The Apprentice: Thinking inside the box

Apprentice logoThe 14 remaining candidates are asked to design a prototype for an innovative item of flat-pack furniture and pitch it to retailers. But while Endeavour embraced innovation, Evolve’s attempts to think outside the box merely resulted in … a box. With their multifunctional storage solution falling flat, Evolve slipped to their third consecutive defeat and restaurateur Sophie Lau paid the price as she became the third victim of Sugar’s Digit of Doom™.

Alex measures up to the task (Image: BBC)

Alex measures up to the task (Image: BBC)

Good ideas, bad ideas

It’s a box with a lid, yeah?

The product design task has in the past brought us even higher than usual levels of buffoonery, innovative uses of the umlaut (the Cüüli towel-cum-drinks chiller) and a series of singularly impractical products such as the Splish Splash bath screen. In fairness, real world prototyping processes take weeks or even months rather than an hour’s brainstorm, a flipchart and lots of arm-waving, so it’s little surprise the teams’ ideas are generally less than impressive.

Put it away, Myles! (Image: BBC)

Methinks Myles doth rather fancy himself (Image: BBC)

So it turns out to be here. After the candidates have enjoyed some down-time at the Apprenti-Mansion™, a Tigger-like Natalie responds quickest in the Race to the Phone™. The candidates are summoned to the recently redeveloped Angel Building, home of the Design Council, but not before we are treated to a lingering shot of Myles Mordaunt (who last week we saw clad in just a towel) wearing the skimpiest of pants. Or it might have been a thong. I didn’t look too closely.

At the Angel Building Sugar, standing so high above the candidates that half of them later require a chiropractor to sort out their cricked necks, tells the teams they must create a £75 flat-pack product and pitch it to retailers. The team which secures the most orders wins.

Jordan was impressive throughout (Image: BBC)

Jordan was impressive throughout (Image: BBC)

Natalie Panayi (Evolve) and Jordan Poulton (Endeavour) are elected as project managers and the teams settle down to brainstorm. Jordan is impressive – structured, organised and decisive – whereas Natalie is, well, not, allowing everyone to fire ideas in from all directions.

Kurt Wilson pitches a chair which doubles up as a recycling bin. (Isn’t that a toilet?) Now one of the rules of brainstorming is that there is no such thing as a bad idea. However, this is a seriously bad idea. Thankfully Alex ‘Dracula’ Mills trumps him with a concept for a combination chair/table.

For Evolve, Francesca MacDuff-Varley proposes a cube where each face performs a different function. This triggers lots of talking – and not much listening – from the entire team, and before you can say “how many sides does a cube have anyway?” the concept has been embellished to become something which can act as a table, a laptop tray, a wine holder and can juggle five balls while balancing a spoon on its nose.

Both teams conduct market research. The boys chat to some dodgy-looking blokes at a bus stop. The girls’ sub-team led by Sophie Lau only further muddles an already unclear concept. As Sophie herself utters in somewhat existential fashion:

Are we table, are we desk, are we chair?

To which the answer is: all three, and then some. The one thing Evolve certainly are at this point is confused as self-appointed design guru Uzma Yakoob steers them towards her innovative box with – wait for it – a lid and a criss-cross pattern on its sides. I know, isn’t that just, so, wow? Things only get worse when they return from a trip to Homebase with a cushion that’s too big to fit.

The boys are in better shape as Jordan allows Alex to be the driving force behind bringing his ‘Foldo’ chair-cum-table concept to life. There is some confusion about dimensions – the seat is too small and the chair seat too high – but it starts to come together. Although I’m not entirely sure what Zeeshaan Shah is on when he declares the fabric for their seat upholstery as having a “clean, crisp, minty-fresh kind of look”.

The box on wheels versus the high chair

The following morning both teams take delivery of their prototypes. The boys’ Foldo looks impressive – or “clickety boo” as Jason Leech describes it – while the girls’ Tidy Sidy cube just looks like a boo-boo. The sense of deflation is palpable as they attempt to maintain brave and straight faces (Irish doctor Leah Totton fails spectacularly in this respect). The manufacturers have even left the too-large cushion separate. Their solution? Rip half the stuffing out to make it fit – because no one will ever notice that.

