The Apprentice: Bake-Off versus Face/Off

Apprentice logoAt last, the final is upon us. In the blue corner we have junior doctor Leah Totton, who is aiming to roll-out a chain of medical cosmetic clinics to perform a slightly less dramatic version of the John Travolta/Nicolas Cage film Face/Off. In the red pink corner is Luisa Zissman, the multiple business owner who wants to set up her own bakery brand and logistics operation - the Great British Bake-Off Goes Wholesale. But who did Lord Sugar decide to take on as his new business partner, with access to a £250,000 investment fund? Well, let's just say it was a female candidate whose name begins with the letter 'L' ...

Girls, interrupted

We miss Jason's pyjamas! (Image: BBC)

We miss Jason’s pyjamas! (Image: BBC)

As any aspiring Apprentice should do, Luisa and Leah are having an afternoon pyjama party in the Apprenti-Mansion™ – we all miss Jason Leech‘s stripey ones, don’t we? – when they are summoned to 1 Marylebone, the venue for the culmination of this climactic task. The finalists must bring their business ideas to life and launch them to a gathering of industry experts. To do this, they must each create a brand, a website and a promotional video – yes, it’s the advertising task, barely disguised – with the help of four of their former rival candidates-now-best-friends-forever.

Armed with their former colleagues’ CVs, the girls start dialling. Luisa leafs through Jason’s CV and declares:

I do like him, he’s just really useless.

Her first call is to Neil ‘Behind Every Good PM there’s a Neil Clough’ Clough, while Leah quickly bags Alex ‘Christian Grey of the Valleys’ Mills and Francesca MacDuff-Varley, leaving Luisa disappointed when both turn her down. Leah rounds out her team with Uzma Yakoob and Myles Mordaunt, while Luisa adds her mate Natalie Panayi and is then forced to start scraping the bottom of the barrel as she selects Zeeshaan Shah – I bet he loved being on the same team as Natalie after her accusations of sexism in the Dubai task – and … the ‘really useless’ Jason.

What’s in a name?

Task number one is to develop brands. Luisa explains that she wants to build a baking brand covering such items as cake tins and utensils, but not ingredients. There’s confusion over who she’s selling to. Her business model is essentially wholesale distribution to the trade but her branding ideas are squarely consumer-led. The two don’t sit comfortably together.

Zee thankfully saved Luisa from an unfortunate branding faux pas (Image: BBC)

Zee thankfully saved Luisa from an unfortunate branding faux pas (Image: BBC)

Luisa’s brand name brainstorm is decidedly half-baked, starting with Bake Me Happy and ending with Master Bake. Er. Um. (I feel a Captain Pugwash moment coming on.) Zee, thankfully, suggests the less innuendo-laden Baker’s Toolkit.

The team head to the upmarket Belgravia shop of Peggy Porschen, who caters for those who want more than a six-pack of Mr Kipling’s fondant fancies, such as Kate Moss, Stella McCartney, Elton John and Madonna. However, Luisa’s idea of market research is to talk at her subject non-stop, ensuring she gets a small portion of Porschen in terms of feedback.

Leah’s plan is to set up a chain of non-surgical medical cosmetic clinics, providing facial fillers, skin peels and anti-wrinkle injections. Myles feels at home here:

I’m bloody vain. I think I can lend some real empathy to this.

Sorry, ladies, there’s no Myles Mordaunt Underwear Moment™ this time, though.

Leah pushes the brand name ‘NIKS’ – a reversal of ‘skin’ which ties in with her vision of reversing the ageing effect on skin. Alex and Myles are less enthusiastic, but their suggestions are quickly rebuffed. She thinks it’s clean and clear – they think it’s boring.

Both teams decamp to creative agency Brave to work on websites. For Luisa’s heavily pink designs (matching Zee’s socks), Neil and Natalie run a focus group with some young professionals, who suggest that pink is too gender-specific. Nick Hewer chips in that the brand is a bit too Bambi or Barbie to sell to the trade. However, her idea of using a cartoon image of herself as the face of her brand makes sense. It’s déjà vu all over again when it comes to the website design, though, although in a reversal of the online dating task it is a stressed-out Luisa leading Jason as she tries to direct an increasingly grumpy web designer to bring her vision to life.

We don’t really see anything of Leah’s website being developed, other than the fact that she’s happy with it. Bah humbug.

Video killed the Apprentice star

Video director Neil - a man of "Action!" (Image: BBC)

Video director Neil – a man of “Action!” (Image: BBC)

The following day both teams shoot a promotional video to help sell their businesses. Leah sets up in a West London clinic, while Luisa shoots her video in a family home with two bewildered children. Amazingly, she runs a harmonious ship. Neil directs calmly, she presents a warm and genuine face to the camera, and her tag-line of “It’s a piece of cake” is just the right side of cheesy. (Cheese-cakey?)

Meanwhile, Myles and Francesca are in Holborn grabbing random passers-by for feedback on Leah’s business. They discover that consumers would prefer to have highly trained doctors carrying out the treatments. No, really? More usefully, they are told that ‘NIKS’ sounds like cutting. They quickly feed this back to Leah, who awkwardly rechristens the brand N.I.K.S. Medical and reshoots her video. By the end of the day she’s stressed out and snapping at her team to come up with a strong end to the video. She looks pointedly at Alex. I’m really hoping he doesn’t suggest his Herbert character from the dating task.

