Substance triumphs over style as Stella English wins The Apprentice

It was a close-run thing, but after twelve weeks spent selling sausages and buying chicken’s feet, making bread rolls and creating personalised DVDs, and offering fashion to Mancunians and London bus tours to tourists, Stella English, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks made good, won out over Chris Bates, the middle-class scholar, to become Lord Sugar‘s sixth Apprentice.

Picking sides

After some half-hearted pre-task banter between the two finalists – “Isn’t it great to be in the final, roomie? Yeah, but I’m so gonna kick your ass” – Stella and Chris are summoned for an early morning meeting at a bar in the Langham Hotel in Portland Place. Of course, they’re not there to satisfy Sugar’s 24/7 drinking habit, but to be briefed on their final task. But first, there is the small matter of a reunion with some old friends – Alex Epstein, Christopher Farrell, Jamie Lester, Joanna Riley, Liz Locke, Melissa Cohen, Paloma Vivanco and Shibby Robati – and that most hated ritual of unathletic schoolkids everywhere: picking sides.

Paloma - the team member no one wanted to pick (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Stella loses the toss, giving Chris first selection. Somewhat surprisingly, he picks Jamie. Stella, less surprisingly, makes Joanna her initial choice – the two having worked well together on previous tasks. Chris then selects Liz, while Stella opts for the ever-reliable Christopher.

Chris goes next for the marketing experience of Alex, and Stella, shockingly, gives the nod to the previously uncontrollable Melissa, whose Sydney Opera House hairstyle appears to have been flattened by a tsunami.

Which just leaves Shibby and Paloma hopping about anxiously, both mouthing “Please! Pick me!” at Chris – who crosses his fingers behind his back and goes for Doctor Do-Little™. Which is, basically, a real slap in the face for Paloma – not only being selected last, but being picked after Shibby, the man about whom she once said:

I’m a businesswoman and you’re a joke.

Without waiting for the ignominy of hearing her name called last, Paloma sidles over to join Stella’s team. That genuinely was exciting stuff.

Sugar then briefs the teams on their task for the next three days: to create a new spirit-based drink targeted at the over-25s, retailing at £20 per bottle. On day one, they will have to make the drink, design the bottle and come up with an advertising campaign; on the second day they will shoot the ads, and on the final day they will pitch their new products to a room of 100 industry experts. It’s a bit like God creating the universe, but done in half the time and with a cantankerous trader of cheap word-processors and emailer phones taking the role of God. (And his beard is nowhere near as good as the one God is commonly depicted with!)

Stella and Chris line up for battle. God help them (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk/apprentice)

A matter of taste

In their Apprenticar, Stella and Joanna brainstorm product ideas while Paloma, usefully, carefully applies her lipstick. They settle on the idea of a spiced, bourbon-based drink with broad unisex appeal which combines elements of both the old and the modern. (It sounds an awful lot like Southern Comfort to me, but we’ll let that slide.)

Meanwhile, Chris opts for a pomegranate-infused white rum drink. He thankfully rejects Liz’s brainstorm idea of ‘Crown Jewels’ as a brand name. As Chris himself astutely observes:

I think it’s pretty much out of the question to have somebody going in and putting their lips around the Crown Jewels.

Both teams are struggling with names. Chris comes up with the idea of ‘Cube’ – a three-dimensional name for his three-flavoured drink – but quickly ditches this after talking to one random off-licence proprietor. Still pursuing the concept of threes, he ventures ‘Trilogy’, then asks Jamie and Alex if they know what the Italian for three is. Not overly helpfully, Alex volunteers that he can do one, two and five – but not three. (It’s actually ‘tre’, fellas, which instantly evokes a mental image of Tre Azam – remember him? – trying to blag selling art in a previous series.) He eventually comes up with ‘Prism’, based around a pyramid-shaped bottle and the tagline “reflects every side of you”. Hats off to him: it’s a brilliant concept.

Stella, meanwhile, is struggling even more. Marketing executive Paloma suggests they name their honeyed and spiced bourbon drink ‘Honey and Spice’. Thanks for that. At the eleventh hour, however, Stella herself comes up with ‘Urbon’, a play on ‘urban’ and ‘bourbon’. Again, it’s a really good concept.

Both project managers have sent sub-teams off to a lab to work on creating the drinks themselves. Christopher and Melissa are Stella’s mixologists for the day. For Chris’s team, Liz and Shibby are testing out their mix of white rum, pomegranate and aromatic bitters.

Shibby asks:

So, you spit rather than swallow?

