Brave new world, that has such products in it

This week on The Apprentice the contestants faced another “pitch new products to retailers” task, but thankfully without repeating the pain of creating it themselves after episode two’s Book-Eeze/Cüüli debacle. Despite selling nearly £80,000 of eco shower heads and double-handled spades, Synergy were outsold single-handed (single-handled?) by Liz Locke, and after another spectacular Boardroom Brouhaha™, Lord Sugar dismissively directed the deadly Digit of Doom™ at bleach blonde Joe 90-lookalike Melissa Cohen.

Readers of a certain age will probably remember with a certain fondness the BBC programme Tomorrow’s World, which showcased new inventions and technological developments. Over its 38-year run (1965-2003), the show provided a mainstream audience with its first view of many technologies which have since become commonplace, such as breathalysers, ATMs, pocket calculators, digital watches, personal stereos, CDs, camcorders and Trevor Baylis‘s wind-up radio. It also featured its fair share of clunkers that never saw the light of day, such as the suitcase-sized fold-up car.

The teams’ task this week was to pick out the next clockwork radio from amongst an array of fold-up cars, and then to pitch their two chosen products to retail buyers. So far, so formulaic. I’m not sure why the producers chose to have two product-and-pitch tasks on the back of two make-and-sell-food tasks to open up this season, but it does feel rather repetitive. A bit like Sugar’s gruff attempts at stand-up comedy, in fact. Or those cut-away inserts of Nick Hewer recoiling in dismay as he is forced to witness yet another bitch-fight on the streets of Soho.

After the usual early morning briefing from Baron Sugar of Clapton – this week’s venue: the Science Museum – Apollo and Synergy nominated Chris Bates and Jamie Lester as their scapegoats project managers and settled down to the tricky job of product selection from a procession of ten candidates which included a face-lifting space helmet, baby clothes that change colour and a two-handled spade. In the spirit of the Cüüli, I would personally like to rebrand these the Bötöx Bönce™, Kiddie Kaleidoscope Klothing™ and the F@%&ing Useless Shovel™.

Both teams ultimately wanted the Baby Glow – a sleep-suit which changes colour to warn parents of their baby’s rising temperature – but Synergy lost the order after Stuart (The Brand™) Baggs’ attempt to recreate the Spanish Inquisition in his interrogation of the product inventor gave her a less than warm and cuddly feeling.

Stella criticised his “frankly embarrassing” approach, and even Jamie agreed that:

There is a very fine line between making a hard-nosed decision and being rude.

Synergy ultimately had to settle for an eco-friendly shower head and a double-handled spade, while Apollo added the Rip-T, a slimming t-shirt, to the Baby Glow.

Having secured their products, the teams’ subsequent pitches ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, with the emphasis on ridiculous.

Melissa – who had previously claimed that she could sell ice to the Eskimos – attempted to pitch both the shower and the spade to Debenhams. As the buyer patiently explained to her, the retailer has neither a shower nor a garden department, but Melissa bulldozed on regardless with admirable but misguided persistence, demonstrating that she couldn’t tell the difference between a ‘buy’ signal and a ‘will someone please call security’ signal if it was written in ten-foot high neon lights and accompanied by a klaxon.

A dismissive Karren Brady summed up Melissa’s pitch thus:

She never listens. She just talks and talks and talks and actually, when you’re in a pitch, if you don’t listen to what the customer says all you end up doing is winding them up.

The team subsequently pitched the spade to B&Q with some success, so we won’t dwell on that. But let’s linger for a moment on how the sub-team of Melissa, Stuart and Stella made a catastrophic mess of a cold-call appointment with Plumb Center set up by Joanna (who looked far more impressive this week than I have previously given her credit for).

Error number one: the demo unit didn’t work properly, leading to Stuart attempting running repairs with his teeth – always a technique which will impress a professional buyer, I find. Error number two: allowing Melissa to lead the pitch, which veered between overly aggressive and desperate pleading. It was embarrassing to watch, and presumably even more embarrassing for Stella to sit through. In fact, Stella disappointingly took a back-seat throughout much of this task, although she did exercise an impressive range of disdainful eyebrow raises – perhaps she has a future role as the new Margaret Mountford should Karren not work out?

