The Apprentice candidates discover life’s a beach in product design task

When the teams were told this week’s task was to design and market a new beach accessory, faithful Apprentice viewers will have immediately recognised the assignment for what it was: a whoopee cushion in the guise of a hot potato, and coated liberally with factor-50. As ever, the task turned into a comedy of errors, schadenfreude and appalling business decisions, but Lord Sugar saved the biggest twist for the boardroom, surprisingly firing Joy Stefanicki after Apollo secured an impressively unimpressive zero orders for their Book Eeze product.

A task designed for failure

As anyone who has ever tried to come up with a new product idea will tell you, genuinely innovative and commercially successful new products do not grow on trees. New product development involves many millions of pounds’ worth of investment and often several years of research, concept and design work and testing. And even if projects survive to launch, a significant proportion of them will fail. For every brilliant new product you see on the shop shelves, there are a hundred languishing unsold, and for every one on the shelves there are a hundred more which have been rejected outright.

Just think about it. When was the last time Amstrad or any other of Lord Sugar’s companies came up with a brilliant new product that recouped its development costs and turned a handy profit? Exactly.

Of course, our Apprentice candidates don’t have the luxury of time and money to develop their ideas. So we shouldn’t have been surprised when their final products turned out to be a bit crap. But then we don’t watch the programme because we want them to succeed, do we? (That’s what Dragons’ Den is for.)

There’s no such thing as a bad idea, but …

Raleigh Addington at least avoided being fired (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

First things first. 22-year old unemployed graduate toff Raleigh Addington departed before the outset of this week’s task after his brother was seriously injured while serving in Afghanistan. (Remember that this episode would have been filmed in September or possibly early October of last year.) Farewell, Raleigh, we hardly knew you – although given Sugar’s well-known dislike for posh folk in his boardroom, it is probably just as well we were spared the all too obvious “on your bike, Raleigh” line. (Although, how about “Raleigh, you’re for the Chopper”? I’m here all week. Try the pork.)

The product design task is a staple Apprentice fixture, and comprises two distinct phases: brainstorming and product design, and the sales pitch. Each is a virtual minefield which provides plentiful opportunities for egg-on-face results. The teams did not disappoint.

Synergy project manager Stella English (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

With the boys’ team reduced to six, statuesque blonde Stella English was moved across to Synergy, where she was nominated project leader. Presumably the boys overheard her piece to camera where she said “I have no problem whatsoever in whipping these boys into shape”, and started thinking … well, you know where I’m heading with this, right?

We are only treated to a glimpse of the teams’ brainstorming sessions. Stella manages to control what had been very much the Testosterone Club™ under Dan Harris‘s leadership last week, settling quickly on an idea developed by Jamie and Christopher for a combined pillow, towel and drinks chiller thingy, which Alex quickly christens the ‘Cüüli’. It’s a pretty naff name, and the chavs Great British holidaymakers they quiz at Butlins tell him it’s naff in no uncertain terms, but they press on anyway. To be honest, it’s the right decision – too often teams get hung up on getting the product name right, rather than getting the product itself right. (I mean, ‘Windows 7’ is hardly a work of creative genius, is it? But then it doesn’t need to be.)

So far, so disappointing. We don’t want sensible, decisive action. We want discord, disharmony and lots of dissing in general. Right?

Enter Apollo.

In the world of The Apprentice, two fundamental principles apply when it comes to brainstorming. (Warning: do not attempt this in a real workplace!) Firstly, shout out your idea louder than everyone else, over and over again, proving it must be the best idea. (Everyone remember ‘Pants Man’?) And secondly, check any notion of common sense at the door, and don’t worry about confusing stupidity for creativity. Hold on tight, folks, here we go …

The girls’ project manager this week is their youngest member, 22-year old Laura Moore. She is everything you would want a project manager to be … if they were on the other team. Unable to control her team, specifically last week’s PM Joanna Riley. Indecisive. No time management. Poor instincts. Not a shred of common sense. Other than that, perfect.

Joanna railroads through her idea for a reading stand using the established Pants Man technique. “I’m just going to speak over you” she says to Laura, and then refuses to let anyone else interrupt, pushing forward her idea repeatedly until the team, with ten minutes left to conclude their design, has no choice but to accede to her wishes even though you can clearly see the thought bubbles over some of her teammates’ heads saying “This is really crap.” It may have been the team’s only idea, but we will never know as it seems no one else could get a word in edgeways.

Meanwhile, over at Synergy, Alex, Chris and Christopher – who I shall henceforth refer to as The Three Teenagers™ – try to convince Stella to model for the packaging photo shoot in a bikini, barely able to contain their lecherous giggles as they do so. (I mean, seriously, how old are they – 14?) She flatly refuses. So they go ahead and buy her a swimsuit which they describe as “tasteful”. Which it is, if you’re the kind of person who think Stringfellows is a classy establishment. Stella, to her credit, takes one for the team. It was incredibly puerile, and tantamount to bullying. (I wonder if that’s why Alex is an unemployed Head of Communications?) Personally, I would have shot The Three Teenagers™. With specially blunted and rusty arrows. Twice each.

