Apprentice candidates make blue (screen) movies, Sandeesh fired after X-rated performance

Following their brief foray into the glitzy, Mad Men-esque world of advertising, The Apprentice returned to more familiar territory this week as the candidates were asked to produce and sell a load of cheap tat to an unsuspecting public in the form of a ‘big screen DVD experience’.

After much larking around with blue screens and what now appears to be the weekly gratuitously-dress-someone-up-in-a-silly-costume skit – this week: Jamie Lester as a penguin – it was Sandeesh Samra (the only contestant in Apprentice history with eyes larger than Bambi) who became the latest casualty of Lord Sugar‘s Digit of Doom™.

A trip to the furniture store

No lie-ins this week as the candidates receive a 6am wake-up call and are dispatched to Pinewood Studios for their briefing. Sandeesh demonstrates her extensive knowledge of the outside world by confidently telling the equally clueless Laura Moore:

Pinewood Studios is … I’m sure it’s a furniture store.

Presumably she is also puzzled as to why Doctor Who isn’t set in a hospital?

No, Sandeesh, you can

Anyhow, the candidates arrive in front of the giant blue screen at Pinewood. (We are not told whether Sandeesh looks at it and asks whether today is a Blue Cross Day.) It’s clearly a chilly morning, because Stuart ‘The Brand’™ Baggs is shivering and looks like he might be about to die from hypothermia. Which is odd, given the amount of hot air he usually blows.

Lord Sugar outlines the task to the two teams: sell the big screen experience to punters from a promotional pitch at London’s Westfield Shopping Centre, the largest urban mall in Europe.

After leaving the line-ups unchanged last week, Sugar reverts to his squad rotation policy, moving Stella English and Joanna Riley over to Apollo, with Mister Monotone™ Chris Bates and the Invisible Girl™ Sandeesh heading to Synergy. As a result, Apollo now comprises Stuart, Laura, Stella and Joanna, while Synergy are Christopher Farrell, Liz Locke, Jamie, Mister Monotone™ and the Invisible Girl™.

Sugar nominates Stuart and Sandeesh as first-time project managers, thereby pitching the series’ loudest contestant against its quietest one. The Brand™ versus Invisible Girl™ – a soundbite competition about as one-sided as a foot race between Linford Christie and Agatha Christie. It makes me long for the days of Alex Epstein, everybody’s favourite Unemployed Head of Communications. But not that much.

Apollo get on track

Within seconds of watching Apollo at work, we see Stuart revert to the bombastic oaf who was the villain of the opening episode. He bulldozes, he bullies, and he basically barks out all the decisions himself. He reminds me of the alternative definition of the word ‘compromise’: getting everyone else to agree to what you think.

Stuart fails to impress his teammates with his Dr Evil impersonation (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Nick Hewer is unimpressed:

His leadership style leaves me trembling with irritation. Who does he think he is?

Do keep up, Nick. He’s The Brand™, remember? Everything he touches turns to sold mould.

Stuart clearly doesn’t agree with Nick’s assessment, though. At one point he confidently states:

I’m a born leader, but I have to rein in my extreme masculinity in this task.

I wonder if he ever had a mentor who worked for the paper company Wernham Hogg?

Stella - the natural heir to Margaret Mountford

Anyhow, he his team settle on a motor racing theme for their backdrop, targeted at affluent young adults, eschewing the obvious target market of parents with kids. Stella, still clearly studying at the Margaret Mountford School for Gifted Eyebrows and Eye-Rolling, shows her exasperation with a few well-placed smirks and sighs.

While the rest of his team learn how to use all the technical film-making gear, Stuart takes Laura to Brands Hatch to shoot his backgrounds and promptly indulges himself in a day of driving BMW M3s around the circuit. He advises Laura not to stand in the middle of the track, lest she get run over by the Isle of Man’s answer to Michael Schumacher. This in no way leaves her feeling like the barely remembered and unloved space-saver wheel in the boot of his car, for the second week running.

Thankfully, he does stop for long enough to have a conversation with Stella and Joanna about changing from selling to adults to focussing on children. This leaves them running around doing, you know, proper leg-work while he is off being an overgrown child all entrepreneurial. Nick follows the girls around a store in the manner of a slightly disturbing old man with multiple restraining orders, but he does ask the question we’ve all been asking ourselves, namely:

Where’s Stuart? What’s he been doing all day?