Stuart attempts some running repairs. Don't try this at home, kids! (image courtesy of BBC)

Over at Apollo, Chris “oh yes, I’m the great presenter” Bates delivered one competent but very dull pitch for the Rip-T- Nick would later liken it to being “like a low flying bomber coming home” – before Liz gave everyone a lesson in sales technique, pitching the Baby Glow to both Debenhams and Kiddicare with assurance and confidence. It was a shocking oasis of confidence in a desert of mediocrity.

Meanwhile, the Apollo sub-team of Paloma, Laura and Sandeesh interrupted each other’s pitches as they went door-to-door with the Rip-T in Soho and constantly bickered over how sales would be allocated between their individual order books, leading to a handbags-at-dawn confrontation outside a retailer who Paloma had – in her usual ‘over-promise and under-deliver’ style – breezily offered an exclusivity deal to. Yet again, women in business are given a bad name – although we should perhaps be thankful there was no hair-pulling. Nice job, girls.

When they were actually talking to retailers rather than bitching about each other, the girls’ sales patter left something to be desired. As a recruitment consultant, you would expect Sandeesh to have some pitching skills, but her opening line to a retailer about the Baby Glow was an exercise in stating the bloody obvious: “Babies can’t speak to you.” No, really? Well, knock me down with a Book-Eeze.

Back in the boardroom, Sugar quickly chalked off Apollo’s unauthorised exclusivity deal and Synergy’s sale of shower heads at below the manufacturers’ authorised price. For a while, it appeared that the large order Jamie had secured with B&Q would win the day for Synergy. But then Nick reported that Liz had secured £99,000 of orders for the Baby Glow all by herself, a revelation which – for perhaps the first time in Apprentice history – stunned the entire boardroom into silence.

As a reward, Apollo were sent to a spa to be pampered, while Synergy retreated to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™ to prepare to be battered.

Back under the beady gaze of Lord Sugar, this week’s Boardroom Brouhaha™ kicked off properly. Stuart defended his selling skills – Stella’s sly eye-roll said it all – while Karren savaged Melissa’s lack of listening skills, much to her amazement. She looked even more flabbergasted when Jamie elected to bring her and Stuart back in for the final reckoning, despite it being surely the easiest choice any project manager has ever had to make.

The denouement was quick in coming. Sugar questioned Jamie’s management ability and Stuart’s interpersonal skills, before pointing Digit of Doom™ at Melissa. As Sugar concluded later:

She’s one of those people who likes to transmit but doesn’t actually receive. She talks at customers and doesn’t listen to the feedback.

Melissa Cohen - set the bar high, then walked underneath it (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

While being glad to see the back of her, I have a small degree of sympathy for Melissa this week, because it was Stuart’s blunderbuss approach at product selection which cost the team the opportunity to represent the Baby Glow, which was clearly the most saleable invention available. Whether any of the Synergy team could have pitched it as successfully as Liz did is an entirely different matter.

However, having escaped certain dismissal last week when her team pulled through in spite of her mis(management) in the bakery task, Melissa can have no complaints about going this time around. Other than her consistent shortcoming of writing cheques with her mouth that her (lack of) business acumen couldn’t cash – see also Paloma – I’d had more than enough of her incessant use of business buzzwords, supplemented by the invention of completely new words such as ‘manoeuvrement’, ‘analysation’ and ‘professionality’. Fair enough, the likes of Shakespeare weren’t above creating new words of their own, but I bet the Bard wasn’t thinking of Melissa when he wrote:

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!

The Tempest (act 5, scene 1)

Anyhow, Melissa departed the boardroom – in my head, to the tune of Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead! from The Wizard of Oz – with her customary good grace and pro-fesh-uh-na-le-sum, muttering dark words about conspiracies:

Well done for ganging up on me, horrible people.

She refused to shake Jamie’s hand outside the boardroom like a petulant teenager, and then pronounced during her interview to camera in the Taxi to Obscurity™:

Some people have set out to get me and they’ve succeeded. Karmically, they will be retributed. The universe speaks louder than I do.

Well, at least someone does …

Five down, eleven to go. Lord Sugar’s search for an Apprentice who can tie their own shoelaces unaided continues.

Next week: handbags and gladrags, as the candidates try to sell high-street fashion to the citizens of Manchester.

Rating: Episode 6.04 – 3.5/5

Link: BBC Apprentice home page

Previous episode reviews

Episode 6.01: Sausages

Episode 6.02: Beach accessory

Episode 6.03: Bakery