would be invited back for a 'second interview' in which we would spend a day shadowing one of the sales team and learning more about the company. Either way, we would find out later today when Belinda would call us.

Around 19:00, I began to think that I hadn't got the job and that nobody was going to call. I began to resign myself to the fact that I was unemployable and good for nothing. Then at 20:12 my mobile began to ring - it was Belinda, what was she doing still at work at this time on a Friday night? She said 'Chris was very pleased with how it went today and would like to invite you back for a second interview on Tuesday' - I was to go back to the office for 11:45.

It was nice of them to give me a late start on my first day, I thought, very considerate. I spent the most part of the weekend feeling guilty. If I got the job on Tuesday (they had said in the interview that they were looking to employ temporary staff for 10-12 weeks), I would have to quit almost straight away. I was going to feel awful after Belinda and Chris had been so nice to me and had taken a chance on inviting me back.

Anyway, Tuesday arrived and the thought of letting them down, was still in my mind as I walked towards the office. When I got to reception, I was surprised to see that there were as many, if not more, people waiting. We sat patiently as Belinda carried on her one-sided banter. I chatted to the girl next to me, asking her if she knew anything about what the job actually involved. She said she didn't. The longer we waited the more curious I became.

After about half-an-hour, Chris's right-hand man, Nick, came into the room and called a few out, explaining that we would each be paired off with a sales person to shadow. After a few minutes, I saw some of the interviewees leaving the building with their work partners. Then it was my turn. I was taken out to the back and introduced to a short, fat, bald man called Barry. I was told to stick with Barry all day and to ask as many questions as I wanted. Then later on I would be brought back to the office for a 'final interview' based on what I had learnt.

At this point I asked what time that would be and I was told 8-9ish (!?) I was now beginning to understand why they didn't ask me to start at 9:00. What could we possibly be doing that would take us until then? Barry led me out of the room and down the stairs. He said we were going to get some lunch first. This is nice, I thought, a nice relaxing lunch to get to know each other before beginning work.

It quickly transpired that we were following two of the other work pairs, with two of the other interviewees. One was the girl who had sat next to me in reception, Becky, an 18 year old who had just left boarding school after finishing her A-Levels, and a black guy called Benedict who was a college student in Nottingham.

As we walked between the office and Flavour Sandwich Bar in Hockley, I began to quiz Barry about what we would be doing. He was very cagey at first, not giving me entirely straight answers. I asked when we would be going back to the office and he said we wouldn't. What? I eventually began to piece things together. What we would actually be doing, was walking around St Ann's (one of Nottingham's poorest areas), going door-to-door asking people to sign up to pay a direct debit to a charity called Action for the Blind.

I began to feel quite angry that I had been tricked into this situation. I was now about to embark on a day of door-to-door salesman work on what was then the hottest day of the year so far. Why hadn't they told us what we would be doing beforehand: I was angry that I had no water, no suntan lotion and a heavy bag on me and I was about to spend the next seven-and-a-half hours traipsing through the streets.

Marketing company? I was beginning to realise how foolish I had been. They weren't interviewing that many people because the jobs were so competitive, but rather, because they were desperate to find people to do this work - probably the most degrading, tedious and soulless job on the planet.

At this point, I could (and under any other circumstances I would), have upped and left - accusing them of misleading me and of time wasting. But I didn't. As an employee of Prime, I saw this 'second interview' as valuable hours, in fact a whole day's work, to rack up against my 'quota'. Actually it had everything I desired. I could 'work', no strings attached for a day. Then at the end of the day, feeling no guilt towards a company which had misled me so cruelly, I could just leave. Perfect. So with this in mind I embraced my new role.

