The Apprentice: A dog’s dinner

Apprentice logoThe Apprentice met Masterchef as this week's task saw the teams asked to create and pitch a new ready meal to three grocery retailers. For Evolve it was a case of too many not enough cooks spoiling the broth, whereas Endeavour made a dog's dinner of their packaging. Evolve won, and Lord Sugar declared that first-time project manager Alex Mills was beyond his sell-by date.

Neil and Luisa working together? Surely not! (Image: BBC)

Neil and Luisa working together? Surely not! (Image: BBC)

If you can’t stand the heat, get into the kitchen

Another stint for Neil as PM (Image: BBC)

Another stint for Neil as PM (Image: BBC)

This week it’s Alex Mills‘ turn to answer the early morning phone call which summons the candidates from the Apprenti-Mansion™ to Searcys restaurant at the top of the Gherkin, known for a high quality dining experience somewhat out of keeping with the ready meals the teams are tasked with creating. Alex, who in week nine has still not been a project manager, is named by Sugar as Endeavour’s leader, while Luisa Zissman ends up choosing Neil Clough over Francesca MacDuff-Varley as Evolve’s PM.

Neil warms to the idea of a fusion-based concept, while Alex locks immediately onto paella before Jordan Poulton wisely pulls him back to thinking about the target market first. Myles Mordaunt suggests kids and they run with that.

The teams split up to work on branding and creating recipes for their dishes. Luisa as good as refuses to work in the kitchen, even though she owns a bakery business – a case of Won’t Cook over Can’t Cook. Neil buys her excuse that she can’t cook savoury and leaves Francesca – who admits to cooking about as well as I run marathons – to fend for herself. Woman overboard!

Alex allowed Myles to sway his decision - to his ultimate cost (Image: BBC)

Alex allowed Myles to sway his decision – to his ultimate cost (Image: BBC)

For Endeavour, Alex and Myles work on branding while Jordan and Leah Totton are left on kitchen duty. Myles wants to target their branding towards kids, coming up with Dracula/Deadly Dinners, while Alex is adamant he wants to appeal to parents with a combination of a geography-based brand promoting meals from around the world (a good idea) carrying the name Popty Ping, which he claims is Welsh for ‘microwave’ (not such a good idea).

They seek feedback on their two concepts at Leather Lane Market – the candidates seem to be spending a lot of time around Farringdon this year – and discover, unsurprisingly, that kids prefer monsters and adults prefer geography. (In other news: turkeys vote against Christmas.) Alex overrules Myles and runs with the geography theme, only to be talked out of it by Myles on the basis that he’s a parent and therefore must understand the market better. I don’t think they sell or eat many cheap and cheerful supermarket ready meals in Monaco, though.

Francesca - not Heston Blumenthal (Image: BBC)

Francesca – not Heston Blumenthal (Image: BBC)

Meanwhile Neil and Luisa have already decided to go for a Caribbean/Thai fusion dish – let’s just call that ‘novel’ and ‘unique’ and leave it at that, shall we? – leaving non-cook Francesca desperately hoping their recipe for Caribbean chicken with Thai noodles will be simple to prepare. It isn’t, as Luisa belies her cooking ability by rattling off a complex list of ingredients and cooking instructions which leaves her teammate bemused. “Just do it like a stir-fry. And add a little dry ice, you know, like that Heston Blumenthal fella does on the telly. Easy.” (Something like that, anyway.) Poor Francesca is utterly bewildered – she doesn’t even know what passata is – you say ‘potato’, I say ‘passata’? –  and attempts to test whether her noodles are cooked by throwing them at the wall to see if they stick. As she says, with no small amount of understatement:

I’ve been royally stitched up by my teammates.

Next week: Francesca, who has never been on a plane before, is asked to land a 747 in the middle of a tropical hurricane. Easy peasy.

