The Apprentice: Flirting with disaster

Apprentice logoThe eight remaining candidates sought out a perfect match as they devised their own online dating offers and created an advertising campaign to promote them. However, they ended up flirting with disaster as weak concepts and inconsistent execution left everyone struggling to secure another date with Lord Sugar. In the end, an abdication of responsibility was enough to convince Sugar that Jason Leech should be the ninth recipient of the Digit of Doom™.

Mutiny afoot! (Image: BBC)

Two project managers for the price of one (Image: BBC)

Me! Me! Me! Oh, not me, then

A change of scenery and a second win as PM for Jordan (Image: BBC)

A change of scenery for Jordan (Image: BBC)

After yet another Myles Mordaunt Underwear Moment™, the candidates are summoned to Old Marylebone Town Hall, the busiest registry office in London, where they are tasked with devising an online dating concept and advertising campaign. To even up the teams, Sugar’s weekly Apprenti-Shuffle™, sees Jordan Poulton moving across to Endeavour to join Myles, Leah Totton and Alex Mills, leaving Neil Clough, Jason LeechLuisa Zissman and Francesca MacDuff-Varley on Evolve.

En route to the teams’ base at Farringdon ad agency Karmarama, Myles reveals that the first time he ever saw a picture of his wife was online, but not on a dating site. A catalogue wife? Or was she appearing on one of those websites? The mind boggles.

Alex still hasn't been PM (Image: BBC)

Alex still hasn’t been PM (Image: BBC)

Meanwhile Alex claims to be the Christian Grey of the Valleys. Presumably he’s the central character of 50 Shades of Bullshit?

Jason reveals that he has run an online dating website for students in which he played the role of Mr Cupid. That’s enough to get him voted in as Evolve’s project manager.

Alex, who still hasn’t led a team, tries to put himself forward to lead on the basis of his experience in graphic design, websites and as a previous user of dating sites. However, he loses out to Jordan, who is voted in on the basis of not being Alex.

Abdication or palace coup?

As with previous advertising tasks, the route to success involves ticking three important boxes: identifying a good target market, understanding what will appeal to that demographic and then delivering against those needs in a coherent fashion.

At Alex’s behest, Endeavour decide to target young professionals, while Evolve champion the over-50s market despite Luisa’s unceasing protestations. Both are good demographics to aim for, so a good start.

Sub-teams then head out to conduct research with focus groups. Myles and Leah accost random young professionals on the street, while Neil and Francesca quiz some over-50s in a pub. There they arrive at the rather lame theme of ‘Friendship and Flowers’ which, in the absence of any personal insight into their target market, they decide to run with. Mind you, Endeavour don’t do much better as Alex comes up with the rather masculine ‘Cufflinks’ as a brand name. In the context of the task, the name doesn’t really matter – it’s the execution of the brand which is more important. Which is just as well, really.

Luisa seemed to disagree with everything - again (Image: BBC)

Not tonight, I have a headache (Image: BBC)

Jason instead ties himself up in knots trying to decide on colour schemes for their website. Luisa, having already decided she knows what she wants, stomps impatiently, nags constantly and then tells him he’s giving her a headache. Oh, the irony. They’re two hours late in meeting up with their web designer, resulting in a horribly incomplete attempt at a website.

Endeavour are on schedule but, despite preaching the importance of an integrated look and feel at the outset, Jordan ends up with what looks like a corporate website rather than something fun and enticing for under-30s. The team does come up with some winning ideas for their TV ad revolving around a disastrous dating character called Herbert who is, well, a right Herbert. And who better to inhabit that role than Alex? Lack of coherence aside, it’s all coming together.

Evolve, in the meantime, are coming apart at the seams as they debrief what has been a disastrous day. After some debate about whether it’s even possible to switch PMs mid-task, they do anyway as Jason, recognising his poor handling thus far, takes one for the team and stands aside for Luisa. It’s hard to tell exactly how much of it is Jason abdicating responsibility and how much is Luisa engineering a palace coup – a bit of both, probably – but it’s a brave decision by both of them which potentially places them squarely in the firing line.

Lights, camera, action

The two teams continue to behave very differently the following day as they shoot their TV ads. Francesca directs for Evolve, with Neil supporting seamlessly, although the ad itself is as limp as a stick of wet celery.

Francesca won't be mistaken for Franco Zeffirelli (Image: BBC)

Francesca won’t be mistaken for Franco Zeffirelli (Image: BBC)

Meanwhile Leah is supposedly directing for Endeavour but Alex, who is playing a starring role as Herbert in near full-on vampire make-up, continually insists on barking out contradictory instructions. However their ad, though cheesy and drifting increasingly off-brief, has a streak of humour which is sorely lacking in Evolve’s attempt to regard all over-50s as coffin-dodgers.

Ads shot, the teams have to decide who will present their pitches the following day. Jordan delegates to Myles. Neil offers to present, but Luisa states that she will select the person with the best skills for the job – which, of course, is Apprentice-speak for “You’re doing this over my dead body.” Sure enough, she picks herself – she is a good presenter so her decision is justifiable, but equally it’s clear that she could have had Martin Luther King on her team and she would still have chosen herself.

