The Apprentice: A tale of sound and fury is finally exposed as bluff and bluster

They say things come in threes, and this week on The Apprentice three unusual events occurred. Firstly, the task assigned to the teams actually bore some resemblance to real business. Secondly Helen Milligan, after nine consecutive wins, finally lost. And thirdly – and not before time – Lord Sugar finally saw through Melody Hossaini‘s boastful bravado to make her the tenth casualty of the boardroom.

Smell what sells

Melody wins the Race to the Phone™. That's all she wins this week, though (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

It’s 6am, and Me-Me-Melody™ wins the Race to the Phone™. The candidates are summoned to a wholesaler’s warehouse in Enfield but Helen, the proud owner of a 9-0 task record, is so chilled that she is able to sip a cup of tea while all around her fellow candidates are rushing around the Apprenti-Mansion™ trying to remember where they left their Bullshit Bingo cards.

At the warehouse, Sugar tells them he has secured each team a selection of goods worth £1,100 at retail prices for the knock-down price of £250. Their task is to spend the next two days selling to the unsuspecting citizens of London and reinvesting their takings to purchase new stock for them to keep turning over.

It is an apparently simple task which businesses up and down the country – from one-man bands to retail behemoths like Tesco – engage in every single day. Buy products, sell them, replenish your stocks of fast-moving products, sell some more, and turn a tidy profit. Of course, I said apparently simple. This is The Apprentice, and the candidates have already proven themselves more than capable of making the proverbial piss-up in a brewery look more difficult than putting a man on the moon. Or, to tweak one of Me-Me-Melody’s™ catchphrases slightly:

Don’t tell me to reach for the skies when I can barely put one foot in front of the other without falling flat on my face.

In truth, this is not a task which requires a great strategy so much as a modicum of common sense (uh oh) combined with a bit of basic organisation (double uh oh). Of course, our candidates are Britain’s entrepreneurial elite. They couldn’t possibly get it wrong, could they?

Sugar decides to move Susan Ma over to Venture, with Helen moving the other way. So it is Helen, Melody and Tom Pellereau against Susan, Jim Eastwood and Natasha ‘Yeah?’ Scribbins. Off we go!

Melody offers to be project manager for Logic, while Jim has to decide between Susan and Natasha after both put themselves forward. It’s a bit like being asked whether he would rather be boiled alive or frozen to death, but he eventually plumps for Natasha.

True to form, Sugar’s selection of products is basically, as he would describe it, a load of old toot, ranging from cheap and nasty duvet sets and towels to watches, wallets, umbrellas and a nodding bulldog. Classy. Armed with their quality merchandise, the teams head off to find some gullible souls to sell to.

Tom proved he could sell, but ended up being ignored - again (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

I’ll get the good stuff out of the way first, and note that Jim (very much in his element) and Tom (the proverbial fish out of water) both do an excellent job of selling, although Jim’s attempts to demonstrate his umbrella (ella, ella, eh, eh, eh) are equal parts Gene Kelly and Rihanna.

Er. that’s about it. Everything else on day one pretty much goes horrifically wrong.

Let’s start with Logic. While Tom is selling out of his nodding dogs on the South Bank, Melody and Helen attempt to sell watches retailing at £50 to an East End pound shop. The clue’s in the name, ladies – it’s not a FiftyPoundShop, is it? Then they offer duvet and towel sets to a small hardware retailer, which is a bit like offering a vegetarian a choice of beef or chicken.

Generally, Helen’s strategy of seeking big orders with retailers rather than selling direct to consumers is hopelessly flawed. Firstly, retailers already have existing deals with wholesalers. Secondly, wholesaler margins are much leaner than retailer margins. If you want to make big profits quickly in this task, go straight to the punters and cut out the middle-man.

And then to top it all off, after Tom has fed back his success in selling the nodding dogs, Melody commits the same error as so many other doomed project managers before her and ignores his counsel. Instead, she forgets she is on The Apprentice and goes into Supermarket Sweep mode, ignoring Sugar’s advice to reinvest in known sellers and picking up every random shiny item that catches her eye, from digital alarm clocks to emergency mobile chargers.

