Young Apprentice: Feta is better as James and Zara reach the final

In an unprecedented turn of events, the hopes of four of our final six contenders on this season’s Young Apprentice went pop as the two teams were tasked with the challenge of developing and pitching a new popcorn brand to three potential corporate buyers. Once the order books were closed and totted up Lord Sugar‘s Digit of Doom™ dismissed first the entire losing team and then one member of the winning side, leaving us with just James McCullagh and Zara Brownless to battle it out in next week’s final.

This is what happens when you organise a game and don’t invite me

It’s a quiet afternoon in the Apprenti-Mansion™, and our six remaining Apprenti-Kids™ are taking the opportunity to enjoy the rare down-time in the manner that all high-powered businesspeople are wont to do: playing one-handed catch in the garden. Little do the Tycoon Tykes™ know, however, that even as they lark about in the throes of such jollity, a big, black Rolls Royce is trundling ominously and stopping not in the empty parking space directly in front of the house but in the middle of the road. What kind of a megalomaniac would do something like this?

Oh, of course, it’s only Lord Sugar.

Harry H moved back to Atomic as PM (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Perhaps slightly miffed that nobody thought to call to see if he fancied a game of catch, Sugar interrupts to inform them of their task – to develop new popcorn flavours and pitch them to three companies – and that he will only be requiring two finalists. The entire losing team and one member of the winning team will be fired. That’s what you get for excluding the former chairman of Spurs from your ball games, eh?

Sugar also reshuffles the teams one final time. Harry H Not-Corbett™ (Harry Hitchens) joins Harry Maxwell aka Harry M, Brother of Boney™ and Lizzie Magee on Atomic, while Zara Brownless is moved to side with James McCullagh and Haya al Dlame on Kinetic. And with that, it’s off to Leeds in the Apprenti-Carriers™.

Unsurprisingly, the project manager role is hotly contested. James and Haya both put themselves forward for Kinetic before Haya backs down. On Atomic both Harrys want to lead, but Lizzie unsurprisingly picks Harry H over Harry M, who it is probably safe to say is not at the top of her Christmas card list after their clashes in last week’s discount buying task.

What is the Mediterranean for ‘popcorn’?

Kinetic and Atomic come up with two very different branding approaches. James suggests a healthier Mediterranean positioning, while Harry H opts for a movie-based Americana theme, branded ‘Empire State’. Harry M argues the case for a couples-based ‘Smoochies’ brand, but his appeal falls on deaf – or, given the vociferousness of his argument, possibly deafened – ears.

The teams then split up, with one member working at the factory to create new flavours while the other two head off to do market research and devise packaging.

Lizzie stayed at the factory to mix the potions (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Lizzie and Zara are left at the factory to experiment with vials of flavour – or should that be vile flavours? This leaves the two Harrys – not to be confused with the Two Ronnies – to continue their Smoochies versus Empire State argument. Is it really just bickering or do I detect a certain frisson between them, perhaps a cross between The Odd Couple and Brokeback Mountain? Their market research appears to consist of Harry H stuffing a lifetime’s worth of cholesterol down his throat at an American diner. You can practically see his arteries hardening before our eyes.

Meanwhile Harry M continues to bend his ear about Smoochies – I repeat: Brokeback Mountain – and Karren Brady watches on from an adjacent table, looking like she has just been stood up by her date. In between mouthfuls, Harry relays instructions to Lizzie to concoct barbecue chicken and maple syrup and pancake flavours for their popcorn.

Harry M was keen on Smoochies. Aren't we all? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Kinetic’s research is altogether more genteel and nutriontist-approved. James and Haya try out various combinations at a posh deli. They finally decide on a feta and olive flavour, backed up by chorizo and sundried tomato. However, they are still struggling to agree on a name for their brand. James’ suggestion of ‘Popcorn, Popcorn’ is basically rubbish, rubbish. Haya’s ‘Medi-Culture Corn’ and ‘Mediterranean Popcorn’ are equally poor. And when they phone Zara for ideas, her ‘Mediterranean Fusion’ doesn’t help matters much. Oh dear.

