Two years after completing a creative writing master’s degree, and an invitation to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, I found myself unemployed and looking for a dream job. Eighty-odd job applications later, I was still getting no response from potential employers. I decided to try an experiment.
I sent the same application out to ten different jobs in two different names. Paul Ranford Pettigrew is the name I was born with before changing it to Paul Boakye at twenty-two years old. Guess which of the two names received three responses and an offer to interview? Of course, I had to decline the offers.
What’s in a Name?
Back in the day, I used to get discriminated against when I turned up after having spoken to someone on the phone. They would then say;
“Oh, the job’s gone.
“The room’s taken.”
“You just missed it–sorry about that.”
“I wasn’t expecting someone like you.”
These days, they see the ‘foreign name’ and just bin the application. That kind of approach has gotten worst in recent years. No room for diversity in Brexit Britain, despite the rhetoric of inclusion.
Never Lower Your Expectations
The jobcentre suggested I lower my expectations. “We’ve got two shelf-stacking jobs at the local WHSmith,” the caseworker told me one day. Across the road from Fulham Jobcentre used to be a WHSmith retail shore. On most visits to the jobcentre, I would simply walk right past it. On this particular occasion, however, I decided to pop inside.
I must have fancied a sugar rush after my latest interrogation by Fräulein. That’s what I called the old German witch on my case at the unemployment benefit office. She who always acted as if I was taking the little social security fund from her private bank account at Coutts.
WHSmith didn’t have my favourite orange Lucozade on sale, but a copy of The Washington Post caught my eye on the way out. According to a story highlighted on the cover, a French multinational advertising agency had recently opened a branch in Ghana. They had recruited Kofi Annan’s nephew to run the place as managing director. This chap, a mister Amoo-Gottfried, was bringing in over two-million-dollars a year to the parent company in France.
Social Media Job Search
That’s an unusual name, I thought. I’m sure I could find him online. I found Mr Amoo-Gottfried on Facebook and immediately sent him a friend request. He accepted. Then I waited a polite week before sending him a quick message. I asked him for an email address where I might send a copy of my interactive resume. “We’re always on the lookout for great talent,” he replied. He suggested I post my CV and portfolio for his attention.
About a month later, he called me at home and we talked for over an hour. I had fed him the often-repeated lie about being of ‘Ghanaian and Jamaican heritage,’ and I deeply regretted it now. He seemed a really cool guy. I was sure to get caught in a lie; should my job search progressed.
Weeks went by, and his head of HR called my mobile one day. “Kofi will be at our head office in Paris next month. Would you like to get the plane or the train to meet him for lunch?” I had never been to France by train before. A trip on the Eurostar was infinitely more exciting to me than the possibility of a free flight.
Suited and Booted for the Dream Job in Africa Interview
Walking into the restaurant at Publicis Drugstore, I spotted my lunch date immediately. He was larger than life, dark among the many pale faces, and quick to smile. I remember thinking, most people might walk past this guy mistaking someone else in the room for The Boss. Perhaps he too liked to be underestimated. He had a certain Jay-Z swagger, a relaxed, understated, think on your feet attitude about him. I figured he must perfect that look for the benefit of other black folks.
“Hello, Kofi?” I ventured. He stood up to shake my hand and left no doubt when he spoke as to who was in charge. Seated with him at the table was a handsome young copywriter from Ghana, who was in Paris to collect an award for advertising excellence. I was impressed. By the end of our short meeting, I was ready to sign up to this egoless corporate culture that seemed to cherish even its junior employees.
The MD said had wanted to offer me a creative director position. As the current occupant was still in post, we settled on an account director role instead. I was to be in charge of their lucrative Vodafone account, and this, without any background in advertising at all. Talk about thrown in at the deep end. We had not discussed a salary, but when the offer letter came, the remuneration package pleased me. There was only one problem.
Work and Residence Permits Requirement
I had landed a dream job in Ghana but now had to persuade my employers to apply for both a work and a residence permit on my behalf. It was easy explaining my predicament to the Head of Human Resources. “I am not Ghanaian and need these documents to take up your offer,” but I still had to tell their managing director that I had led him to believe otherwise. Expats could enter Ghana at that time while their work permit was still pending. Luckily, I could avoid the inevitable truth-telling until after my arrival on the job in Accra.
“I don’t care where you come from,” he said, “as long as you can do the job.” Six months into the ‘dream job in Ghana,’ and our inspirational managing director resigned, exchanging Accra for London and a new role as Head of Bacardi Global. He had refused to play second-fiddle to a new South African CEO installed by a Paris head office concerned about rising recruitment costs and rumours of tribalism. The whole staff team was in mutiny mode.
Changing of the Guards: The End of an Era
A bunch of “Obroni” (foreign) managers quickly descended on the place, promising to teach us everything about advertising and how to be more professional. They started by painting the whole place white and talked incessantly about cutting costs; despite earning a small fortune each in addition to receiving a 4-Wheel Drive motor; expensive expat accommodation in the centre of town; and a 24/7 full-time chauffeur.
“We’ve been whitewashed,” joked the young creatives. “From funky-fresh to pale and stale in one fell swoop,” they jested. No longer boldly going, but stuck in a rut as one by one both staff and clients began to abandon ship. Many of the original crew were simply given their marching orders. I wouldn’t be far behind them, I knew.
Trouble at The Dream Job in Africa
The first sign of trouble came when our new saviours discovered that I was, in fact, a proud Jamaican and not a Ghanaian as my name suggested. “Oh really?” they echoed as we sipped Star Beer over lunch. But behind their empty eyes, they now saw no value in keeping me on. Jamaicans like Nigerians are not known to be compliant like their Ghanaian cousins.
My very likeable and experienced Indian line-manager left for pastures new early. He had been replaced already by a young Finnish woman some sixteen years my junior. It was clear something was wrong when she accompanied me to a meeting with my clients at Mitsubishi Ghana and accused me of “walking into the building like you own the place.”
It was an odd comment to make. I had arrived to give a presentation to the head of Mitsubishi Motors, Japan, in a boardroom full of people in Ghana where I was the only person of African descent. The irony was not lost on me. My new manager, however, was a self-confessed ‘ball-breaker’ with a perverse fondness for putting men down; it was likely why she had tagged along for a meeting to which was not invited.
I had pitched a 30-second TV commercial to the head of Mitsubishi Ghana. He liked it. They wanted to use my proposal for an L200 TV ad in six regions across Africa and needed five other countries to contribute to its cost. I was to make a case for filming the project in Ghana at half the price compared to South Africa, where multinational ad agencies usually did these things. We had got the green-light for the project. Yet the line manager looked decidedly displeased as we travelled back to our office in silence.
- Read Part 2: End of the Dream Job in Africa