Off-pitch pitches

In front of a panel of ad agency professionals and online dating experts, Luisa and Myles pitch Friendship and Flowers and Cufflinks respectively. From what we see, both present well and deal with the inevitable nit-picking questions as best they can.

Friendship and Flowers is criticised for the dishevelled and incomplete state of its website, and for an ad which is deemed “too bland and too safe” and “a bit patronising … you’ve positioned it at 80-plus”. Cufflinks is pulled up on its “very masculine” name and “an absolute disconnect between the very serious functional website you’ve created and the advert”.

It’s clear that the audience laughed with Endeavour’s jokey ad and laughed at Evolve’s dull one. But it’s also evident that both teams’ approaches have distinct flaws.

Boardroom brouhaha™

In the boardroom, a displeased Sugar is quick to ask why no one seems to have any confidence in Alex as a project manager. Endeavour’s actual PM Jordan is praised by his team, but Karren Brady flags up the fact that maybe he’s a great delegator rather than a great leader. That’s a fair criticism in the show’s current format, where the winner must prove that they can deliver themselves as well as getting others to do so.

In the discussion about Evolve’s performance – and in particular the abdication incident – Nick Hewer reveals that he’s deeply unimpressed with Luisa’s behaviour:

Luisa nipped at [Jason’s] heels like a little terrier … and you drove him into a corner. It was the most disgraceful display of bad manners I’ve seen in many a long day.

He has a point. While Luisa’s frustration at Jason’s dithering was understandable, it has also been clear throughout the process that she quickly becomes impatient and argumentative with anyone doing anything she disagrees with.

The dull ad for Friendship and Flowers has Leah yawning and Sugar rolling his eyes in disbelief. As he says:

That makes Last of the Summer Wine look like an action movie.

Sugar is left with an unenviable decision. On the one hand, Endeavour understood how to appeal to their target market better, but the execution of their website and ad campaign was all over the place, with the only consistent thing about it being its complete lack of coherence. On the other hand, Evolve failed to understand their target market properly and delivered an ad which was off-message and unappealing. In the end Sugar decides that Endeavour are the winners. Though the execution was flawed, the concept and strategy for Cufflinks was fundamentally sound. Evolve’s errors stemmed from a fundamental failure to understand their target market.

The winning team are sent to Mayfair to sample some pricey caviar – cured fish eggs, basically. The losers trudge off to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™, where the closest the candidates will get to caviar is some fish fingers, to spend some time blaming each other.

It's the end of the road for Jason (Image: BBC)

It’s the end of the road for Jason (Image: BBC)

Back in the boardroom, Sugar has to ask the team who he should address as project manager – Jason and Luisa agree it should be both of them. They discuss whether they should really have listened to their market research – if they’d ignored it, they would have been criticised for that, of course – and whether Jason conceded the PM role for the good of the team or whether he’d buckled under the pressure and just given up.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to a choice of bringing either Neil or Francesca back to face the final decision. Typically, the two disagree. Jason wants to bring back Francesca (as she was in charge of their poor advert), while Luisa thinks Neil should come back (a decision which, I suspect, was driven from personal dislike as much as anything). Francesca, incensed, as good as volunteers to stay in the boardroom, so a relieved and somewhat bewildered Neil is free to return to the Apprenti-Mansion™.

Fundamentally, though, Francesca is on pretty safe ground, although Karren wonders whether she really asked the right questions in the focus group. It quickly becomes clear that it’s coming down to a straight choice between Jason the thinker and Luisa the quick-fire decision-maker. Both make good points: Luisa says you often have to make quick decisions in business, while Jason counters that quick decisions are no good if they’re bad ones. Sugar voices his concern that Luisa may cause too many problems and that she brow-beat Jason into submission. (Although surely only Alex, Captain Eyebrows™ himself, can administer a true brow-beating?) But from the moment Sugar brands Jason an ‘academic’, his firing is inevitable.

As the trio file out of the boardroom, Karren makes an ominous comment about following Luisa next week to size up whether she is a strong businesswoman or just a plain bully. I’m increasingly of the opinion that she has decent instincts and is willing to take the kind of risks any good entrepreneur must take, but I also remain convinced that she’s nowhere near as good as she thinks she is and has a personality which isn’t conducive to working in partnership with Sugar.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™, Jason accepts his fate with good grace:

We were reaching that stage, I think, in the process where I’d have to go for blood because everybody is of very high calibre, and I just don’t have that killer instinct.

Jason seemed like a genuinely nice chap, offering a surplus of affability to cover the fact he was utterly naive in terms of commercial realities. And while his lack of ego made a refreshing change in a cast of candidates whose egos can barely fit through the door, he also seemed to lack the confidence and assertiveness to really make himself heard. He was always an entertainer, but he was never going to be a winner.

Next week: The teams must create their own ready meal. Insert your own joke about horse-meat here.

