The Apprentice: Bear-faced cheek wins the day

In the real world, quality matters. At the least, products must be of an acceptable standard or else customers will never return to buy again. Of course, this is The Apprentice, which is nothing like the real world. In this rarefied atmosphere, all that matters is taking the punters’ money and running. Which is why shoddy products which are unfit for purpose will always win over beautifully designed alternatives.

So it should come as no surprise how the opening task of season eight of the show turned out. Bear-faced cheek triumphed over superior design and loud-mouthed Bilyana Apostolova found herself silenced by the only voice that matters: that of Alan Sugar.

Let’s meet the candidates

As ever, we hit the ground running as we are bombarded with an array of boastful soundbites from the candidates in the opening minutes. My favourites:

Ricky Martin, a recruitment manager and professional wrestler who bears a passing resemblance to a pre-Strictly Darren Gough:

When it comes to business I’m like a shark. I’m right at the top of the food chain. I truly am the reflection of perfection.

Er, aren’t humans rather than sharks at the top of the food chain?

Azhar Siddique, the founder of a catering and refrigeration company who owns two pet sharks (neither of them Ricky):

They call me the master puppeteer because I have a habit of pulling people’s strings.

Has he been taking lessons from ‘Jedi’ Jim Eastwood?

Katie Wright, an editorial and research director who supports Fulham:

I would call myself ‘The Blonde Assassin’. I let people underestimate me just so I can blow them out of the water.

And finally Stephen Brady, a sales manager who once played in the FA Cup as a semi-professional footballer (sorry, Katie, not for Fulham):

I do believe business is actually very, very simple, and it is made complicated by idiots.

Well … you can fill in the blank yourself, can’t you?

As the saying goes, first impressions count. And Maria O’Connor in particular stands out in the boardroom, not so much due to her bold purple dress but because she is wearing (too much) matching eye-shadow to go with it. It’s dressing to impress, if you call dressing as Violet Beauregard’s big sister impressive, that is.

Day 1: The great design versus finance debate

Ricky underestimates the size of his and his rivals' egos (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Anyhow, enough frivolity. The Baron of Clapton gruffly informs the candidates he’s looking for a business partner, not a friend. (Who needs friends when you have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, eh?) He then sets them their initial task. The teams – boys versus girls – must design and manufacture their own custom-print products and then sell them to an unsuspecting public. (Or as unsuspecting as the public can be when greeted by eight business-suited people being followed around by a full camera crew.) The team which makes the bigger profit wins.

The candidates are dispatched forthwith via Apprenti-Carrier™ to their new digs. En route they pass the time with the usual game of My-Business-Is-Better-Than-Your-Business-Na-Na-Na-Na-Naaaah™ (available in all good toy stores for Christmas). I’ll see your bridal boutique (Laura Hogg) and raise you a fine wine company (Tom Gearing) …

Arriving at the new Apprenti-Mansion™ – which comes complete with swimming pool, spiral staircase and, er, table-tennis table (because nothing oozes money like a game of ping-pong) – Ricky comments:

Big enough to fit all our egos in, that’s for sure.

Oh, if only that were true, Ricky. If only thay were true.

Nick was the only boy willing to stick his neck out as PM (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The teams quickly agree on disappointingly sensible team names. Stephen’s suggestion of Phoenix is adopted by the boys, while the girls opt for Jenna Whittingham‘s Sterling, which she claims came to her in a dream the previous night (along with the spirit of her dearly departed grandmother, Abraham Lincoln and the career of original X-Factor winner Steve Brookstein). The boys are less keen to volunteer themselves as project manager, however, until baby-faced Nick Holzherr says he’ll do it if no one else will – at which point the other seven all take two rapid steps backwards. It’s easier over on Sterling, where architect Gabrielle Omar, who has just conveniently opened up a print and design store, is happy to take on the leadership role.

Nick and Gabrielle immediately adopt diametrically opposed approaches to the task. The creative Gabrielle focuses wholly on design, ignoring all other business basics like volumes and costings. Nick, who by his own admission thinks like an Excel spreadsheet, is all over the numbers and seemingly unconcerned with design.

