Synergy clean up in Apprentice advertising task, Alex is scrubbed out

At last! After five sales-oriented episodes, we come to my personal favourite: the advertising task. Every year this assignment – arguably the one most likely to end in abject failure – provides the biggest egos in the series with the perfect platform from which to perform the business equivalent of a belly-flop from the ten-metre diving board.

This year proved to be no exception, as neither team came up smelling of roses when they pitched their new household cleaning brands to a room of advertising experts. Ultimately, Synergy were declared the less incompetent of the two, and Apollo’s project manager Alex Epstein paid the price, becoming the sixth casualty of the boardroom to be scrubbed out by Lord Sugar‘s Digit of Doom™.

A recipe for success disaster

Viscount Leverhulme, the Victorian entrepreneur behind the industrial giant Unilever, is famously credited in marketing circles as saying:

I know half my advertising isn’t working, I just don’t know which half.

If he was still alive today, I would suggest he could start with the campaigns created every year by the Apprentice candidates.

Last year, this task provided the highlight of the entire season, when Philip Taylor came up with the cartoon character Pants Man to advertise a new brand of children’s breakfast cereal.

As with all Apprentice tasks, there is a staple list of dos and don’ts for the advertising project. These include:

  • You don’t have to spend hours brainstorming the best brand name ever. Many of the world’s most-loved brands have dull, generic names (Kellogg’s Corn Flakes), are simple abbreviations (Tesco¹, BMW²), or are just made-up words (iPod, Wii). Pick a half-decent name – in reality, all the best ones have already been claimed in the real world – and spend your time worrying about how to communicate the brand values.
  • Someone will believe they have the best campaign idea ever, regardless of relevance to the product in question. They will bang on about it endlessly until the project manager gives in. That’s how we ended up with Pants Man.
  • Someone will believe they are the next Martin Scorsese, prowling around the set doing that stupid rectangular framing thing with their thumbs and forefingers. They really aren’t.
  • Someone will believe they are the next Robert de Niro, asking poncy questions such as “What’s my motivation here?” They really aren’t.
  • The brand message is everything. Showcase the product,  communicate what it does and why they should buy it. You do not need to produce an Oscar-winning short film with Oscar-winning performances to show the world how clever you are. (You’re not, anyway.)

If I were to sum up the above in one sentence, it would be:

Focus on selling the product, not yourself: consumers are buying the brand, not you.

Of course, being the puffed-up egomaniacs they are, the one thing you can be sure of is that at least one if not both teams will get pretty much everything spectacularly wrong. And so it came to pass …

The set-up

A new wrinkle this week, as Lord Sugar surprises the candidates by making an early morning house-call. Having answered the Batphone last week, again it is Stella English who is quickest off the mark. Does she sleep in the hallway?

Sugar instructs the teams to devise a new household cleaner brand, and create radio and TV commercials for it. No team transfers this week; his only stipulation is that both teams must be led by someone who hasn’t been project manager before. For Synergy, this means Christopher Farrell by default, whereas Alex, the nation’s favourite Unemployed Retail Guru Advertising Advocate™ is eventually chosen over Stuart ‘The Brand’™ Baggs for Apollo. Sandeesh Samra, the Invisible Girl™, is yet again conspicuous by her absence in putting herself forward for any job which might involve actually doing something other than hold a megaphone and shout “Muffins!”

As usual, Alex isn’t backwards in coming forwards to talk about his expertise, saying of his ability to think outside the box:

If I was an apple pie, the apples inside would be orange.

My friend, if you were an apple pie made of oranges, I would take you back and ask for a refund.

Apollo, The Brand™ and the brand

Alex Epstein ended up being Germ-O-Nated by Lord Sugar (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Apollo brainstorm, with Mister Monotone™ Chris Bates putting forward Germ-O-Nator® as their brand name. In proper no-idea-is-a-bad-idea brainstorming style, Alex immediately rubbishes it, but they end up running with it when the best he and Laura can come up with is the less than inspiring Helping Hand®.

A focus group of mums with toddlers tells the team Germ-O-Nator® feels a bit too strong as a name, whereas Helping Hand® is just naff. Frankly, they might have been better off with Cüüli. Or Book-Eeze.

Things don’t get much better. Alex opts for what he describes as “mysterious” red and black packaging which he thinks will look fantastic and unique. In Halfords. The only thing mysterious about it is how he could possibly think this is a good idea. There is a reason why virtually every product in the cleaning aisle comes in citrus or pastel-coloured packaging – consumers strongly associate those colours with cleanliness and freshness.

Anyhow, they are now stuck with the proverbial sow’s ear rather than the hoped-for silk purse, so they just have to focus on making the best possible job of it with their adverts.

Stuart and Laura Moore are sent off to record the radio ad, and Stuart turns out to be a bit of a voiceover star, with his movie-style introduction of:

Coming soon to a kitchen or bathroom near you: there’ll be no mercy, only total devastation.

Laura nods encouragingly, in no way a fifth wheel as The Brand™ gets on a roll, giving the characters of E-coli and influenza a child-like and a Cockney voice respectively.

Meanwhile, over at their TV ad shoot, Alex has hired a man and a child to sell a product bought and used mainly by women and which should be kept out of children’s reach. O-kaaay. Chris directs, trying to create some kind of homage to The Terminator, complete with Stuart’s tagline “Hasta la vista, gravy.” He fails. There goes the Academy Award for Best Director.

Laura phones up to say that she and Stuart are running ahead of time and asks if they can help on the shoot. Alex rebuffs her, which in no way makes her feel like the fifth wheel’s unwanted space-saver cousin.

It’s not going well. Still, at least there’s no Pants Man.