Barry explained more about the company as we walked towards the target area of streets, a little way out of town. First and foremost, you did not get paid. You did not get paid a penny unless you signed people up to the charity. They termed this 'a piece'. For every piece, you received 17GBP. You therefore worked to goals, aiming to get five pieces a day, earning yourself a tidy 85GBP. However, there was one small catch called the 'bond'. For every piece you get, 8GBP of your 17GBP fee gets held by the company in the bond. If the customer cancels their direct debit within three months, you do not get this part of the fee - meaning you have to wait three months to find out whether you will or will not earn the full 17GBP.

Immediately my mind went to the charities, just how much are they forking out for this service? Well as far as I could work out it breaks down like this. The Cobra Group is a multi-national company which runs thousands of smaller 'offices' all over the world, like the one in Nottingham - Endeva Advertising. They find the clients, like the charities, credit card companies, electricity providers etc. They then supply the offices with the clients - Endeva Advertising is solely focussed on 'charity work'.

The companies, or in this case the charities pay The Cobra Group a set fee for every customer they sign up (or for every 'piece', as I now like to say). I was not given a set figure for this, as Barry didn't know it, but I'm guessing it is around 40-45GBP. The Cobra Group takes a cut of this fee and passes on 33GBP to the 'office' - Endeva Advertising. Endeva take a cut and pass on 17GBP to the sales representative (me). Then if the sale is cancelled within the three month period, the 8GBP is taken from person at the bottom of the chain (the sales representative) and refunded directly back to the client (the charity). Therefore the charity only has to fork out around 32-37GBP for failed attempts. The two middle men don't suffer either way.

What you end up with, is a load of people working for free. Not because it's for 'charity', but because some fat-cat middle men (at The Cobra Group and Chris at Endeva Advertising) are skimming off all the profits. After a while I began to realise that it wasn't really that bad for the charities to invest their marketing budget in this sort of 'direct marketing', because the results were (percentage wise), so much better than any leafleting campaign could ever hope for - that is why they do it. It did make me realise, however, that I never want to support a 'big charity' that gives money away to scum like The Cobra Group.

So what's in it for the Sales representatives you may well ask? Why do they slog away Monday - Friday, 12:00 - 20:30 and Saturday afternoon every week, with no job security and no knowing what they will earn from one week to the next? There must be a carrot on the end of a stick somewhere? Well there is and it's called promotion, working your way up in the company until you become like Chris, managing director of his own 'office' earning, as they kept telling me, up to 50,000GBP per week! (Wow I am so excited... hmmm). Well we all know were this money comes from.

At around 15:00 the team reconvened in a dodgy pub in St Ann's for 'a break'. We all have a drink as we are pretty hot, burnt and exhausted already by then. Barry buys my drink for me, out of his own money no doubt. During 'the break', Dave, who is the furthest up the ladder of the rest of the team, explains the promotional structure to me. Stage 1 (where I am now), to stage 5 where Chris is - can be achieved in just 18 months. When you are at Stage 4, as Nick is, you are allowed to break away and start your own 'office'. To do this you are expected to save (out of your own earnings) 10,000GBP to invest. This way, these individuals believe they are running their 'own businesses' and The Cobra Group has to lay out no money whatsoever to expand. God they are bastards!

But you can't keep expanding indefinitely, I asked - soon you will run out of doors to knock on. Dave assures me there is plenty of room for expansion; in fact London currently only has 8 offices!

When we arrived for a break there was no sign of Becky. She had complained about wearing unsuitable shoes, of sore feet and had gone. I knew the moment I found out what we were doing that she would hate it. The irony is that in the reception whilst waiting, we had had a conversation about 'hideous sales jobs' not knowing what we were letting ourselves in for. At the end of the break, with still four hours to go before the end of play, Benedict makes some excuse about college work and ups and leaves too! And then there was one - I wasn't about to leave. Despite the heat, it was easy work just watching Barry in action and because of Prime it just happened that I was the only person getting paid to be there.