Jade produced what should have been a winning design. Except it didn't actually win (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

So while Gabrielle is fawning over Jade Nash‘s stylish child-targeted sketches, her sub-team led by Jane McEvoy is screaming out for direction as to how much product to buy. By comparison, while Nick is working out his margins and selling prices, his team leaves the thought of designs until the final half-hour of the day, at which point they start trotting out cliched images of Union Jack teddy bears and London phone boxes, buses and taxis under the unfeasibly lame logo ‘This is a …’, prompting Duane Bryan to sarcastically note their out-of-the-box thinking.

Hey, guys, see that black cab? This is a Taxi to Obscurity™.

Having struggled earlier, Gabrielle comes into her own later when it comes to screen-printing their products. The boys’ attempts are, well, appalling. Their bags look like they have been printed by Jackson Pollock. In the dark. While wearing thick industrial gloves. After ten pints. Pollock Bollocks™, if you will.

So, great-looking, well-designed products versus cheap, sub-standard tat. Being The Apprentice, there can only be one winner, right? After all, Sugar didn’t make his name selling high-end premium products.

Day 2: Phoenix show bear-faced cheek

The next day, the boys set up a fixed stall on the South Bank while half the team go to St Pancras to sell. Nick wants to sell their teddy bears to tourists for £15, Stephen tries to take over and push the price down to £12 but Nick eventually sticks to his guns. A wise move: all other things being equal, selling tasks are won by the team bold enough to price up and then gradually come down as the day progresses.

Which is exactly what Phoenix do as morning turns to afternoon and their deadline looms. Prices are dropped, product is shifted, and Azhar successfully sells a bulk load of bags onto a nearby shop-owner. A moment of triumph which soon turns to disaster when they are forced to give a refund once the customer realises she has been sold a load of Pollock Bollocks™. Nice try, no cigar.

Day 2: Sterling shout a lot

The girls’ permanent pitch is at Greenwich Market, with their mobile team dispatched right across town to London Zoo. Risk analyst Bilyana Apostolova sensibly mentions that it is at least an hour’s drive, but Jane and Laura want to spend time custom-printing zoo-specific items. They eventually leave – and get stuck in traffic. D’oh. And then when they arrive Bilyana shows what a team player she is by hogging all the customers.

The Greenwich half of the team is shifting stock like hot cakes, though, prompting Nick Hewer to compliment Jade’s design, which he describes as:

A lion, a tiger and in between them a very worried-looking penguin.

Was I the only one who wondered whether the three animals were meant in some way to subconsciously represent the boardroom trio of Hewer, Sugar and Karren Brady? And what would Sugar have made of being equated to a worried-looking penguin? I’m just saying.

With zoo sales tailing off late in the afternoon, Bilyana uses her local knowledge to track down the nearest shop for her sub-team to offload their excess stock on. 850 miles on foot and three passport controls later, they find one. The girls come up with a unique approach to selling here: badger the poor assistant by all talking to her simultaneously in increasingly loud and shrill voices until she’s on the verge of tears. Strangely, it doesn’t work – and earns them a deserved dressing-down from the shop-owner. Oh dear.

Boardroom brouhaha™

It's a canape. Honest

And so to the boardroom, where after some light verbal sparring it’s down to the results. Nick informs us that Sterling managed £690.60 in sales at a cost of £475.80, meaning they made a profit of £214.80. But Karren reveals that Phoenix sold a whopping £1,015.60 and only spent £399.40, resulting in a profit of £616.20 – nearly three times as much as the girls. It’s a crushing victory, as yet again tat beats quality on The Apprentice. That’s right, kids: never mind the quality, just sell whatever you can get away with and then run away very fast.

So the boys get a treat of cocktails and funky art-inspired canapés – that’s paste on tiles in the style of Piet Mondrian, art lovers – while the girls get to make the trip to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™ where Bilyana seems intent on blaming everyone else (but particularly Gabrielle) for everything:

I’m not speaking. I’m shouting now!