Splitting into two sub-teams, one half must scour the streets of London looking for unsuspecting retailers to approach on spec, while the other attends appointments laid on with two major retailers.

Zee - not quite the expert salesman he thinks he is? (Image: BBC)

Zee – not quite the expert salesman he thinks he is? (Image: BBC)

Neil Clough, who’s never short of a few words of wisdom, imparts the importance of getting a customer to say yes three times – what he calls the ‘sales orgasm’. Zeeshaan Shah doesn’t even get to sales foreplay as he crashes and burns on his first speculative pitch. Jordan performs rather better, shifting a whopping 200 Foldos to a contemporary furniture chain. Jason aims low when he asks another retailer “Can we tempt you with two or three?” Zee strikes out again, then seems surprised when Jordan firmly denies him his hat-trick by allowing Kurt to do the next one.

The girls get off to a slow start as they attempt to dress up their grey box as the next must-have home accessory. Francesca, Leah and Uzma try a high-end store and are told in no uncertain terms that the only place the retailer would put the Tidy Sidy in is “a part of the house you couldn’t see.” Oh dear. Francesca then makes a successful sale of four units, followed by another 20 and then a further 50 before Leah, again exhibiting surprising sales prowess, offloads 100 late in the day.

As for the major retailer pitches, both teams head first to catalogue retailer Argos, who have around 700 stores. Luisa Zissman leads for Evolve and walks right into the obvious question from one of the buyers: “Isn’t it largely a box on wheels?” But they do say they like the storage aspect and the ease of assembly. Neil heads up Endeavour’s pitch, during which Alex assembles the Foldo while offering a close-up view of his posterior to the buyers, hitting something of a bum note and literally making an arse of himself. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) They don’t receive much feedback, other than that the seat is quite high up.

The teams’ second appointment is with upmarket department store chain John Lewis, who have about 40 stores. Saleswoman Rebecca Slater does her best to put a respectable face on things, but it’s not enough to stop the buyers smirking. Myles stumbles slightly when he responds to a question about Foldo’s target market by answering that it’s for 16-40s, particularly students. At £75? You can tell Myles has never had a student loan.

Boardroom brouhaha™

Regular readers will know I’m not overly enamoured with Sugar’s comedy stylings – his rolling out of the ‘piss-up in a brewery’ joke last week scraped a new low – but in fairness he is on fire here, with biting contributions from both Nick Hewer and Karren Brady too.

We start with the usual review of the teams’ performances. Sugar comments that Evolve’s Tidy Sidy, despite its ease of assembly, is basically a lemon (albeit a multifunctional one). Nonetheless the girls agree that Natalie was a good team leader.

Nick is rather disparaging about Endeavour’s Foldo:

For me it looks rather like an electric chair.

He has a point.

On to the results. As is traditional, we start with the least important customers and finish with the critical must-win one. In terms of speculative sales, Evolve managed 174 compared to Endeavour’s 216. John Lewis loved the Foldo concept even though the prototype was flawed in its dimensions and placed an order for 500. However, they didn’t like the Tidy Sidy and elected to pass.

That just leaves Argos, the golden goose. Again Endeavour strike paydirt, shifting an impressive 2,500 Foldos. As for Evolve, Karren delivers their result with quite possibly the greatest rug-pull ever:

They really loved your pitch. And they really liked you guys … [pause] … They hated the product.

Natalie received a nasty surprise from Karren (Image: BBC)

Natalie received a nasty surprise from Karren (Image: BBC)

Natalie’s face goes from smugly confident to utterly crestfallen in an instant as Karren reveals they again secured no sales. So Endeavour totalled 3,216 units, Evolve a measly 174. It’s a landslide and a third consecutive defeat for the girls’ team, none of whom have been on a winning team yet. All seven surviving boys have yet to taste defeat.