So then we got back to work. During the three hours before the break, we covered 3 streets, knocking on around 60 houses and speaking to about 25 people. Barry has the banter down to a tee and says the same thing every time. Despite his cheery persona we are yet to make a single 'piece'. We soldier on. Barry's tactic is to knock on the door. When the person opens the door (if they do), he says, chuckling, 'hello, have you had a nice day?' then 'don't worry, we're not as bad as we look, we're doing some work in the local area for blind people (pointing at his 'chugger' vest, with the words 'Action for the Blind' printed on it). 'We're not collecting today, don't worry... do you know anyone who is blind or partially sighted? You can imagine how hard it can be to do the little things we take for granted, like reading, writing or making a cup of tea... it can be very scary. So I take it you think what we are doing today is a good thing?' to which they invariable answer 'yes'.

'There is a catch to what we are doing' Barry confesses, 'we need to raise £6000 per week so that the charity can carry on its good work... Now we're not asking you to donate all of that, though it would be nice if you would!' (chuckle). 'We're just asking everyone to chip in a very small amount'. The next bit is said very quickly indeed. 'We're asking you to-in-about-four-or-five-weeks-time-to-chip-in-something-small-like-one-pound-fifty-at-the-end-of-each-week-for-as-long-as-you-want-to... we have just a very simple form to fill out, it all goes directly through the bank, because nobody wants to see my face round here every week!' (chuckle). 'This way you can be sure all the money goes directly to the charity and so the government also contribute via Gift Aid. So what we're doing today is just filling out a very simple form, so I guess I can count you in on this one - have you got a flat surface to fill out the form?'

32 out of 33 times that day, this final question was met with a variety of excuses. 'I'll have to ask my husband', 'I can't afford it', 'I already give to charity', 'I don't give my bank details out to people knocking at my door'. Most of which I found completely valid, and in fact I would have happily used myself had the tables been turned.

The one woman that we did sign up was a young Asian mother; I couldn't help but feel guilty for colluding in the abduction of her bank details. What upset me the most was the fact that a lot of people actually saw us as do-gooders who actually cared about blind people - voluntary charity workers giving up our time for the good of the cause. The sad thing is that we were both (until Barry got his piece) voluntary workers, not because of the goodness of our hearts, but in Barry's case because of his greed and desire to climb the promotional ladder, and in mine because I had been commissioned to take part in an art project that required me to work.

At about 18:00, Barry and I stopped for a break. We had completed our first circuit and were about to knock again on the doors of all the houses who had not answered the first time. Barry and I had got on pretty well, really, all things considered. We had had a laugh when Barry (with Dave on backing beat box) sang me his 'Pork Pie Rap'. 'Go Barry, it's your pork pie, you're gonna eat it like it's your pork-pie. B to the A to the double R, Y - go Barry'. I had a little go (despite being a closet vegetarian) substituting Barry for Ellie 'E to the double L, I, E - go Ellie!'

During our chat, in which we ate Smartie Ice creams donated to us by a do-gooder who felt guilty for not signing up, Barry asked me 'what did I think so far?'. When faced with question as direct as this I couldn't lie, I couldn't pretend any longer - it would look ridiculous if I pretended now that I loved the job and then did a complete U-turn two-and-a-half hours later in the office face-to-face with Chris. Barry deserved better than that. So I told the truth. 'To be honest, I don't think I can see my self doing this... I don't think I have the motivation to keep myself going every day... I can see there are great opportunities (ha, ha) in terms of the promotional structure, but seeing that I am just looking for temporary work, I wouldn't be with the company long enough to benefit from them'.

Barry looked sad, you could tell he was disappointed if not slightly offended. I continued 'I wanted to see today through, as I don't like to quit at things (like the other two)... it has been a really interesting experience'. After a few minutes, Barry asked whether, given the way I feel now, I thought it was worth continuing with the 'second interview' and working the houses til 20:30. I looked at my watch (it was 18:16) and then at my sun burn and decided well actually it probably wasn't. So I wished Barry the best, thanked him for letting me tag along and wished him good luck with the rest of the night's work. I turned, rounded the corner and walked home.