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

Season 9 reviews

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Beer

Flat-pack

Farm shop

Dubai

Away Day

Caravans

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9 Comments on The Apprentice: Flirting with disaster

  1. A fair review, Tim. I agree about Jason’s limitations, but the bullying behaviour of the more assertive individuals reminded me why I abandoned corporate life.

    You can read my thoughts at http://markdecosemo.com/2013/06/20/the-apprentice-week-8-functional-or-dysfunctional/

    • I know what you mean, Mark. While I wouldn’t pretend for one minute that such bullying characters don’t exist in the corporate world, they’re certainly not as prevalent as they are in The Apprentice. As in any walk of life, you get the whole range of personalities.

      I’d also say one of the things about this artificial environment is that the pressure of the tasks combined with a group of candidates who are (mostly) relatively young and inexperienced certainly brings out the worst rather than the best in people. In that respect, I rather respect Jason for never straying from the well-mannered if somewhat naive person he clearly is.

  2. I know this an unpopular opinion but I actually prefer Luisa to Jason and think Nick got a little out line in the boardroom. Granted Luisa (who don’t get me wrong is deeply flawed even though I like her) went about it in the worst possible way but Jason was just so poor that I have a hard time coneming her impatience.

    Also, and I admit I may be overly cynical here, I didn’t quite buy Jason’s ‘I’m doing this for the women and children’ line. I think that was a face saving measure more than anything but I suppose I have always found Jason’s persona a little played up – that enormous teddy bear struck me as highly calculated.

    Granted she handled it in just about the worst way possible but

    • I think Luisa’s frustration with Jason – who, don’t get me wrong, was weak on this task – was understandable but I think the way she handled it only made things worse. Jason deserved to be fired but Luisa should consider herself lucky that this year’s double firing occurred last week.

      As for Nick’s reaction, it may have seemed a bit OTT but I’m willing to bet that the one or two incidents we saw of Luisa hectoring Jason were not isolated ones – I’m guessing that Nick observed several such incidents over the course of the day that we weren’t shown. hence the ferocity of his comment.

      • Ross Nolan // June 21, 2013 at 1:47 am // Reply

        Those are fair points but I can’t help feel a little sorry for her after the Corporate away day task where Luisa’s admittedly poorly judged anti-corporate comments did not (to my eyes) deserve the hostile reception in the boardroom, and not coincidently helped Francesca to dodge a well deserved firing. I think to some degree Nick and Karen are out to get her.
        I admit I’m biased towards Luisa over Jason because her brassy attitude strikes me as being down to insecurity and essentially defensive… not the most admirable traits certainly but I don’t see her as a bully. Jason on the other hand… well it is hard to explain but I instinctively feel there is something a little too artificial and calculated to him.

        • I don’t think Luisa’s a bully (although she comes close on occasion), but I do think that her attitude is not one which is conducive to getting the most out of a team. The ad agency guy who was on You’re Fired stated that, in an environment where they emphasise collaborative working, this was the first time he had ever seen anyone behave like this in their offices. Unless you are very senior, you don’t get away with behaviour like this in a real business for very long.

          I don’t buy that Nick and Karren are out to get her, personally. They’re reacting to behaviour which, if reeled in somewhat, would be acceptable (there’s nothing wrong with being pushy and confident) and consistent (it’s hardly one or two isolated incidents). If they didn’t pull her up on it they’d look weak, and it’s not as if she has been criticised every week.

          The thing about her anti-corporate comments is not so much that she made them, but that she was effectively biting the hand that feeds. “Hey, guys, I think you’re all dull and full of crap. Can I have £250k, please?”

          Is Jason artificial? I think he is one of life’s oddballs – I went to uni with plenty of characters like him – who plays up to certain natural characteristics and has been edited in such a way that he didn’t really show any other part of his personality. He was one of the weakest candidates overall, but he’s also the one I’d most like to spend an evening in the pub with.

  3. “That’s a fair criticism in the show’s current format, where the winner must prove that they can deliver themselves as well as getting others to do so.”

    Or, in the case of Tom, neither. (#obligatorytomburn)

    I think it’s shaping up to be an interesting end-game with regards who gets to the very end. I think Neil has pretty much established himself as a cert for the final two, and Francesca seems like your Natasha/Adam style “will make final five/four if she ends up on the right teams but no further” type, but the other 5 could all conceivably make it, and all have something to prove over the remaining tasks. Jordan has to show he can deliver by himself and get rid of his awful Boardroom Personality ; Luisa has to show she can be a team player ; Myles has to show he lives in the real world, not just Monaco ; Dr Leah needs some task wins which she can identify with her name ; and Alex needs to get the bigger boys to let him be PM and win.

    • Heh. But Tom had the super stealthy weapon of the Styl-File up his sleeve – a business plan so secret even he hadn’t thought of it. 🙂

      I’d agree with your assessment of the remaining candidates. I don’t think we’ve ever had a final 6 or 7 where it’s been less obvious who the finalists will end up being.

  4. Great review, as always! I’m out of patience with this year’s crop and I feel that none of them, bar perhaps Clough, have shown any real nous. Luisa is young but her behaviour has been vile and she did bully Jason into complete inaction.

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