Neil and Luisa, despite repeated clashes in previous tasks, are working surprisingly well together at the design agency, with their bulletproof egos deflecting any potential insults or criticisms. They come up with a striking packaging design and a brand name, Oh My Pow, which is actually quite good. By contrast, Alex and Myles create a packaging design for their Deadly Dinners brand that features a skull which, as Nick Hewer points out, is more commonly associated with toxic chemicals such as bleach.

Both teams try out their dishes with potential consumers. Leah and Jordan’s pasta bolognese with prawn concoction goes down well with a group of parents and children. Francesca’s fusion dish – which she hasn’t at any point bothered tasting – unsurprisingly goes down about as well as the Titanic, as it is criticised for as being dull and tasteless.

Battle of the brands

The following morning, each team goes out to get feedback from their target consumers to help support their pitches. Endeavour visit a primary school: their ‘bat’s blood and prawn pasta’ is a smash with kids, but leaves parents distinctly underwhelmed by the packaging. Evolve’s fusion meal is praised for its packaging but panned for its (lack of) taste – something Luisa is all too happy to rub into Francesca’s open wounds.

It’s clear the two teams are at opposite ends of the spectrum: Endeavour have iffy branding but a good product while Evolve have an excellent brand but an awful product, with both teams’ research groups providing clear direction as to their weaknesses to inform their pitches to Asda (the UK’s second-largest grocer), Morrisons (fourth-largest) and online grocer Ocado (by some distance the smallest of the three).

Jordan finally got the opportunity to pitch, and performed well (Image: BBC)

Jordan finally got the opportunity to pitch, and performed well (Image: BBC)

Project manager Alex allows his three teammates to lead one pitch each. Buyers at all three retailers like the dish but are put off by the packaging, which sends all the wrong messages. Myles’ pitch at Asda isn’t helped by Alex stomping around in the background perforating packaging and trying to work out how to operate the microwave. (Which makes you wonder how he manages to start his car every morning.) At Morrisons, Leah is constantly interrupted by her teammates. Only Jordan, at Ocado, puts in a presentation that the team are universally happy with afterwards.

Each member of Evolve pitches: Luisa at Ocado, Neil at Asda and Francesca at Morrisons. Again, they face the same obstacles encountered in their focus group, but here they are prepared to tackle the question head on, promising to improve the recipe if they secure an order. The buyers seem to accept that, although to me it’s a bit of a cop-out, almost as bad as season seven’s ‘Jedi Jim’ Eastwood promising to back up his basic biscuit brand with a multi-million pound advertising campaign which would never get off the ground in reality.

Boardroom brouhaha™

In the boardroom, Sugar probes Alex about their branding decision. Should he have stuck to his guns with his geography theme, or was the fact he listened to Alex a sign of strength rather than weakness? Neil gets a thumbs-up from both his team members for his leadership, although he is criticised for a weak and boring pitch in which he rattled off a series of research statistics and didn’t really engage his audience.

On to the results. From Ocado, Evolve’s Oh My Pow secured an order for 300 units while Endeavour’s Deadly Dinners sold 1,000 despite reservations about the branding. Neither team persuaded Morrisons to order which, in time-trusted Apprentice tradition leaves the result hanging on the largest and most important retailer, Asda. Endeavour bombed out, but they were persuaded by Neil’s assurances about improving the taste and placed an order for 2,500 units. (Note that it was Asda who were taken in by Jedi Jim’s soft-shoe shuffle too.) Evolve win by 2,800 to 1,000 – hardly a glowing result by either team given the size of the market, but a win is a win – even if it is an unrealistic one. I’ve worked in the grocery industry myself and for food products taste is everything, and a supplier’s promise to improve the product after a negative test is automatically met with two responses (if they’re lucky): “Yeah, right” and “How much more expensive that going to make your product?” Luisa’s promise of adding in Scotch bonnet chilis and pineapple is fine, but in reality would also have increased the unit cost, eating into profit margins.