For their treat, the boys are sent out to climb the O2 Arena and enjoy the views, with Sugar rightly congratulating Alex for producing one of the best products he has seen in all his time in the boardroom. The girls are sent to plumb the depths of the (Not the) Cafe of Broken Dreams™, where Sophie sets herself up for a fall by admitting to camera that “I don’t design, I don’t manufacture and I don’t sell and I don’t pitch.” Which begs the obvious question of what does she actually do?

Back in the boardroom, Sugar is keen to show off his branding skills with alternative names for the girls’ box on wheels:

Tidy Sidy, Wishy Washy, Poxy Boxy.

He questions their product’s design, its drab battleship-grey colour – it looks like a garden planter – and its supposed multifunctional capability. Other than that, obviously, it’s terrific. With praise like that, it’s no surprise that all the girls are quick to back away from responsibility for anything.

Natalie, backed by her bestest buddy Luisa, says Uzma always passes the buck. Sophie comes under fire for leading consumer research that produced contradictory and unclear feedback. Aged only 22, she seems very young and rabbit-in-headlights when placed on the spot, so it’s no surprise when Natalie elects to bring her and Uzma back in to face the firing squad.

After sending the trio out of the room for a minute, Sugar notes that Natalie was a poor project manager, Sophie never says anything and Uzma is never wrong. When Karren adds that Uzma has had issues with some of the other girls on previous tasks, Sugar airily dismisses it with a throwaway “Oh, you know what women are like.” Karren is less than amused.

The three candidates are brought back in and a disappointed Sugar tells them in no uncertain terms:

This is a design task where you’re supposed to think outside of the box. All you thought of was a bloody box!

Natalie and Uzma start attacking each other, with a visibly angry Natalie shouting: “I don’t care if it’s unfair. It’s the truth!” The argument becomes increasingly heated, with the pitch and shrillness of Natalie’s voice rising rapidly to the point where only dogs can hear her. Uzma continues to duck and dive (“it was a group effort”) while simultaneously boasting about her design credentials (“I’m in the ‘look good’ industry”). Sophie stays well out of it, but Sugar also turns on her, suggesting she was happy to stick to market research and stay safe.

Making his mind up, Sugar blasts Natalie for presiding over “an unforgivable disaster” – and then fires Sophie, who departs the process with barely a whimper.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™, she’s on the verge of tears as she tries to explain her failure:

I do feel hard done by. I honestly did what the project manager wanted me to do, and I did try. It’s just we’ve got a lot of stubborn characters. a lot of bitchiness going on and I like to keep my dignity and my class.

Where did it all go wrong?

Sophie paid the price for staying too close to her comfort zone (Image: BBC)

Sophie paid the price for staying too close to her comfort zone (Image: BBC)

Ultimately, I think Sugar would have been justified in firing any of the final three. However, although Sophie did little wrong, she contributed little throughout her three tasks, bringing about her own downfall by ducking opportunities to shine – a tactic Sugar is well-known for disliking. In the end, her inexperience as the youngest of this year’s candidates was all too obvious as she allowed herself to be overwhelmed by the bigger and louder characters in the group. On You’re Fired, she came across as naive and lacking self-confidence, downgrading her own abilities as she admitted she had deferred to the boastful (and extremely dubious) claims of others.

Neither Natalie nor Uzma were blameless either. Natalie fell into the same trap as Tim last week of being too democratic, consequently failing to exert any control over her headstrong team and relying too much on Luisa for support. Uzma has already developed quite a reputation for boasting how good she is at things without accepting any actual accountability for her actions. Sooner or later that will come back to haunt her.

On the other team, Jordan was calm, organised and made excellent decisions. He had the confidence to let his best sellers do the big pitches, and to delegate the creation of the Foldo to its creator Alex. Aside from just being a better idea than the girls’ supposedly multifunctional box, the Foldo was also a textbook demonstration of the difference between a product driven by one individual’s clear vision and one which was designed by committee. The end result was arguably the best conceived concept the series has ever seen – and quite possibly the worst ever. The right team lost, and so bad was Evolve’s performance – they appear to be devolving rather than evolving by the week – that it really didn’t matter who was fired.