He’s referring to tasting the drink, rather than it being a personal question about Liz’s sexual preferences. At least, I think he is.

Liz tries a mouthful, tastes it, then spits it out and pulls a face. And there you have it, Shibby: she doesn’t swallow. I’m talking about the drink, people. Get your minds out of the gutter!

The question of whether a pink-hued drink is perhaps a bit too feminine comes up – Chris having originally briefed in a clear drink. Shibby declares:

I’d drink a pink drink. You know, pink’s the new blue.

Shibby’s favourite band is ABBA, and his favourite film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

To finish off day one, both project managers consult with the advertising industry authorities to ensure their TV ad concepts comply with regulatory standards. Stella gets to grips with this quickly, while Chris struggles to come to terms with working within the guidelines, which basically do not allow you to link alcohol with any suggestion of social or sexual success. In our modern PC world, that’s fair enough – but it also means we are deprived of classic ads of yesteryear such as those for Hofmeister lager. A shame.

Day one verdict: Chris is marginally ahead, as his concept is the more striking and original of the two, but both have got off to a strong start.

Chris shoots his ad himself in the foot?

Day two finds the teams shooting their TV ads.

Chris’s ad integrates his original ‘three’ theme, depicting three friends enjoying Prism in a bar. He is all over the fine details of the ad – whether this is good or excessive attention to detail is very much open to interpretation – but it does leave him chasing the clock at the end of the day to grab his final shots. It also looks to me like he is taking too much on himself, and perhaps not utilising his team and their strengths most efficiently. He had previously come under fire from Sugar in the advertising task, and he seems to be struggling again a bit here.

What little we see of Stella’s shoot seems to pass without incident. She is clearly running a smooth and happy ship, and the impression we are given is of a leader in complete control of her task. Given the volatile personalities on her team, it’s an impressive feat.

Nick Hewer observes:

There’s no fighting or showboating, and that’s a valuable quality to have: to be able to lead a willing team.

We finish day two with both finalists exhausted and in pensive mood. The end is nearly in sight, but there is still much work left to be done.

Day two verdict: Level pegging. Stella is definitely back in the game.

Pitch-(im)perfect?

The final day of the final task sees both teams preparing their 20-minute launch presentations.

Jamie takes on the most thankless task in the world – trying to inject a little pizzazz into Chris’s monotone delivery. Other than that, he seems well prepared.

Chris - plenty of style, but not enough substance? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Stella is less far advanced with her pitch, and turns to her team for input. A well-meaning but quite heated argument ensues among the girls about what Stella should or shouldn’t do, while Christopher sits with his head in his hands and waits for the tempest to pass. But Stella isn’t fazed – I didn’t label her the Ice Queen™ for nothing – taking everything on board and continuing serenely on.

In fact, there is little sign of stress or strain from either candidate. I know the final episode is always edited to cast the contenders in a favourable light, but I get the distinct impression both have borne up extremely well under the pressure.

Chris presents first. He really does try to break free of his Mister Monotone™ tendencies, but never quite succeeds. The content of his pitch is decent enough, though. And the gathered experts are clearly wowed by his striking pyramidal bottle design (which is, it must be said, extremely cool). But his advert has no wow factor at all. Not that you would expect something award-winning, but visually it’s a bit all over the place and the voiceover man sounds as if he is just reading the list of ingredients off the label on the bottle, rather than evoking a lifestyle or an image. As a piece of marketing, it’s a triumph of style but lacking in substance.

Stella English - lots of substance, just enough style? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Stella follows up with a presentation that is more substance than style. Prior to this, I had been concerned about her ability to handle pitches, as she had always taken a back-seat to others such as Chris, Melissa and Joanna in previous tasks. However, she does a more than decent job, speaking slowly and clearly and taking the audience on a journey from their initial market insight to their final product. Her ad is workmanlike, but to my eye does a better job of ticking the boxes and conveying a clear positioning and image than Chris’s did.

From the brief Q&A snippets we see of both candidates, there is a definite feeling that the pendulum is swinging firmly in Stella’s direction. Let’s be clear about this: such is the nature of these final tasks that there are enough positives and negatives on both sides that the final edit can easily be slanted subtly in favour of the eventual winner. Which is why it is interesting that one of the questions asked of Chris is how practical a sharp-edged bottle is in a retail product. (Answer: it saves your average Friday night drunk the effort of breaking the bottle before using it as a weapon. Handy.) Stella handles her questions with her usual composure, and we get a rare glimpse of her funny side as she responds:

“You don’t have to live in the city to enjoy this drink. I’m hoping to move out to the country if this goes well.”

