Young Apprentice: No-go as JoJo says no-no to hippo

This week’s Young Apprentice task took us back to nursery – the children’s variety, not the horticultural kind – as the Apprenti-Kids™ were asked to design and pitch a new product for the mother-and-baby market. They were forced to get to grips with toddler tantrums, bouts of hopeless inarticulacy and one participant spitting his dummy. (The babies, on the other hand, were extremely good.) All this proved to be bad news for gardening entrepreneur Ben Fowler, who was all fingers-and-thumbs rather than green-fingered and found himself on the receiving end of an entirely different type of finger: Lord Sugar‘s deadly Digit of Doom™.

A familiar task

The product-design-and-pitch task is an Apprentice staple which in recent years has brought us startling innovations in beach accessories (who could forget the Cüüli towel-cum-drinks chiller?) and biscuits (anyone for a Bix Mix?) In fairness, the ‘invention’ part of the task is one of the most difficult assignments the candidates face. If it really was that easy to come up with something innovative and commercial after a quick brainstorm we would all be doing it, wouldn’t we?

Liz Locke proved you don't have to be a loud-mouth to do a great pitch (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

However, what is less forgivable is how often the candidates mismanage their pitches. Year after year teams fail to recognise that, of the three potential customers they are asked to pitch to, only one really matters. Let’s say you are, I don’t know, a mild-mannered Michael Sheen-lookalike inventor named, for sake of argument, Tom Pellereau. You have just invented a natty curved nail file which you want to take to health and beauty retailers. Who is more likely to make your fortune? That lovely Mr and Mrs Shah, who run the local pharmacy? Or Boots? It’s not rocket science.

And the best person to do the critical pitch is rarely the one with the biggest mouth. For a new product pitch, you need to be direct and to the point. What does the product do? What makes it unique? What sales and profit margins are you expecting to generate for the retailer? The best pitches are efficient, simple and given by people who can listen as well as they can talk, and adapt accordingly – Helen Milligan and Liz Locke, for example.

Most project managers tend to take on pitching duties themselves, but that is often an error. Usually there is a better presenter elsewhere in the team, and preparing the pitch is such an intensive activity that the PM – who has to focus on the whole task – generally cannot give it the undivided attention it requires.

Anyhow, let’s see how Atomic (the boys) and Kinetic (the girls) got on, shall we?

Desperation is the mother of invention

It’s morning at the Apprenti-Mansion™, and the first Race to the Phone™ of the season is won by the delightfully tousled Harry M, Brother of Boney™ (that’s Harry Maxwell) – even his bed-head hair is posh – who informs the others that they are to meet Lord Sugar at the Royal College of Art. To which Scouser Lewis Roman asks:

What is the Royal College of Art?

Let’s give Lewis the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps he isn’t a morning person – but really? Couldn’t you maybe hazard a guess what it might be? Whatever, he wins this week’s Statement of the Blahhdy Obvious Award™.

Nonetheless, once Sugar has briefed them on their baby product task Lewis is happy to put himself forward as Atomic’s project manager, saying:

I have got every single ingredient to make this fantastic cocktail of success.

Of course, the only problem with throwing every ingredient into a cocktail is that you inevitably make people sick.

Gbemi put herself forward as Kinetic's PM (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The teams also get a crash course in baby basics with the aid of a baby doll which looks alarmingly like last week’s fired candidate, Mahamed Awale, only taller. Hannah Richards asks whether it’s really necessary to change a baby every time after being told that a baby’s nappies could fill 40 black refuse sacks a year. Which is a lot of shit – almost as much as is spouted by the average Apprentice candidate.

For Kinetic, fashion designer Gbemi ‘Edna Agbarha Mini-Me’ Okunlola states her credentials: she has two younger siblings, designs clothes, is good speaking in large groups and is basically brilliant at everything. Lizzie Magee, who designs guitar straps, also puts herself forward, as does wannabe film director Zara Brownless – but only tentatively once the other two have volunteered, making it perfectly clear that she isn’t actually offering but just, you know, saying she might do. One day. When hell freezes over. Gbemi gets the nod.

Both teams start brainstorming. Harry H Corbett (Harry Hitchens) has an unoriginal idea. Harry M, Brother of Boney™ has two unoriginal ideas. Irish economist James McCullagh rubbishes all of them, while proposing two equally unoriginal ideas of his own. Harry M name-checks the iTeddy, just to show that he watches Dragons’ Den. Meanwhile Kinetic have latched on to Lizzie’s suggestion of an arm sling – which sounds suspiciously like one of her designer guitar straps, but for babies – to help support and cradle a baby in an adult’s arm. Sorted.

Adopting a novel approach

It’s midday, and the teams are sub-divided and bundled into the Apprenti-Carriers™ to conduct store research and create their product designs. While the girls just get on with the task at hand, James and Harry M keep bickering over the relative merits of their ideas before finally settling for a bottle-warming toy hippo named Harris. As Nick Hewer comments:

Amongst the group there really is quite a strong sense of competition. It’s all about ownership. “That was my idea.” “No, it wasn’t. It was my idea first.”

Zara seemed unconcerned about mixing and matching family members (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Two sub-teams work on auditioning product models for their packaging artwork. Photographer Harry H directs for Atomic, while Ben is content to operate in the background.

Film-maker Zara steps forward for the girls, casting a pale white baby alongside a black mother and a white father. Haya Al Dlame questions whether this might confuse potential customers as it looks like a family with an adopted child, but Zara dismisses her concerns, claiming the casting is perfect because they have such chemistry, dahhhling (or something). With a grip on reality as loose as that, she’ll go a long way in Hollywood.