Gabrielle lost the task, but survived the boardroom (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Back in the boardroom, the knives are initially out for Gabrielle. She had no strategy. She took too long to make decisions. But Bilyana, who has clearly not won many friends over the course of the task, also takes some collateral damage. Referring to her day job as a risk analyst for a finance company, Maria ‘Purple Eye-Shadow’ O’Connor wonders why she didn’t offer to help with the financial calculations, while Jenna questions why she didn’t point out the risks in their strategy at the time.

Meanwhile Katie is coming across as more of a silent victim than her self-proclaimed ‘Blonde Assassin’. Her claims of being a fantastic team player are met with snorts of derision and questions over whether she actually contributed anything to the task. It doesn’t play well with Sugar, who reminds her what fate historically befalls candidates who take a back seat.

It comes as no surprise that Gabrielle chooses to bring Bilyana and Katie back in with her. Gabrielle blows up at Bilyana. Sugar lays into Katie for her quietness and lack of contribution. He initially looks set to offer Bilyana a way out, opining that the others may have ganged up on her as a scapegoat, which leads her to claim that she wasn’t as loud as some of the other girls – I’ve been to concerts that haven’t been as loud as Bilyana – as well as:

Whatever I get my hands on, I have an impact.

The same can be said of nitroglycerine.

Katie can consider herself fortunate to have survived (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Despite her outburst, Gabrielle – unusually for a first-task losing PM – has clearly done enough to evade Sugar’s Digit of Doom™, which leaves a toss-up between the chalk-and-cheese Bilyana and Katie. One (Bilyana) is a classic Apprentice stereotype: the candidate who doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut, to the extent that she contradicts and interrupts Sugar on several occasions in the boardroom (always a no-no). The other (Katie) is the converse archetype: the candidate who needs to stop keeping her mouth shut. It looks as if Sugar is shaping up to fire Katie, but as he sums up Bilyana again interrupts him, twice – once to try to make a point and then to beg him to let her stay. Is it enough to make Sugar change his mind, or was he always going to fire Bilyana anyway? Either way, it is the Bulgarian-born candidate who becomes the first recipient of the dreaded Digit of Doom™, joining such illustrious alumni as Dan ‘Who is doing the mincing?’ Harris and Edward ‘Roll with the punches’ Hunter as first out of the door.

So, coming to a badly printed T-shirt near you soon, it’s a Taxi to Obscurity™ for Bilyana. She feels suitably wronged:

I feel the decision wasn’t fair and I don’t think that my performance cost us the task. I think Gabrielle deserved to be fired more than me. But my business plan is excellent, so I’ll just move on straight away.

Bilyana talked herself into trouble, rather than out of it (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

To an extent, Bilyana had a point. There is no one clear thing she did which caused the team to lose the task, other than her determination to hog the selling limelight and generally being a disruptive influence. But equally she offered little in the way of positive contribution, choosing instead to bitch and snipe from the sidelines.

She also directed her venom at the wrong person. Gabrielle made a bad error by not focussing on the team’s financials – or at least not delegating it to someone else. It also appeared her team got their pricing strategy wrong throughout the day. I suspect there was a combination of not marking up their products high enough initially, and then not dropping prices far enough soon enough such that they were saddled with 40% of their stock at the end of the task. But she also got the design and operations aspects of the task right – something which Sugar complimented the team on in the boardroom. The signals were there – Bilyana should have attacked Katie, who was a sitting duck.

Katie knew it too, as she confessed to Gabrielle in the car on the way back to the Apprenti-Mansion™:

Bilyana did me the biggest favour in the world because she buried herself. I owe her a drink, to be honest.

Even so, the score after round one is: Blonde Silent Assaasin 1 Opponents 0.

15 candidates remain. The fight for Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment has begun.

Next week: The teams must design a new gadget. One of the teams comes up with a rubbish bin. As punning opportunities go, it’s a good ‘un …

The Apprentice continues on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC1. Companion programme The Apprentice: You’re Fired! airs immediately afterwards at 10pm on BBC2.

Link: BBC official website

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