Meanwhile, Harry M is still telling Harry H that he should reconsider his stance on Smoochies. You have to admire the former’s self-belief and unwillingness to just quietly back down, even if his negotiating technique is more akin to waterboarding. Eventually, with Harry H beginning to question his original decision slightly, he decided to consult with Lizzie, who says in no uncertain terms what she thinks of Smoochies. Empire State it is, then.

Now at the design agency, James and Haya have finally agreed on a brand name: La Popcorn. I think I preferred Popcorn, Popcorn. Nick Hewer is similarly unimpressed:

They chose Mediterranean. How do they express the Mediterranean? They express it by calling it ‘La Popcorn’ – ‘la’ being French for ‘the’. Is that Mediterranean? I don’t think so.

Haya’s design suggestions aren’t overly hot either. For their feta and olive flavoured variant, they have plain green packaging with a branch of olives dominating over a small bowl of popcorn so that you can barely tell what the product actually is. James puts his foot down and says he doesn’t like it. Haya feels he isn’t listening to her. He isn’t, but that’s partly because her suggested design looks terrible.

Maybe they’re being distracted by the Harrys’ continued bickering next door, which goes something like this:

Harry H: This looks fantastic!

Harry M: It’s rubbish. Let’s do Smoochies.

Harry H: Will you just stop sulking and shut up about Smoochies?

Harry M: I hate you. And, by the way, I’ve never liked your mother.

Harry H: Well, that’s just fine, because I’ve been shagging the postman anyway.

In fairness, Harry M does have some valid points, but the final design actually looks pretty decent – and a million times better than Kinetic’s. So it’s bound to be a winner, isn’t it? Right?

Pop-pitch

The following morning the teams take delivery of their finished products. Empire State, with its stars-and-stripes motif, looks the part. La Popcorn doesn’t.

They are now faced with the task of pitching to budget airline Jet2.com – by ‘budget’, I think they mean “only some of our planes actually have wings” – the Odeon cinema chain and Morrisons, the UK’s fourth-largest supermarket chain. As the narration helpfully informs us, these are “some of Britain’s biggest purveyors of popcorn”. Except for Jet2.com, that is, who don’t actually sell popcorn on their planes.

Atomic split the pitches between the three team members. Project manager Harry H takes Odeon. From what little we see of his presentation he seems to give his usual professional performance, although he admits afterwards he was nervous and that it hadn’t been his best effort. Lizzie takes the airline and also comes across well, dangling the carrot of an exclusive deal in front of them and fielding an awkward question about storage and transportation adroitly. Finally Harry M takes on Morrisons and again seems to come across well, with Harry H handling the Q&A well.

Zara led all three pitches for Kinetic (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Kinetic take the novel approach of having Zara do all three pitches. As ever, Zara carries herself confidently and articulately, although with her I always get the feeling I am listening to a talking car brochure, all full of airy promises rather than substance. The lady at the airline pitch comments that their feta and cheese popcorn tastes only of cheese, a statement which is so true in so many ways. At Odeon, Zara’s assertion that the name La Popcorn speaks for itself is met with a po-faced response which seems to say “well, quite”. And she blithely tells Morrisons they can expect to sell 200-300 packs per store per week, which is more than a little optimistic. However, the latter is an error of naivety rather than a truly bad mistake, and overall she performs exceptionally well. Even James is moved to congratulate her.

Pitches done, it’s back to London. It’s a tough call as to which team has done better, although as Harry H astutely notes it is Morrisons who are the most likely potential customer to place a big order.

Boardroom Brouhaha™

Back in the Boardroom, Sugar quizzes both teams on their performance. He queries Atomic’s choice of Empire State over Smoochies, saying he quite lacked the latter (which, I suspect, puts him very much in the minority). Lizzie is complemented on her pitch. Harry M’s persistence is noted in both a positive and a negative light. And Harry H displays the patience of a saint, biting his tongue and being even-handed and at times generous in his comments on his namesake.

For Kinetic, it is noted that Zara did not put herself forward as project manager, and that she also missed out on being involved in the creative side of the task, which should have suited her strengths. Sugar comments that La Popcorn was hardly an inspired choice of name. James explains that he wanted Zara to do all three pitches to ensure some consistency, a half-reasonable explanation which I don’t completely buy.

