Synergy are Top Shop, Teflon Paloma top flop after fashion disaster

It’s episode five of The Apprentice, and as a change of pace from the previous four weeks – sell to consumers, design and sell to trade, sell to businesses/consumers, sell to trade – we have, er, another selling task.

This week’s microscopically small variation on a theme was to sell fashion to an unsuspecting public at Manchester’s Trafford Centre. Synergy proved to be Top Shop, while Apollo made a pants (but not a Pants Man) job of the task. In the boardroom, the customary dressing-down led to Baron Lord Siralan Sugar of Clapton identifying losing project manager Paloma Vivanco as his Top Flop, and dismissing her with the dreaded Digit of Doom™.

As usual, the candidates were rudely awakened by an early morning call from Lord Sugar’s office. Once they had assembled at this week’s random location (the Fashion Retail Academy) Sugar tinkered with the teams – moving Liz Locke to Synergy and Stuart (The Brand™) Baggs to Apollo – and promptly appointed Liz and Paloma as project managers. He’s like one of those football owners who insists on having a hand in team selection, isn’t he? Was this what he was like when he was the Top Man at Spurs? (See what I did there? I’m so funny.)

Handbags and (not so) gladrags

Synergy project manager Liz Locke (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

As the teams settle down to strategise, Alex Epstein proclaims himself Apollo’s Unemployed Retail Guru™ and resident expert on Manchester (as if it was some kind of alien planet). He immediately seizes upon a high footfall spot for the team’s separate promotional stand. So far, so sensible – or is he being set up for a prat-fall? It’s The Apprentice, so no prizes for guessing which.

Next morning, the teams set off to interview prospective fashion labels, with the aim of selecting two each to represent in Manchester.

Apollo visit Cassette Player, where a slightly mad-looking designer describes her vision for her brand of £1,000-a-throw slightly mad-looking dresses as “future primitive, cartoon couture, luxury streetwear”. No, really. Can I have someone to translate that into English, please?

Meanwhile Liz, pursuing a strategy of looking for sub-£100 items, fawns over Liquorice’s range of affordable party dresses, stopping just short of offering her first-born. Paloma’s subsequent visit to the same designer is less effusive – well, she does have Mister Monotone™ Chris Bates and The Invisible Girl™ Sandeesh Samra with her – so it comes as no surprise when the designer picks Synergy to represent her. Uh oh. We have seen how this works before: missing out on the one brand, Liquorice, which both teams desperately wanted clearly leaves Apollo in Allsorts of trouble. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Instead, Apollo settle for a range of clothing made by recycling – apparently the correct term is ‘upcycling’ – old clothes, such as a dress made out of an old duvet and ties. But with individual items (a) costing as much as £300 and (b) being a bit crap, this immediately sticks out as being niche rather than mass-market – a traditional guarantor of Apprentice failure. After all, one man’s recycling is another man’s rubbish.

Ranges selected, the teams head north, but not before we get a glimpse of Paloma reverting to type and setting up Alex as a scapegoat by pinning the responsibility for the promotional pitch squarely on him. How come Alex is suddenly the sole marketer on the team? Isn’t Paloma supposedly a ‘Senior Marketing Manager’ according to those helpful little captions? Or is she just a ‘Senior Buck-Passer’? Hmm.

Speaking of Handbags and Gladrags, the song used as the theme to The Office, am I the only person who thinks David Brent would have made a great Apprentice candidate? Or that Alex would have made a passable David Brent with some of his soundbites? I’m just saying.

Stella is a model candidate (again)

Stella waving in the shop window. No, hang on ...

Saturday morning at the Trafford Centre, and the teams scramble to get their shops ready to open.

Apollo are up and running by 10am but Synergy faff around, eliciting a visit from a displeased centre manager who chastens them into opening pronto.

To be honest, other than looking a bit disorganised and unprofessional, I think the late opening is a red herring as far as task success is concerned. The first hour of trading in any large shopping mall tends to be more about browsing than sales, so opening 45 minutes late, as Apollo did, is a relatively small disadvantage in the greater scheme of things.

Anyhow, they do eventually open, with Stella English acting as a live model in the shop window – why? – waving at passers-by more limply than one of those garish lucky cats. This prompts Nick Hewer, ever the master of the droll one-liner, to observe:

Behind me you can see Stella wearing a very short sequinned emerald green dress waving at people from a window. Amsterdam, maybe – but not in Manchester.

No sign of tassels, though. The boys will be disappointed.

Stella? Or a mannequin? It's hard to tell, as both are stiff and wooden (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Meanwhile, Paloma and Chris are busy trying to sell the ‘upcycled’ clothing range. Chris musters up his best enthusiastic sales pitch – which sounds exactly the same as his worst totally bored sales pitch – and eventually sells the £300 dress, presumably by boring the customer into submission. The team later discover that the promotional spot Alex so hastily snapped up for them is so far away from their store as to be practically in the next county. As Alex himself tries to describe to a couple of potential punters (in his new role as Unemployed Head of Navigation™):

It’s upstairs – on the upper mall, all the way to the other side towards Debenhams, opposite French Connection. Just on the right hand side towards Accessorize. Then take a left at the M62 and keep going until you see the sea.

Then, assuming his more accustomed position as everyone’s favourite Unemployed Head of Miscommunications™, he desperately suggests:

How about we tell people we opened the store today and we’ve got Fearne Cotton and Alesha Dixon in the store?

To which Sandeesh “States the Obvious” Samra doesn’t quite match the epic obviousness of last week’s “Babies can’t speak to you” when she responds: “Because that’s a lie?”

However, Alex does redeem himself by arranging for an advert to be shot for broadcast on the mall’s own TV channel, beaming out free publicity for Apollo’s store on the jumbotron overlooking the food court. Synergy respond in kind by putting a vase of flowers on the cash desk. O-kaaay.