Pitch (im)perfect

The following morning sees both teams back at 1 Marylebone preparing their presentations. While Leah rehearses her pitch over and over, Luisa is frantically icing cupcakes instead of working on her presentation. As Nick ominously observes:

As we all know, failing to prepare that presentation is preparing to fail.

Cue ominous music.

Both finalists underline the importance of personality in their pitches: the normally serious Leah wants to show warmth, while Luisa is convinced that her ‘big personality’ will give her an edge. Hmm. In my experience, “I have a big personality” translates as “I am rude and offensive. Deal with it.”

Luisa stumbled during her pitch (Image: BBC)

Luisa stumbled during her pitch (Image: BBC)

True to Nick’s words, Luisa stumbles in several places during her pitch. It’s not disastrously bad, but it leaves the perfectionst in tears afterwards. The industry experts seem to like her passion, vision and brand – although there are concerns about whether the overt pinkness will play well with trade buyers, and some confusion remains over exactly who she is targeting with it.

Leah’s presentation opens to dancer Francesca doing some rhythmic gymnastic ribbon-twirling to the strains of Orinoco Flow. (Better that than Remember You’re A Womble, I suppose.) Her pitch is solid and professional, if a little dry, but she impresses the audience by laying out a well thought through plan. She deals well with challenging questions about her limited initial range of treatments and her understanding of the market. The industry experts feed back to Sugar their concerns about her hard-to-explain brand name and the level of competition in the market, but they agree it was a good presentation, that Leah’s proposition is strong and that the market is expanding rapidly.

Boardroom brouhaha™

Sugar debriefs the two teams. Noting that Baker’s Toolkit was Zee’s idea, he comments that he must be “the first man in history that Luisa’s listened to”. He’s joking. I think. He observes that Peggy Porschen couldn’t get a word in edgeways, while Luisa’s version of events is that she was merely agreeing with everything she was saying. O-kaaay. He’s also unconvinced with her branding design and overuse of pink given that trade buyers will be her primary customers.

Leah presented her idea with both detail and conviction (Image: BBC)

Leah presented her idea with both detail and conviction (Image: BBC)

As for Leah, she remarks that she got all four of her first choices for her team. (Which begs the question of what exactly Luisa was doing during that time – gossiping with Natalie?) Sugar hates NIKS as a brand – “Sounds like Mr Hewer’s opened a wine bar” – although the association with shaving cuts and the dodgy Dr Nick on The Simpsons are genuine concerns. In fairness, the argument over the brand identity is largely irrelevant – it’s easily changed and doesn’t matter as long as the fundamental business model is sound. Sugar suggests the business should be named ‘Dr Leah’ – a no-nonsense name in the mould of Amstrad (which stands for Alan Michael Sugar TRADing). Leah’s response is short and to the point:

Hmm, I don’t like that.

Er. She also becomes extremely defensive and dismissive of the experts’ criticisms of her plan. You can read this one of two ways: either, Neil-style, she is stubbornly deaf to valid criticism or she’s confident she knows has done her homework and is able to correctly deflect such questions as irrelevant. Make your own mind up on that one.

Sugar sends the pair outside so he can mull things over with Nick and Karren Brady. He’s concerned Leah doesn’t want to listen to feedback, but Karren counters that she is bright and has demonstrated she can create a business despite her non-business background. She also adds that Luisa knows her business and has adapted to feedback during the process – a change that some have labelled as ‘game-playing’ but could equally be described as ‘learning’.

Nick, though, sums the candidates up most succinctly:

Under Leah, I’ve got ‘stubborn’. Under Luisa, I’ve got ‘less stubborn’.

Leah and Luisa are summoned back inside and asked why they should be Sugar’s new business partner. Luisa tells him she will be profitable – although, pointedly, we have never heard the profitability of either her current or proposed businesses mentioned – and brings a lot of business experience to the table. Leah points out her business opportunity is (potentially) highly lucrative and that he would be investing in a trustworthy person. She also, impressively, outlines an exit plan which conservatively projects selling the business for £8m in five years. That sort of statement is manna to an investor’s ears: in addition to 50% of whatever profit the business generates, Sugar would cash out with a return of 16 times his original investment. It’s a smart, professional statement to make, and demonstrates that she understands what motivates a speculative investor.

Sugar ponders. How will Luisa devote herself to this business when she has three others which still require running? Is she a manipulative game-player? Will she listen? His concern with Leah is not with her as a person, it’s with the risk involved in the industry she’s entering. Leah agrees, saying that he shouldn’t enter this market – unless it’s with her.

He continues to weigh up the merits. He trusts Leah’s expertise and morals, but Luisa is an expert in her area, less risky and offers a product-based business, which he’s inherently more comfortable with. Can Luisa devote herself 100% – the single biggest red flag I have always had with her proposal – but, at 66, does he need the aggravation which Leah’s business might bring him? He pauses, then finally announces that his new business partner is … Leah!