Did Jim actually swallow the Blarney Stone, as Nick Hewer suggests? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Despite Jim’s salesmanship, Venture aren’t much better. Susan decides to sell her duvet and towel sets door-to-door in Knightsbridge. (Seriously, on what planet did anyone think this was a good idea?) Other than the cleaners hardly anyone is at home, and those that are presumably dial 999 when the peer at her from behind the net curtains. She manages a paltry £18 of sales, then falls asleep in the Apprenti-Carrier™. And then when Jim presses Natasha to consider their strategy for tomorrow she refuses, presumably because long-term thinking in her goldfish brain involves remembering to draw her next breath. Yeah?

At least Natasha does stock up on the day’s star product, the nodding dogs – who’d have thought it? – but then Susan goes free-styling and purchases a load of bracelets from a jewellery wholesaler on spec on the basis that she has successfully sold similar products before. Risky, but potentially inspired.

From bad to worse

If you thought day one was as bad as it gets, you obviously haven’t been watching The Apprentice for long. Of course there is catastrophe aplenty still to come.

Venture’s day starts well. Jim, now at Shepherd’s Bush Market, continues to sell at a ferocious rate. He passes off an orange umbrella as “the Dutch national umbrella” and basically wheels, deals and charms the pants off his customers. Even Nick Hewer is, for once, taken with Jedi Jim’s™ persuasive powers:

I’ve never seen such an abundance of baloney. He’s good fun, people like him, and I quite like him now for the first time.

Susan took a big risk, but it paid off (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

At Portobello Market Susan (against my expectations) has no difficulty selling her bracelets at a very healthy mark-up. Meanwhile Natasha flounders and flounces in the background, and appears reluctant to do any actual selling.

Things get worse when she refuses Jim’s request to reinvest in new stock, and we suddenly realise she has missed the fundamental point of the task: that it is about maximising assets not profit, and that they will not be penalised for having stock at the end of trading. It is a terrible blunder, but you have to wonder how Jim – or, for that matter, Susan – is unable to persuade her to see the error of her ways, given that he otherwise seems able to sell ice to Eskimos.

Jim hits the nail on the head with an assessment of Natasha that is damning but accurate:

She’s all passion. She’s all guns and bluster but no direction, no conviction, no clue. I see past the bravado and the passion – and there’s nothing there.

Helen wasted most of the day chasing a sale she never completed (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

For Logic, the day gets off to a bad start when Helen, frustrated by Melody’s lack of direction, offers to take over as project manager. Not surprisingly, Me-Me-Melody™ declines.

Tom and Melody head off to set up their random array of items in Hammersmith Broadway’s shopping centre and seem to do a brisk trade. Meanwhile Helen sets up stall outside Canary Wharf underground station, but soon abandons her pitch as she heads off on a wild-goose chase to fulfil an order she secured the previous day. However, by the time she gets going her wholesaler is closed, and she has to source the product from elsewhere before discovering that her retail customer has also shut up shop for the day. It is an unmitigated disaster – a four-hour round-trip for an order which was only ever going to turn a small profit anyway and which has achieved absolutely nothing. In ten weeks, it is Helen’s first major mis-step.

Boardroom brouhaha™

Of course, that doesn’t stop Helen from referring to Melody as “a terrible team leader” in the boardroom – harsh but fair. You could have driven an 18-wheeler through Melody’s strategy on this task, if only she had actually had one. It doesn’t take Sugar long to uncover their litany of disaster, from not reinvesting cash in the nodding dogs to Helen’s unwise retailer-focussed strategy.

Sugar doesn’t spare Venture either, though. He is pleased that they at least smelt what sold and reinvested in the nodding dog, but he is less enamoured by Susan buying her own products – even though it was a successful move – and then turns apoplectic when he learns of Natasha’s refusal to reinvest, imposing a spot fine of £100 for being such a muppet. All through this, Natasha sits there doing a passable impression of the aforementioned nodding dog, as she starts mentally rehearsing the words “Thank you for the opportunity, Lord Sugar, yeah.”