Synergy 1 Apollo 0.

Pitch (im)perfect

Joanna Riley, self confessed "gobshite" (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Back with Apollo, and as Melissa prepares the pitch she will deliver to three sets of retail buyers, Joanna is getting in her retaliation for last week’s bust-up by chipping away at her constantly, which reduces Laura to tears. More importantly, we discover that the girls’ reading stand – now christened ‘Book Eeze’ – comes in eight flimsy parts and is anything but easy to assemble. (It’s like one of those folding beach tents you can never quite fit back into the carry-bag afterwards.) It’s a really bad product, even by Apprentice standards. Poor Melissa. Expressions about flogging dead horses spring to mind (but enough about Laura, eh?)

All is not smooth sailing over at Synergy either. Chris (not Christopher), the youngest member of The Three Teenagers™, has stepped forward, and his pitch is, if we are being charitable, a little dry – and, if we’re not being charitable, delivered with all the charisma of a cardboard cutout on Mogadon. Stella, concerned, suggests replacing him with Jamie, but somehow Chris prevails, believing himself to have the oratorical skills of Martin Luther King (he’s actually more like Billie Jean King).

The pitches proceed, as the teams present their products to buyers from World Duty Free (the airport shops), Boots and some other one-shop boutique whose name I forget. We are treated to further mangling of the language of Shakespeare – the lowlights being Melissa’s “comfortability” and “this is a very unique product” (something is either unique or it isn’t – it can’t be “more unique” or “very unique”). There’s worse to come, though.

We are also treated to some prime examples of buyers’ polite code for things they really don’t like, such as “I love the name” (i.e. “and that’s the only good thing I can think of to say”). Joanna insists on taking personal credit for the product design in front of the buyers – which, at this point, is evidently much the same as running back into a burning house to check if you’ve left the gas on – but Laura insists they should take responsibility for it as a group. And then, bizarrely, Boots make the girls’ team a tentative offer if they will give them exclusivity. This is Boots, the biggest single retailer of beachy products in the country – and Laura says no. (That noise you heard was the sound of a foot being blown off by a shotgun.)

Synergy 0 Apollo 0. And that’s putting it kindly.

Oh Joy, oh rapture unforeseen

There’s nothing like a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan to prop up a writer who’s running out of steam, eh? (It’s from HMS Pinafore, by the way.)

And so on we go to the boardroom, which seems to occupy more of the show than in previous seasons to allow for the inevitable implosions and back-stapping recriminations. And, boy, was tonight’s a doozy!

The long and the short of it is that Stella and Synergy won by the not so princely score of 100 orders to nil, but the sting in the tail is that Boots would have taken Book Eeze if Apollo had agreed to exclusivity – a revelation which makes me seriously question the sanity of the Boots buyers.

Laura states that “there were literally two heads on me” – literally, two heads? – before nominating Joanna and Sandeesh to face the axe, which then ignites the all-out bitching session from hell as the chosen pair start pointing the finger at Paloma and Joy.

Karren Brady, who I am growing to like increasingly for her quiet but trenchant observations, wades in with this week’s killer comment, which stops everyone in their tracks:

You are representing businesswomen today … you should be an example to them.

Second out: Joy Stefanicki (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Laura, strong and decisive leader that she isn’t, promptly sets a terrible example by changing her mind and substituting Joy instead of Sandeesh to join herself and Joanna. And after much hand-wringing in front of Lord Sugar during which both Laura and Joanna seem to dig themselves ever deeper into a hole, the Baron of Clapton surprises us all by pointing the Digit of Doom™ at Joy, by virtue of “not having shown enough” thus far – which, apparently, is a better reason for the sack than being consistently useless at everything (Laura) or being, in her own words, “a gobshite” (Joanna). Ladies and gentlemen, the Master of the Irrational Firing™ is well and truly back!

Overall, this was The Apprentice at its very best. One vaguely competent team; one truly hopeless one. A sting in the tail in terms of the final result. And bountiful examples of why Sugar would have been justified in firing half of them in one fell swoop – with virtually no clear rationale for him choosing his eventual victim. Better still, it was a relatively quiet week for both the mighty Nick Hewer and the less than mighty Stuart ‘The Brand’ Baggs, who sensibly kept his head down and got in some good practice time with his various gormless expressions. So we can expect a return to form next week …

Final score: Synergy 100 Apollo 0 (Master of the Irrational Firing™ 1)

Next week: the contestants make dough, literally. (And I do mean literally!)

Episode 6.02 rating: 4.5/5

Links

BBC Apprentice home page