Day three verdict: Of course, any judgement of Stella and Chris’s pitches and adverts is purely subjective – and I have to say both performed very well in a difficult situation – but Stella was the better of the two for me. Chris had the edge on creativity and style, but Stella gave a more rounded performance which proved she can deliver in the kind of creative task which many of her rivals had suggested she could not do.

The final showdown

In the boardroom, Sugar – somewhat unfairly – quizzes both candidates on their decision to delegate formulating the product to a sub-team:

No one’s invented a device yet of being able to taste something over the phone.

I bet Stuart Baggs has invented one, though.

Unsurprisingly, team feedback on the two finalists is overwhelmingly positive. A few highlights:

Shibby comments on Chris’s ability to deliver sharp, concise points:

Most people would take 20 words to say something, he can say it in five. It’s a pleasure to work with him.

Liz focuses on his creativity:

He wasn’t scared to go with something a bit risky, something new. I think that’s why he stands out – he’s willing to take that risk.

Joanna praises Stella’s ability to manage teams:

She’s really adapted well to the people she’s been working with. She’s the girl for the job.

While Christopher highlights her poise under pressure:

She’s a cool cookie. It was stressful yesterday. It’s a big thing riding on it. She just rose above it, she was perfectly level-headed and I think she executed brilliantly.

Alex, ever the communications man, and perhaps hedging his bets in the hope of securing gainful employment with the winner, lauds both of them:

It’s been an absolute pleasure spending time with both Stella and Chris. They’re both very intelligent, and to be honest with you I’d take both of them.

Sugar dismisses the teams and provides some even-handed feedback to the two finalists before sending them out while he pretends to consult with Nick and Karren Brady, as if he hasn’t already made up his mind. Nick praises Stella’s great people skills and Chris’s articulacy, while Karren notes Chris’s ability to rise above setbacks and his own lack of commercial experience.

The two candidates are brought back into the boardroom and given one final chance to tell Lord Sugar, Stuart-style, about their field of ponies. They do. I doubt it makes any difference. At last, though, Sugar is willing to declare his hand:

One of you is going to be very disappointed. I don’t worry about the other person because I think we have two great people here who can hold their head up high whatever. But it’s a tough decision and the decision that I have come to … is that … Stella, you’re hired.

It is the first time in the four occasions in which The Apprentice has seen a male/female final that the female finalist has triumphed. (The two previous female winners – Michelle Dewberry and Yasmina Siadatan – won in all-girl finals.)

In the Rolls-Royce to Riches™, an emotional Stella reflects on her achievement:

To think that little Stella from Thamesmead could be the winner of The Apprentice is unbelievable. But I’ve always believed it in my heart that I can do something great; it’s just convincing other people. But I have now, and nobody can take that away from me. And I’m so excited about the future. It’s all been worth it – all that blood sweat and tears. I’ve got through to the end and I’m just so happy.”

Did Sugar make the right choice?

Ultimately, Sugar’s choice of hiring depended on the exact nature of the role he had in mind for his Apprentice. Chris had a creative streak which showed well on this final task, but he did struggle to fully convert this into an end product. And, with no previous Apprentice having lasted more than two years in Sugar’s organisation, could he really have afforded to invest in developing Chris’s potential, only for him to leave just as he started becoming productive? Stella, on the other hand, with her greater experience understands the business of business better and has proven ability to get teams working effectively and harmoniously. If she perhaps lacks Chris’s spontaneity and creativity, that is what you have teams and consultants and agencies for.

Stella will be able to deliver immediately – a requirement that Sugar stated right at the beginning of the process – and was therefore absolutely the right choice.

16 candidates, one job. Lord Sugar’s search for his Apprentice is over. And so is this series of blog posts (at least until Junior Apprentice kicks off next year). I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.

Rating: Episode 6.12 – 3.5/5

Link: BBC Apprentice home page

Previous episode reviews

Episode 6.01: Sausages

Episode 6.02: Beach accessory

Episode 6.03: Bakery

Assessing the final 12

Episode 6.04: Selling to trade

Episode 6.05: Fashion

Episode 6.06: Advertising

Episode 6.07: DVD

Would you employ any of the final 8?

Episode 6.08: Crisps

Episode 6.09: Discount buying

What can we learn from the fired candidates?

Episode 6.10: London Tours

Episode 6.11: Interviews

The 20 best moments

Whatever happened to the previous Apprentice winners?

Season 1: Tim Campbell

Season 2: Michelle Dewberry

Season 3: Simon Ambrose

Season 4: Lee McQueen

Season 5: Yasmina Siadatan