A lucky escape for Myles (Image: BBC)

A lucky escape for Myles (Image: BBC)

Overall, it’s the right result, though. Evolve had at least targeted the market correctly – Endeavour made the mistake of appealing to kids rather than the parents who actually select and buy the products – and also took the negative feedback of their focus group on board. As a treat, they’re sent to Bedford Aerodrome to drive a Ferrari. Amusingly, Francesca is faster than Neil.

Meanwhile, instead of driving a Prancing Horse, Endeavour head to The Other Cafe of Broken Dreams™ to contemplate their horse-meat lasagne of a failure. Alex blames the concept. Myles is gracious enough to admit to camera that he’s right, and back in the boardroom when Alex raises the same critique his textbook double-negative response would make a politician proud:

I wouldn’t suggest it’s totally incorrect.

The team are criticised for ignoring some clear and direct research feedback, such as the fact their skull logo “implies poison”.

Leah shows some fire as she defends her not-great pitch, attacking Myles’ presentation as dull. Jordan, the only member of the team to secure an order, passes with flying colours as it is revealed he was the only one who talked about how the brand could appeal to parents as well as children – although, to be fair, he did also have the benefit of going last and learning from the others’ experience.

Although Myles is squarely saddled with the poor branding, Alex comes under fire for not sticking to his guns initially – a criticism which is too simplistic and far too easy to make with the wisdom of hindsight. Initially Alex only wants to bring Myles back in with him before reluctantly also calling Leah.

A legal umbrella of sorts. Surely this wasn't Alex's business idea?

A legal umbrella of sorts. Surely this wasn’t Alex’s business idea?

As Sugar deliberates with Nick and Karren, the latter sums him up as a candidate who struggles to maintain focus on the end result and makes snap decisions. This is reinforced by the revelation that he is something of a business butterfly, having gone from setting up a slate-selling business to one dealing with CCTV cameras to a ‘legal umbrella’ business plan – which brought the image of the old Legal & General logo to my mind – even though he has no legal knowledge whatsoever. So, despite Myles being given the unflattering moniker of ‘Mr Monaco’, it quickly becomes apparent in which direction the Digit of Doom™ will be pointed: Captain Eyebrows™ is fired.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™, Alex accepts his fate and recognises his error on the task:

This has been my first time as project manager in nine tasks and unfortunately it didn’t work out. I shouldn’t have listened to other people and carried on with what I would have done, and we would have actually won this task. But I’ve still got my end goal and that is what I’m going to work towards.

It’s an overly simplistic assessment of his team’s failure: if they had addressed the identified weakness in their branding head on in the way Evolve did, they might still have prevailed. But after last week’s task where faulty research led Evolve down the wrong path, here it was a failure to listen to what people were telling them that ultimately cost Alex his place.

Myles was lucky to survive this week, but with the show’s two biggest ‘characters’ – Jason and Alex – departing in successive weeks we are now clearly at the stage where the candidates are being judged as much on the strength of their business idea as on their performance in any single task (or their entertainment value). We’re now getting close to (if you’ll excuse the pun) the business end of proceedings.

Next week: It’s the return of ‘smell what sells’, as the teams must build a business from scratch in 48 hours.

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

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7 Comments on The Apprentice: A dog’s dinner

  1. Great review, Tim.b I totally agree about Myles being lucky, but Alex was a poor candidate. If Neil had placed Luisa in the kitchen I think the margin of victory would have been more significant.

    you can read my thoughts at
    http://markdecosemo.com/2013/06/27/the-apprentice-week-9-ready-steady-gone/

    • Yeah, agree that Alex wasn’t all that strong – and an interesting revelation last night about him flitting from business to business. I understand there’s also been some stuff in the press about him not fulfilling customer orders and being reported to Trading Standards, which makes you wonder too.