Nail. Head. The team do reconvene in the evening, where Stuart delivers this stirring – positively Churchillian – motivational address:

I’ve got to where I am being impulsive because I’m an entrepreneur. So I make decisions based on judgements, and the reason why I’m successful is because I make those judgements correctly. So you probably can’t share my vision.

Bang on cue, cut away to another ‘look’ from Stella. Those lessons are really starting to pay dividends.

Synergy take the piste

Chris demonstrated why he is unlikely to be cast in a Bollywood blockbuster (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Over at Synergy, Jamie sells a vision of a skiing DVD which Sandeesh decides to run with. Consequently, while she, Liz and Chris take their crash course in special effects wizardry – cue a mildly amusing sequence of Mister Monotone™ trying his hand at Bollywood-style dancing – Jamie and Christopher are dispatched to the Xscape snow dome in Milton Keynes to shoot their background shots. After shooting some basic downhill sequences, Jamie decides to introduce some more fun elements to appeal to kids and ends up donning a penguin suit for a few shots. No, I don’t know why either.

Out shopping for materials, Sandeesh, Liz and Chris work out the maximum number of DVDs they can produce in a day, then add on a load more to allow for potential wastage, then add the number they first thought of and decide to purchase the entire EU surplus supply of blank discs – actually 110, but nearly three times as many as Stuart’s team. It is a triumph of optimism over common sense, and an error which has a knock-on effect further down the line.

The price is right

And so to Westfield.

The key to success in this task is fourfold. Yes, you need to sell, but you also need good communication between the sales and production sub-teams, tight cost control and, most importantly of all, get the pricing strategy right to maximise profit. Both teams got the first element right, and we already have an inkling that Synergy may have over-spent somewhat. But it is the differing approaches the teams take on pricing that has the biggest impact on the outcome of this task.

Stuart, despite his teammates’ understandable frustration at his impulsiveness, gets this key decision right. After setting an initial selling price of £10 per DVD, he moves it up to £15 (and later £20) when he realises demand is high, although this does lead to some uncomfortable moments where the team attempt to charge customers bearing receipts for £10 the extra £5. With a relatively low level of stock to shift, however, it is absolutely the right decision to make, trading off volume they couldn’t supply anyway for incremental profit.

Conversely, Synergy get it horribly wrong. They start off on the wrong foot, as Sandeesh decides to put Christopher – Mr Organised – in charge of production. This is a sensible decision in itself, but because he was not trained on the equipment, she wastes valuable time getting him set up. She then aggravates Jamie by assigning Liz and Mister Monotone™ to sales and asking him to be the ‘runner’ between them and production. He pouts a lot, wasting still more time. The net result is they are not ready to start selling until 50 minutes after the centre has opened – not a terminal failure, but not helpful either.

The key error, however, is their decision to drop prices from £12 to £8. No doubt this was driven, at least in part, by the pressure to try to shift as many units as possible, having bought too many DVDs to begin with. But it also erodes their profit potential, a move exacerbated by Liz copying Apollo by buying a car as a prop to entice children in. This all adds to the team’s already high cost base. No doubt these decisions helped to generate additional sales – but at what cost?

There is a clear distinction between the two project managers here. Stuart is decisive – some of the decisions he makes are poor, but he also makes some good big calls to compensate for them. Sandeesh listens to every suggestion from every member of her team, then makes a series of half-cocked decisions largely based upon doing the easy thing (to keep the peace) rather than the right thing (to make a profit). Both are far from perfect in terms of what you want from a successful business leader, and – like last week – it is more a case of both teams doing badly but one being slightly less disastrous than the other.

A bloodless Boardroom Brouhaha™

And so both teams reconvene in the boardroom. Without the fire or eloquence of a Melissa, Paloma or Alex, we have none of the fireworks of previous showdowns. No blood on the carpet this week. (Although, if there had been, we could always have called for a spot of Octi-Kleen®.)

As usual, the Baron of Clapton opens the interrogation with his standard question. When asked how Stuart had performed as a leader, his Apollo teammates all look floorwards in an impressive display of Synchronised Looking-Down. Finally, Joanna pipes up with:

There was no structure. I just think maybe you could have gave [sic] us as a team more direction.

The Brand™ is not happy to have received this less than glowing report.

Asked the same question, Synergy give Sandeesh what Sugar terms “a fair nod”. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Sugar asks Nick and Karren to read out the all-important results. Apollo generated sales of £347.50 and spent £85, giving them a profit of £262.50. Synergy sold a bit more (£372.97) but also spent a lot more (£150), leading to a lower overall profit of £222.97. The final difference between Sandeesh’s losing team and Stuart’s not-quite-losing gang was £40 – a lower spend on DVDs and marketing materials and props would have seen the results reversed.