Next week the teams must open a farm shop. Cue lots of jokes about foot-in-mouth, most likely directed at Jason.

The Apprentice continues on Wednesdays on BBC1, with companion show You’re Fired following immediately afterwards on BBC2.

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6 Comments on The Apprentice: Thinking inside the box

  1. Totally agree, Tim. We are starting to see the wheat separate from the chaff. For me Leah and Jordan have been the most impressive, with Zee, possibly Jason, and Neil poor for the boys, but for different reasons. Apart from Leah, none of the girls have impressed me.

    I also agree that any of the 3 girls could have gone at the end, but Natalie really dodged a bullet with her incompetent leadership.

    You can read my thoughts at http://www.makdecosemo.com

    • I like Leah well enough, but she needs to be more proactive. I know win-loss records don’t amount to much in the wider scheme of things, but three tasks now she’s done exactly what she’s delegated to do, and done it well and three tasks now the rest of the team has slid to shit around her and she’s done absolutely nothing to stop it. Not a peep. And she seems to me to be smart enough to know what’s going wrong. You can win The Apprentice by keeping your head down and letting everyone else take themselves out, but it’s not exactly a shining victory.

      Jordan and Neil seem the strongest to me at this point. Neil talks a lot of smack, but he’s backed it up on every single task so far. Obviously I don’t think he’s a winner, just because of his personality, unless he goes on a Ricky Martinesque voyage of discovery. Francesca could be a dark horse.

      • Francesca taking the Yasmina path to victory? (Be crap at maths, lull others into a false sense of security, but otherwise quietly competent.) Possible, definitely.

        I agree about Neil but obviously the real test for him is whether he can lead when he is actually the PM rather than when he’s the back-seat PM. He’s certainly not the buffoon that, say, Zee is.

        I’ve got Leah down as a potential winner. I agree she’s deliberately taken a back-seat so far, but let’s see if she can step up at the right time once we’ve weeded out a few more of the ‘characters’.

  2. This was a decent episode and enough to keep me watching a series that last week I thought was getting cliched.

    It was clear that the candidates are getting to know each other better and this helped to gel the boys team as a team for the first time this series. I think it helped that they all recognised the quality of Alex’s idea so whilst I would give credit for that I am left thinking that this task was about one person’s genius rather than a team effort. The idea was so good that I did wonder whether Alex had developed it whilst watching a previous series but whilst I think that the concept was so far advanced that either the man is a natural entrepreneur or was able to recycle a previous idea, the way that the BBC puts a twist on each task (flat pack this year) means that itis impossible to pre-guess the show.

    There is a clear difference between the boys team and the girls shouting and bickering. At the risk of being sexist, and looking to open a discussion, I think that this is a fundamental difference between the sexes – boys are competitive but essentially team players, girls are, well, not. I think that the time has come in this series to mix the teams but from my memory of the preview it does not look like Lord Sugar (or the producer) agrees.

    On the question of Sophie’s departure I think that it is fairly usual at this stage for Lord S to eliminate one of the quiet ones. We are now three tasks in and by now everyone should be making an impression on Nick and Karren. There is clearly a case that those who never make a mistake are the ones that never do anything. And Sophie’s failure was summed up by Dara’s parting gift…she condemned herself.

    • I’m not sure if it’s necessarily so much a boy/girl thing as a winners/losers thing. Winning the first task naturally helps a team gel, while losing piles the pressure on – particularly when one loss turns to two and then three.

      The boys are on a roll now – and great though Alex’s idea was, Jordan also PM’d (and sold) well, simply by giving those who were well suited to certain roles the freedom to do their thing, rather than micromanaging everything. His handling of Zee’s delusional bombast was mature and very much necessary too – he almost looked like a real-world businessman!

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