So, clearly, Natasha’s team must have lost, yeah? No.

Natasha won despite failing to understand the task (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Logic’s cash plus remaining stock at the end of the task were valued at £1,204, having spent £476, giving them net assets of £728. Venture spent just £303 and sold only £1,154, but even after their fine still had net assets of £751. Thanks to Jim’s selling skills and Susan’s bold move – and no thanks whatsoever to Natasha herself – arguably the worst project manager’s performance of the entire season was nevertheless a winning one.

There was one final sting in the tail, however, as Sugar denies the winning team their treat of a day out at Goodwood. This leads to one final bitching session between Susan and Natasha, in which the project manager somehow manages to lay the blame at Susan’s feet, essentially saying that she made mistakes only because Susan was annoying. O-kaaay. For once, even Jim is speechless.

Helen makes her first visit to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™ along with Tom and Melody, and the losing project manager moves her mouth and makes a lot of sound. Don’t ask me what she said, though, as I’d stopped listening. Something about her being brilliant and global and best mates with Al Gore, probably.

Back in the boardroom Sugar continues to express his displeasure, but there’s really no disguising the inevitable. He dismisses Helen for being a PA and brands Tom ‘The Nodding Hindsight Man’ (one of his better efforts, I have to say). Karren Brady warns him that:

I think if you went into business with Melody your board meetings would be a very, very long affair.

Assuming that he could get a word in edgeways, that is. Not that Melody would listen, anyway.

In defending herself Melody does, unsurprisingly, get in another outlandish boast straight out of the Baggs the Brand™ “field of ponies” book, saying:

I set up one of the most successful democratic bodies in the world.

What, exactly? The British parliamentary system? The US senate? Her school student council?

Helen, in her first experience of the boardroom, acquits herself well, although she seems excessively offended when Tom points out (correctly) that she has no experience of setting up a business. Good God, if you think that was a bit naughty, you really should have seen what was said in previous boardrooms.

Sugar admits that Tom, as an inventor, is “right up my alley”. And Tom finally makes himself heard and gets in the best dig of the entire season when he points out that:

Melody runs a business which, unsurprisingly, is all to do with talking. To be honest, none of us really understands what it is that you do.

Join the club, Tom. Join the club.

All that is left is for Sugar himself to administer the coup de grâce – or, as he would no doubt mangle it, the ‘cuppa grass’ – and give Me-Me-Melody™ her m-m-marching orders. Which he does. A nation celebrates.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™, the ever modest Melody says:

Lord Sugar and I won’t be going into business right now, but perhaps our paths will cross again and then I can really tell him what I do, which is more than just talking.

In fairness, Melody’s tenacity and drive are valuable qualities, and she is undoubtedly a smart woman who is very good at what she does. However, her listening and diplomatic skills were nigh on non-existent, and her lack of experience and judgement in a commercial environment were all too obvious on several tasks. Although it made for great TV, her insistence on acting out an excruciating role-play – twice – at pitches to supermarket buyers last week was also the pinnacle of her naivety. It was not her brusqueness which ultimately led to her downfall, it was her refusal to accept that someone else might know better. As the Bard would have said:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act V Scene V

Melody wasn’t an idiot. But she did strut and enjoy the sound and fury of her own voice too much. And although it took a while, Sugar did eventually see through the bluff and bluster.

In the fight for Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment, five candidates remain. And now that Helen has tasted finally defeat, none of them are perfect any more. Even though Jim no doubt thinks he still is.

Next week: The teams must create the next fast food restaurant. One suspects that never was the term ‘junk food’ more appropriate.

The Apprentice: The Final Five will be shown tonight (Thursday) on BBC1 at 9pm. The series continues on BBC1, Wednesday at 9pm. Companion show You’re Fired follows on BBC2 at 10pm.

Link: BBC official website

Episode reviews:

Season 7 preview

£250 business start-up

Mobile phone application

Discount buying for the Savoy

Beauty treatments

Create, brand and launch a pet food

Rubbish

Freemium magazine launch

Paris

Biscuit

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