Apollo are sent off to do some champagne tasting, while for Synergy it is the well-trodden path to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™ and some mugs of over-brewed tea.

A lucky escape for Liz? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Back in the boardroom, Sandeesh eventually opts to bring Chris and Liz back in with her. Certainly Christopher was blameless; he kept his head down and did his job well. Jamie was luckier – he did little to help Sandeesh, and his idea of “excellent feedback” seemed to be to remind everyone how good a salesman he is and tell them they were doing everything wrong. However, given that the task was lost primarily on pricing and cost management, it’s hard to argue too much with Sandeesh’s selection.

I have to admit I found this week’s boardroom tougher to call than normal as – on the basis of this task alone – I could see valid reasons to fire all three of them. Their failure started with the decision to over-buy on blank DVDs. It is not necessary to ensure you have the supply to meet the maximum possible level of demand because (a) it never happens and (b) you consequently end up with a load of excess inventory. This was then compounded by the decision to drop their price to stimulate sales (but sacrifice profit per unit), at a time when Apollo were successfully raising theirs – they ended up selling at less than half what Stuart was charging for essentially an identical product – and then Liz’s call to invest even more in marketing (buying the car) relatively late in the day with little hope of recouping that additional expenditure.

Liz was fortunate she had performed strongly in previous tasks, or she would surely have gone. Normally measured and meticulous, she panicked here. Chris, having come under heavy fire in last week’s advertising task, was also lucky to dodge the bullet, having been implicitly involved in all the pricing and costing decisions. But Sugar’s decision to direct the Digit of Doom™ at Sandeesh was ultimately right. As project manager, she had no clear vision, she was talked into poor decisions and, perhaps most damning of all, she had messed up on resource allocation by not having Christopher attend the training on the video equipment. As Sugar observed:

[As a recruitment consultant] putting people into good roles should come naturally to you.

It didn’t. And that, coupled with her inability to shine – or be even remotely visible – on every previous task meant she had to go.

Post-match analysis

Sandeesh’s departing comments in the Taxi to Obscurity™ – she had clearly been crying beforehand – were as bland as her performances on the various tasks:

Whatever else I do I know I’ll be successful anyway.

Her problem was that she rarely visibly did anything – hence my nickname of Invisible Girl™. In most tasks, she faded into the background and added little in the way of ideas or positive energy to the team. And she also had a marked reluctance to take personal responsibility for anything – even in her final boardroom, she kept talking about how “we” (i.e. herself, Chris and Liz) took collective decisions about pricing and expenditure. Never once as project manager did she say “I did this” – largely because she never did anything on her own.

I know we lose a lot of the boring stuff in the edit, but the best Sandeesh ever seemed to manage was to not make a mess of things. Stuart may appal more than he impresses, but he has had some genuine shining moments in this series which suggest he can bring some firepower to bear in the business world, even if ultimately it is in the form of a loose cannon. Sandeesh’s armoury never consisted of much more than a pea-shooter. With no peas.

Fundamentally, Stuart got an awful lot wrong in this task. As Stella commented to Liz and Chris upon their return to the house, much to Stuart’s chagrin:

Lucky for us that you made so many screw-ups, because you could have actually won – you should have won.

And yet Stuart did get right the one call that mattered: to up the price. While his speech about being a visionary entrepreneur made us all cringe, he did make the one move which drove his team’s profit up to a winning level, and he left details like cost management and the production process to people like Stella and Joanna, for whom this is a more natural strength. He remains a disaster waiting to happen – and had Apollo lost he would surely have been fired – but for the moment although he is flying by the seat of his pants, he is nonetheless flying (although a crash-and-burn seems inevitable at some point). Sandeesh never took off, which is why her departure was always a matter of when rather than if.

A hard worker and a nice person to work with, yes. But a business leader? No. We will barely notice she has gone, such is the minimal impact she made.

One job, now eight candidates. Lord Sugar’s search for an Apprentice with a variety of elastic and amusing facial expressions worthy of a slot in the finals of Britain’s Got Talent continues.

Next week: The candidates are off to Hamburg to try to export savoury snacks to the Germans. Anything short of another World War should be considered a positive result.

Rating: Episode 6.07 – 3/5

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

Episode 6.05: Fashion

Episode 6.06: Advertising