Anyhow, frantic selling continues, with prices being slashed at the end of the day as the teams attempt to shift their remaining stock. Cue the standard shots of exhausted candidates collapsing on the floor amidst strewn packaging. A hard day’s work completed, apparently.

Boardroom Brouhaha™

In the boardroom, it is revealed that Synergy outsold Apollo by over £500 (£3,760 to £3,223) – largely due to the fast-moving Liquorice range.

As their reward, Liz’s team are sent to Windsor races, while Paloma’s retreat to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™.

Back under Lord Sugar’s beady eye, Paloma is quickly on the attack, pointing out that everything was the responsibility of everyone other than her. She immediately decides to bring back Alex, then dithers over her second selection:

Everybody really did pull their weight on the day, so I can only base this decision on, as a candidate overall, who I think is going to come in with me, and I’ve chosen Sandeesh.

So let me get this straight. You’ve basically just singled out Sandeesh – to her face – as the weakest overall candidate. (She’s right, but that’s not the point, is it?) How to win friends and influence people, eh?

Paloma soon disintegrates as she steps over the line between professional defence and personal attack with some brutally critical choices of words. She says of Sandeesh:

I think there are times when she hides behind a lot of the menial tasks.

Her stinging criticism elicits a rare insightful response from Sandeesh:

I think you’ll find that Paloma has been a lot more destructive than she has been constructive.

Paloma’s excuses for losing out on Liquorice don’t really wash either. First she claims they were disadvantaged because they attended their pitch in suits – however, Liz’s team were also in business dress. Then both she and Sandeesh state they displayed a real passion for fashion in their meeting, a claim which is quickly debunked as Nick relays feedback directly from the designer.

Paloma couldn't talk her way out of trouble this time (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Her next line of attack – a major tactical error – is to attempt to pin all the blame on Alex for his mistake in selecting a poor promotional pitch. And then to call him and his selling style “irritating”, to which Nick leaps half-heartedly to Alex’s defence, damning him with faint praise: “He’s not totally irritating.”

At this point, realising she is in real danger, she desperately tries to pin the blame elsewhere, exposing herself as a candidate who avoids personal responsibility like the plague – things stick to Teflon more easily – and is happy to put words in other people’s mouths. Her final bald statement that neither Alex nor Sandeesh have achieved anything in their business careers is easily repudiated. (As I have pointed out previously, she has a proven track record of blithely making promises she and her team are unable to fulfil, then blaming everyone else when things consequently go wrong.)

As ever, Lord Sugar himself has the final word:

I don’t like your last outbursts. And for my 40 years of business and my gut feeling, I don’t like what I’ve seen across the table here today. You’ve talked yourself out of this. If you’d have shut up a while back it may be someone else going. Paloma, you’re fired.

Hey, I think I finally found a use for the F@%&ing Useless Shovel™ from last week. Paloma used it to dig herself into a deep hole, and it resulted in her being the fifth recipient of the Digit of Doom™.

As she was sped away in the Taxi to Obscurity™, the still deluded Paloma claimed:

Obviously, in terms of my performance overall I’ve been a strong candidate. So I think it’s his loss, to be honest.

Sorry, but saying you’re a strong candidate loudly and repeatedly does not make you one. Paloma did have some good business skills – she was a strong seller and negotiator, for sure. But she was let down by poor interpersonal skills – too negative, too quick to apportion blame, too ready to insulate herself from any form of accountability – a tendency to alienate others, and a consistent trait of over-promising and then failing to deliver.

In his summary for You’re Fired, Sugar expanded on his reasons for dismissing Paloma. For once, I could not disagree with a word of what he said:

Paloma has this way of talking down to her fellow candidates and she really showed her true colours in the boardroom. She showed me she is not the right type of person for my organisation.

How ironic, then, that ‘Paloma’ is the Spanish for ‘dove’, the universal symbol of peace.

This was a relatively straightforward and uninspiring task, the outcome of which, like last week’s assignment, was effectively decided by product selection. Consequently, the candidates were all too aware of the key pitfalls to avoid at that stage, and overall the task gave them little chance to either shine or make fools of themselves. Alex made one sizeable mistake (the promotional pitch), but compensated with an even bigger gain (the ad). Jamie Lester declared that Mancunians were backward, while Stuart repeatedly shot off his mouth- “Recycled clothing? Isn’t that what tramps do?” – but without ever quite blasting himself or his team in the foot. Stella was – literally – reduced to the role of window dressing. And everyone else generally bustled around.

From the way the episode was edited together, it was also clear Apollo would lose – despite their numerous small failures, Synergy’s errors were simply presented as statements of mildly comical fact rather than being attributed to individuals – while Paloma and Alex were clearly teed up for the climactic Boardroom Brouhaha™. All of which made the final denouement slightly obvious to this viewer, rather than the all-out war of words it should have been. Disappointing.

Six down, ten to go. Lord Sugar’s search for an Apprentice who doesn’t believe Top Gear‘s Stig has recently been releasing pop records under the pseudonym Lady Gaga, just because Jeremy Clarkson said so, continues.

Next week: Finally, a creative rather than a selling task (and my favourite one of all): advertising. The candidates are asked to brand a new multi-purpose household cleaner and create TV and radio commercials. One team will emerge spotless, while Sugar will wipe the floor with the other. Surely no one, though, can come up with an ad as memorably catastrophic as the infamous Pants Man, as voiced by contestant Philip Taylor?

Rating: Episode 6.05 – 2.5/5

Link: BBC Apprentice home page

Previous episode reviews

Episode 6.01: Sausages

Episode 6.02: Beach accessory

Episode 6.03: Bakery

Episode 6.04: Selling to trade