When news of this reaches Gbemi her response is understandable but, shall we say, not overly diplomatic. Zara seems bemused, and refrains from saying what she is clearly thinking, namely:

You just don’t understand my craft, do you? Just wait until I collect the Prime-Time Emmy for Best Short Advertising Film (Mother and Baby). Then we’ll see.

Er, what does it do exactly?

The following morning, both teams take delivery of their prototypes – Harris the Hippo isn’t exactly conveniently handbag-sized – and set off to pitch to three different retailers. There is JoJo Maman Bébé, an upmarket boutique chain with 40 stores across the UK, department store giant John Lewis (36 UK locations) and finally specialist chain Mothercare, which has more than 300 stores worldwide. No prizes for guessing which one represents the must-win mother lode.

Lewis struggled to string more than two words together in his pitches (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Lewis decides to lead the first two pitches for Atomic, while Harry M throws his toys out of the pram as he continually argues that their product’s unique selling point should be its ‘fun and familiarity’, rather than its heat-insulating properties. Both pitches at JoJo Maman Bébé and John Lewis are unmitigated disasters, as Lewis stumbles inarticulately as he tries to read his presentation from his own notebook. It is clear he is overcome by nerves and poorly prepared.

Gbemi fares little better. Although she has clearly given some thought as to what she will say and does a decent job slowing her usually fast speech down, she completely fails to explain to the John Lewis buyers what the product actually does. She then compounds the error by doing the same thing at JoJo Maman Bébé, although she does invent a new word by referring to their Comfy Curve as “hand-able”.

Before the final all-important Mothercare pitch, both teams convince their project managers to let someone else lead. Harry H steps up for the boys and delivers a confident, competent performance, while Haya’s pitch for the girls is such a big improvement that even Gbemi has the grace to admit it was the right decision to make (although she makes it sound like it was her idea all along).

Boardroom Brouhaha™

In the boardroom, Sugar treats the candidates to his best one-liners, comparing Kinetic’s Comfy Curve to a football scarf and commenting on Harris the Hippo’s dual function as a bed-time toy by saying that he used to sleep with a piggy bank. Oh, how we rolled in the aisles.

He rightly rips into the girls for their confusing family portrayal, asking “Is that an adopted baby?” And when he asks how Lewis was as a leader, the ever supportive Harry M, Brother of Boney™ is quick to twist the knife, stating “I would say Lewis was quite poor” and getting into another slanging match with James the One-Man Charm Offensive™. Can we just throw the two of them in a room until one of them finally wins – and then leave the victor locked in anyway?

Tiring quickly of the witty repartee – which is so easily mistaken for the legendary Algonquin Round Table – Sugar calls for the results, which are as follows. JoJo Maman Bébé placed orders for 1,200 hippos, but no slings. John Lewis: no hippos, no slings. Cue reaction shots of the girls looking worried and the boys triumphant. But we all know how this ends, right? It’s all about Mothercare, and sure enough Atomic garnered an order for 4,000 Harris the Hippos. But Kinetic – thanks to a combination of Haya’s excellent pitch and basically having a better product idea – secured 7,500 units. The girls have won again, this time deservedly so: 7,500 to 5,200.

Of course, they’re only hypothetical orders. Don’t expect to see the Comfy Curve in Mothercare any time soon.

Ben paid the price for not making himself more visible (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Off go the girls to be taught street dance by Diversity from Britain’s Got Talent. And off go the boys to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™. There, James fires up his broken record once again. (“The product was wrong, my idea was so much better, you’re all bloody useless, bwah ha ha.”) Harry M blathers on smugly about how he was right all along. Everyone questions what Ben actually did during the task.

The bickering continues back in the boardroom, where James and Harry M continue to do themselves no favours at all, while Lewis is singled out for trying to hog the limelight by insisting on doing the first two pitches himself. It’s all a bit dull and repetitive, really. Lewis opts – rightly, I think – to bring back Harry M and Ben. Nick defends Lewis’ enthusiasm, Sugar notes Harry M’s unpopularity, and they all ponder whether Ben has stayed in the shadows out of choice or because he has not been given the chance the shine. Ultimately, and consistent with his previous form in similar circumstances, Sugar opts to fire gentle Ben for being a passenger and not asserting himself more.

So we say goodbye to our second boy, as Ben departs in the Riches-To-Rags Roller™. He says:

Lord Sugar didn’t get to see the best of me. I felt that he didn’t like my calm and relaxed approach. Unfortunately I didn’t get time to show him what I can actually do.

Early favourites?

Did Sugar make the right call? To be honest, I’m not sure he could have made a wrong decision here. Ben had failed to shine in either task. Lewis failed to provide decisive – or indeed any – leadership, and his pitches were beyond awful. And Harry M’s confidence and persistence come across more as smugness and arrogance. Like James, he has yet to prove that having a big mouth and lots of ideas actually translates into anything of genuine worth. Of the boys, Harry H seems the best all-rounder so far by a distance. Which means he probably won’t win.

We haven’t yet seen much of many of the girls. We know that Gbemi is a handful and a borderline bully, Zara more of a luvvie than a budding businesswoman and Haya is a polished presenter, but we have seen relatively little of Lizzie, Hayley and Hannah. Hopefully we will see more of the less dominant personalities in the next couple of weeks, but for now I would have Haya as my early front-runner.

Next week: The reshuffled teams must set up their own floristry businesses. Who will end up smelling of roses, and who will discover that every rose has its thorns?

Young Apprentice continues on BBC1 on Monday at 9pm.

Link: BBC official website

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