So it’s a chauffeur-driven ride in the Rags-to-Riches Roller™ for our winner:

To have Lord Sugar show this faith in me is absolutely unbelievable. It’s amazing. I had much less experience than the other candidates in business coming into the process, and I really can’t believe that I’ve got this far and that I’ve actually won it. I can’t believe it!

I’m really going to do everything that I can to prove that he has made the right decision and I won’t let him down.

It sure beats the Taxi to Obscurity! (Image: Tim Liew)

Analysis

This was perhaps the most difficult choice that Sugar has faced in the three years of the ‘business partnership’ format. Both plans had flaws which needed ironing out, but equally both appeared viable and tapped into markets where demand is growing rapidly. (The same could be said for Francesca’s dance-based proposal.) Ultimately Sugar’s decision was presented as him being happy to roll the dice with Leah’s riskier proposition versus concerns about Luisa’s ability to juggle four businesses.

The reality, however, is more complex than that. Bear in mind that several months have passed between the filming of the final episode and its broadcast. This allows time for proper due diligence on both the finalists and their plans (legal, financial, criminal et cetera), and for both proposals to be developed in greater detail.

The final itself was merely window dressing: it allowed us to understand a bit more about each idea (a good thing) but the task itself was essentially a variation on staple Apprentice tasks, only with real businesses rather than fictitious products. It didn’t actually tell us much about the nuts and bolts of how the business would actually operate – the stuff a real-world investor really wants to know about – but which would have been dull for viewers and made it difficult to compare Luisa and Leah directly, as their business models are fundamentally different: one product-based, the other a service. However, it is that unseen closer examination of the business models – and the financial projections which support it – which will have been the real key to Sugar’s decision, not the simplistic soundbites offered to us in the boardroom.

I also have to wonder whether Luisa’s background checks influenced Sugar. Tabloid stories about a affair with a married boss twice her age and an abortion at 16, among others, aren’t really worth the time of day – to judge her ability as a businesswoman based on teenage events is about as relevant as judging my ability to do my office job based on my 100 metres time. Bigger question marks, however, might have been raised over her husband’s alleged history of failed businesses and unpaid debts. Now even that isn’t necessarily a show-stopper – businesses go under with unpaid debts every day – but it would certainly have started alarm bells ringing.

Despite her inexperience in business, Leah’s plan was impressive – well thought-out, sensible roll-out plan, exit strategy in place – and the opportunity in an expanding and profitable market which is facing increasing regulation to clamp down on unqualified and unethical practices is, despite its potential risks, extremely attractive. Her plan is certainly the least conservative of Sugar’s three winners so far – it will be interesting to see how the rebranded ‘Dr Leah’ clinics fare in the future. Good luck to a worthy winner and, indeed, to all the candidates who have made this season the most entertaining for some time.

Season 9 reviews

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Beer

Flat-pack

Farm shop

Dubai

Away Day

Caravans

Online dating

Ready meals

Stall to shop

Interviews

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6 Comments on The Apprentice: Bake-Off versus Face/Off

  1. I totally agree, Tim. Leah was the braver option, but was very soundly researched. It was interesting to learn that the business has been re-branded in line with Sugar’s wishes.

    I’m sure that Luisa’s idea could find a market too, but based on her behaviour I’m pleased that she lost.

    Thanks for your reviews throughout the series, and I look forward to next year.

    You can read my thoughts at http://markdecosemo.com/2013/07/17/the-apprentice-2013-the-result/

  2. Cheers Mark. Ultimately I felt the better proposal won, although I was convinced that Sugar would back Luisa’s safer business. He’s certainly taking much more of a risk with Leah’s idea. but if it works it has a chance to be spectacularly successful. The fact she had worked up her plan thoroughly enough to have an exit strategy made it an even more attractive investment.

  3. An excellent review as always – you are the review to read after each episode. I truly think LS had Leah as a possible winner early on, liking the potential financial rewards offered. Only Cloughie could have beaten her.

    • Thanks for the kind words, GK. I’m sure Sugar knows enough at the start of the process to have a sense of who the likely ‘goers’ are. A fairly cursory examination of the 16 business plans (whether he does this himself or has someone trusted like Claude do it for him) would give him enough to separate people into probables, possibles and never-in-a-million-year-ers.

      It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Neil had had a workable plan, or at least shown the flexibility to rework his original one. It was made very clear in the last 2-3 weeks of the series just how highly Sugar rated him as an individual.

  4. A wonderful recap and analysis as always.

    While I find Luisa vastly more likable and human than the arrogant and cold Leah (her snide dismissal of Luisa’s business as “edible pots of glitter” was one of the nastier moments in the series) and I would be less inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt (I’d lean towards seeing a Neilesque style stubbornness in her brushing off of criticism) I’d broadly agree Leah’s proposal was the better one.

    • Thanks Ross. Of course, we only ever see a small part of the business proposals, but you have to figure Sugar and his team have done their due diligence and worked up their numbers thoroughly before making a decision. I’ve always suspected that the numbers on Luisa’s business would look nowhere near as impressive as Leah’s – wholesale just isn’t a business which produces big numbers.

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