Synergy go soft porn

Christopher Farrell. Remember, kids, sex sells! (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Synergy take the sensible – and therefore novel for The Apprentice – approach of talking to their focus group before making any firm decisions. They quickly seize on an idea of a mother wishing she had eight limbs like an octopus to help her do the housework faster. As an idea, it certainly has legs – well, somebody had to say it – and Octi-Kleen® is born.

That’s definitely the high point, however, as Christopher descends into nudge-nudge-wink-wink-how’s-your-father 70s sitcom territory. He decides he will be the star of the team’s TV commercial, and heads up a casting couch audition to find the best prettiest actress to be his on-screen ‘wife’. Ultimately, he settles on one who looks like Liv Tyler but has the acting ability of Bonnie Tyler‘s cardboard cutout.

Chris insists it is vital he and his ‘wife’ have good chemistry, telling the camera:

Sex sells. Let’s face it, sex sells everything.

Still, it could be worse. At least he doesn’t ask her if she fancies wearing something tasteful with tassels.

The less said about the ad – which veers creepily towards the kind of thing that can only be shown post-watershed – the better, really. Although you can always rely on the mighty Nick Hewer to sum it up in a pithy yet amusing soundbite:

So much for the liberated woman. This commercial is a stereotypical mumsy housewife. Cleaning up, sending her daughter off to bed so that she can – as an octopus, perhaps – grope her husband.

It’s not going well. Still, at least there’s no Pants Man. But we do get the ‘wife’ dressed up in an octopus costume. No, really. Maybe Pants Man wasn’t so bad after all. And am I the only one to see the innuendo in the “eight hands are better than two” tagline?

I’m laughing at you, not with you

With their adverts in the can – but, sadly, not down the toilet – the teams prepare their pitches to the advertising agency.

First up is Apollo. Laura wants to pitch, but Alex wants to give Sandeesh enough rope to hang herself with the opportunity to shine, which in no way makes Laura feel like the punctured tyre which was replaced by the fifth wheel. Alex’s initial script is dire, making it perfectly clear why he is an Unemployed Head of Communciations.

Sandeesh’s pitch at the agency is not quite incompetent, with her attempt at humour – “Like E-coli and influenza, this brand is going viral” – going down about as well as a dose of E-coli and influenza. The camera catches plenty of reaction shots of advertising execs trying (and failing) not to laugh too obviously.

Inevitably, the team are quizzed about their unusual choice of packaging colours. Stuart does his best to defend it: “I liken it to an ugly man”, saying that people will at least stop and look. Well, he tried.

Then it’s the turn of Synergy, with Jamie Lester leading the pitch. (No comments about Manchester being so backward they still wear shoes in clubs this week.) His presentation seems pretty decent, drawing a strong link to their consumer insight and building the semblance of a brand message around their “eight hands are better than two” concept.

On watching Synergy’s soft porn film advert, however, their expert audience are clearly unsure whether to laugh, gasp in horror or simply slit the team’s throats as the most humane way of putting them out of their misery.

I think it’s fair to say no one ends up clamouring over the intellectual property rights to either campaign.

Boardroom Brouhaha™

By now, it is abundantly clear how things were going to pan out, making this one of the least dramatic Boardroom Brouhahas ever. Nonetheless Lord Sugar rips into both teams. He tears into Synergy for their seedy TV ad. But that is nothing compared to his contempt for Apollo’s efforts, astutely pointing out the mismatch between their Germ-O-Nator® brand name and their advert positioning it as a deep-cleaning product.

As Karren Brady correctly identified:

The problem here is that the product got lost in the process.

Personally, I found it odd that such an obviously female-targeted product should prominently feature male characters in the adverts. Presumably this was the result of two male project managers putting their ego (Christopher) and a random unassociated idea (Alex) ahead of the needs of their target audience.

Eventually, though, a winner has to be declared, and Lord Sugar breaks the news to the candidates:

Synergy, let me put it this way, I wouldn’t say you’ve won. I’d put it more like, technically, you haven’t lost.

And that was pretty much spot on. Christopher’s team ‘won’ by virtue of being slightly less appalling overall and at least not losing sight of the basics of having a vaguely coherent brand message. Sex does sell, it would seem.

To celebrate, Synergy are given a private karaoke party. Cue the obligatory performance of Queen’s We are the Champions. None of them will be winning X Factor any time soon.

For Apollo, it is off to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™. Honestly, I think they got the better of that particular deal.

Just in case we haven’t yet worked out who is going to be fired, Alex asks for feedback on his leadership performance – and receives only stony-faced silence in response as his teammates suddenly find their shoes absolutely fascinating.

Alex opts to bring Chris and – for no apparent reason, after praising her pitch – Sandeesh back with him. Alex and Chris argue as the former rapidly loses his cool, but in truth it is a foregone conclusion. The so-called creative communications/marketing expert had made a complete mess of a task in his own professional discipline, and managed his team poorly. So when Sugar finally directs the Digit of Doom™ at Alex, it is about as surprising as finding snow at the North Pole.

Alex’s parting words in the Taxi to Obscurity™ rang as hollow as every other dismissed candidate:

I think Lord Sugar has made a big mistake. I am successful. I’m going to be successful. I’m going to found my own businesses. I don’t need him.

I don’t think any of those businesses are going to be an advertising agency, however.

One job, now nine candidates. Lord Sugar’s search for an Apprentice who doesn’t think the Teletubbies are real continues.

Next week: Selling the ‘big screen experience’ to the general public, as the teams are asked to sell DIY blue-screen movies to unsuspecting shoppers. More likely to be a slasher horror than a feel-good comedy, one suspects.

Rating: Episode 6.06 – 3/5

Notes:

¹ Tesco is named after its founders, T E Stockwell and Jack Cohen.

² BMW is an abbreviation of Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works).

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

Episode 6.05: Fashion