  2. This was actually the first episode I’ve managed to watch all series! (and even then I missed the first quarter of it!). After your write-ups last year which I enjoyed so much, I wanted to follow it this year along with you, but it didn’t work out! I still enjoyed watching last night’s one, even though I didn’t know any of the people. I sometimes wonder about the logic of some tasks, in real, if you were doing a food product like that, you’d hire a chef wouldn’t you, and judging them on their cullinary skills seems a bit unfair. I understand about judging them on the whole thing and how they put it together, but if the cooking isn’t quite up to scratch, well that doesn’t say they are bad business people because in a real scenario they’d get someone who can cook to cook! Although I guess there’s no excuse for what’s-her-name not even tasting what she had cooked! And I guess part of the idea with the programme is that they can turn their hand to anything, or at least have a really good go at doing anything.

    I very rarely buy ready-meals, but if I were to, I actually wouldn’t be put off by that horror packaging, I agree in principle that having a skull on a food item packaging is a bad idea, but as a parent myself, I would actually just look at the ingredients, and I would conclude that my son would find the concept fun, and if the meal itself seemed ok, I’d probably buy it. Although as one person said, it seems very Halloweeny, so a seasonal product really, which probably would sell well at Halloween!

    • Hi Vanessa. When you think about it, the logic of many of the tasks makes little sense because they are only a very pale facsimile of how such business tasks would work in the real world. For instance, you would never launch a new food brand on the basis of someone who can’t cook firing up a recipe, one random focus group and an hour with a design agency. This is big business, and things are more thoroughly thought through than that.

      Similarly, no buyer would have done what Asda did and taken Neil’s “we’ll improve the recipe” at face value before placing an order. If they were lucky, they would have been told to go away and try again – they might even have been told not to bother at all. And Luisa added she would add Scotch bonnets and pineapple – which is great, but these are not inexpensive ingredients and the first thing any sensible buyer would then ask is “Okay, so what does that do to your manufacturing cost and the price we should sell it at?” Like all processed food products, there is a fine balance between cost, quality and ensuring that both the manufacturer and the retailer can make a reasonable profit on it. If you add in an extra 15p worth of ingredients, who foots the bill?

      I wouldn’t necessarily have been put off by the packaging either, but it would certainly have confused or put off some buyers. In Apprentice-world where we like it to be clear why a team has won or lost, relatively small errors tend to get played as huge blunders so we know what is black and what is white. (Although, to be fair, I do think it was an unnecessary step for them to have taken putting the skull on the packaging.)

      • Where I think Evolve got it right was in focusing their energy (and their best people) on the branding.

        That doesn’t always work on The Apprentice – candidates have sometimes been fired for a failure to focus on product quality, notably Zoe in the Series 7 biscuit task – but in this case (perhaps because the product was ready meals!) quality was less of an issue. Crucially, it did seem much easier to adjust the recipe than to completely redesign the branding.

        • Interestingly, the ready meals expert on You’re Fired expressed surprise that both PMs focussed on the branding, as in the real world taste is everything – even though the quality is often quite poor, it’s a very competitive market and there’s a big difference between something that tastes OK and something which is bland. Of course, an Apprentice task isn’t the real world, and it was probably right to focus on the branding. Frankly, though, Neil’s throwaway line about improving the recipe – although it did show that he acknowledged and was willing to address the issue – was laughable. “Don’t worry, folks, I know it tastes crap, but it will get better, promise. Now can we have a big order, pretty please?” Can you imagine that line working in a real situation?

        • octodoll // June 28, 2013 at 10:16 am //

          No indeed! You’re right of course – it just points up what an unrealistic task this was. As this wasn’t the real world (or even a cooking competition) no doubt the buyers had been advised that culinary expertise wasn’t the primary skill being tested. Although if the ready meal had been completely revolting rather than just bland, that might have been a different matter!

          And in the boardroom, the defence of “I’m no good at cooking, and cooking has no relevance to my business plan” might be a better argument than “I’m no good at concept/branding/marketing”.

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