James became the only candidate to win twice as PM (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Anyway, after that pleasant pre-amble it’s on to the only thing that really matters: the results. There is little to separate the two teams at Odeon, from whom Kinetic gained an order for 15,000 units versus 10,000 for Atomic. The airline were not at all interested in La Popcorn, but ordered 50,000 of the Empire State products from Atomic. It looks good for Harry H’s team, but experienced viewers familiar with the formula will know that it is now a Statement of the Blahhdy Obvious™ that this isn’t the case. Sure enough, while Morrisons placed an order for 30,000 packs from Atomic, they wanted 100,000 from Kinetic, which means that James’ team win overall by 115,000 units to 90,000.

It is, to my eye at least, a minor travesty. Kinetic arguably had the edge in terms of presenting – although we saw so little of the pitches it is hard to be sure one way or the other – but they also had the inferior brand, inferior packaging and less viable flavours. I have no idea why Morrisons favoured them so strongly. It probably explains why I never shop in their stores too.

It is a tough result on Atomic, and Sugar has kind words to say as he dismisses the three members of the losing team. About Harry M, this year’s pantomime villain who finished with an unenviable 0-7 task record, he says:

I’ve never met somebody as unlucky as you because you did not deserve to not have a win under your belt.

And that is certainly true. Often abrasive and too cocksure of his own opinions, he had an entrepreneurial spark and eye for a sale which most of the others lacked.

Sugar tells Lizzie:

You are very straightforward, honest, straight-speaking, say it as it is, and don’t ever change from doing that.

Indeed she was, and it was to her credit that she was both hard-working and creative, and managed to be both forthright and yet seemingly well-liked by her fellow candidates.

As for long-time front-runner Harry H, he simply concluded:

You’ve just been a general all-round great performer.

I disagree with many of Sugar’s judgements, but not this one. If Harry H lacked one thing, it was a dash of flair. In every other respect he displayed maturity and all-round business skills beyond his tender years. A quite remarkable young man, and one who would have been a shoo-in for the final under other circumstances as the best overall candidate.

Three become two

Atomic are dismissed without so much as a trip to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™ and a final interview in the Riches-To-Rags Roller™, as Sugar moves on to the challenging task of deciding on his two finalists.

First he ponders the team’s lack of success pitching to the airline – to which Nick quickly jumps to Zara’s defence, saying she was terrific – and then the choice of flavours, which Zara herself defends by pointing out that they were successful elsewhere.

Haya was judged to be the weakest member of the winning team (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Sugar wonders aloud whether Zara is a bit aloof and unwilling to get her hands dirty. It occurs to me that getting one’s hands dirty is a less than desirable state to be in when working in a food factory, but I’ll let that go as it’s a reasonable concern. All through the tasks, Zara has shone when in her comfort zone of being creative or presenting, but I have often found myself asking what she actually contributes to tasks other than a few well-spoken soundbites.

Nonetheless, it is clear from all the scrutiny that Sugar is putting Zara under that she is indeed safe, and sure enough he puts her through to the final. And at that moment Haya’s fate is sealed. James, for all his out-of-control egomania in week one, has steadily improved throughout the tasks and was effectively secure the moment it was announced that his team had won. Haya’s out, with regret, and fully deserving of third place.

In the Riches-To-Rags Roller™, Haya reflects on her time on the programme:

I’m feeling very proud of myself because I’ve reached the semi-finals. I think I’ve achieved more in this seven weeks than in my 17 years. I’m just going to take away everything I’ve learned from this process.

So there we have it: it’s James versus Zara in next week’s final. I’m far from convinced they are the best two candidates overall – in my semi-final preview I had predicted a James versus Harry H final – but I’m happy that we had the right final six, who have all impressed in their own ways over the last seven weeks, and both finalists have at various times demonstrated the kind of entrepreneurial spark that Sugar is looking for in his Young Apprentice. Well done, not just to James and Zara, but to all six semi-finalists.

Next week: Some familiar faces return to support James and Zara as they go head-to-head in their final challenge – to produce a video game. Look out for the return of Mahamed and Lewis, among others. As this looks to be a creative and presentation task, I would have to make Zara the overall favourite now.

The final of Young Apprentice is on BBC1 next Monday at 9pm.

Link: BBC official website

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