The Apprentice: What a load of rubbish (and other well-known expressions)

The Apprentice

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

After three weeks of getting used to selling rubbish and other cheap tat, the remaining 13 candidates on The Apprentice should have been well prepared for this week’s task of, well, buying rubbish and other cheap tat and then selling it as really expensive tat via the phenomenon known as ‘upcycling’ or, as it used to be called, ‘ripping people off’ by passing off mutton dressed as lamb.

While Phoenix’s minimalist strategy resulted in money for old rope, Sterling’s scattergun approach to buying stock and controlling costs resulted in a resounding defeat. Food manufacturer Jane McEvoy avoided the trash talk in the boardroom but was singled out for her poor sales performance, and found herself on the receiving end of Lord Sugar‘s Digit of Doom™ to become the fourth casualty of this year’s process.

Setting up shop

The candidates are enjoying a morning off at the Apprenti-Mansion™ with a game of ping-pong when – completely out of the blue – the Bat-phone rings. Azhar Siddique wins the Race to the Phone™ – pretty much the only thing he does in this episode – and informs the others that they will be heading by Apprenti-Carrier™ to the Old Cinema in Chiswick. There Lord Sugar informs them that this week’s Bargain Hunt is to take £1,000 in seed money and source second-hand stock to sell to the public from a shop in trendy Brick Lane, which Nick Hewer sums up as “home to the young trendy with the gelled hair”.

There was a similar rubbish-based task last season which saw the end of Edna Agbarha – you remember, the one with those gloves – and one of the best lines of any Apprentice season, courtesy of Natasha Scribbins:

Melody just turned to me and just basically got a big plate of blame and went “There you go. Fancy a bite?”

Although last year’s task did not involve selling direct to consumers. I wonder if the producers had just watched Harry Enfield when they were creating this week’s challenge:

Anyhow, before Sugar sends the teams on their way he makes a somewhat gratuitous Apprenti-Team Shuffle™, moving Ricky ‘Even More Camp Than The Other Ricky Martin’ Martin to Sterling and Jade Nash to Phoenix.

Shrill-voiced Jenna Whittingham is immediately full of – literally – rubbish ideas:

If we can buy a bin, we can funk it up to be a funky bin.

O-kaaay.

Tom's clear strategy helped guide Phoenix back to winning ways (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The teams select project managers. Last week’s win prompts Duane Bryan to volunteer to lead Sterling again, while Laura Hogg also puts herself forward on the basis that she has already set up her own retail unit. Duane calls for a show of hands, and you can all but see the blowing tumbleweed as absolutely no one votes for him. Crestfallen, he concedes the PM role to Laura.

For Phoenix, wine investor Tom Gearing steps up to the mark and it immediately becomes clear he has a sensible and well-defined strategy, which of course means that half his team disagree with it. His plan is to restrict the number of items they buy and keep costs under tight control. Immediately Katie Wright the (Not So) Silent Assassin declares herself unimpressed, while market trader Adam ‘I’m Brilliant, Me’ Corbally just wants to stock-pile as much junk as he can.

Laura’s strategy is notable by its absence, although Ricky does his best to sum it up by saying:

We’re selling crap and turning it into style.

Well, I agree with the first part of that statement, at least.

A better week for Adam, who sourced products well (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Tom sends his best negotiators – Adam, Katie and Stephen Brady – out to source products. Having been given a tight budget of £200, they struggle to buy just three items at a Greenwich auction house, although Adam enterprisingly picks a few hidden gems – and probably a few hidden germs too – out of their bins. They supplement their meagre start with a visit to a South London junk shop, where Stephen rummages in the back room, picks out some choice items which the owner later dismisses as a “pile of junk” – it’s a junk shop, what else is it going to be?!? – and negotiates him right down on price.

Meanwhile Tom, Jade and Azhar go to a car boot sale where they break a glass photo frame and scarper pretty sharpish and sheepishly. Not until later in the day does it fully dawn on them that their shop is very big – and their stock is very limited. But Tom seems happy with his minimalist approach, and with some justification. He has kept costs well under control, can present his shop as a chic little boutique and, perhaps most importantly, he seems to have realised that this is one of those rare tasks where the teams don’t have to buy all their stock in one go – they can always go out for more tomorrow.

Over at Sterling, Laura leads a sub-team with Duane and Ricky, with the opposite aim of recreating the EU junk mountain (otherwise known as the contents of my garage). They raid a junk shop in Tooting, a house clearance in North London and the bins at McDonald’s. (Okay, not that last one.) It is at the house clearance where a slightly too sure of himself Duane declares:

There is a well-known expression. Don’t look a gift-horse in the eye.

Er.

Gabrielle's motto on this task seemed to be 'spend, spend, spend!' (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Gabrielle Omar is left in charge of creative design, with a view to refurbishing or ‘upcycling’ several of their items. With the kind of joy that only an architect with no budget limit can exhibit, she immediately starts ordering large quantities of all sorts of materials to paint Union Jacks on their furniture and generally create ‘shabby chic’. Again, I suspect the actual effect achieved was more shabby than chic, but the end result is okay even if the idea of using the Union Jack as a logo is perhaps a bit misguided in one of the most multicultural parts of London.

After a long evening of sanding and painting, she finally gets her nails finished the team end up with what can only be described with a retail unit which looks suspiciously like, well, a junk shop. I’m not really sure that was the desired effect.

Nick’s U-turn

The following morning both shops open for business. Phoenix’s Retro Station is open early and soon drums up a brisk trade. For all Adam’s earlier sniping about Tom’s strategy, it is clear his sub-team did a good job sourcing saleable products. The down-side, of course, is that they are soon running low on stock. As Nick notes:

There’s a difference between minimalism and emptiness.

However, the solution is simple, as Tom sends the sub-team out to procure more stock, armed with the additional first-hand insight of knowing what types of products sell. As more product arrives and continues to sell, Nick is forced to back-track on his earlier criticism:

They’re doing well. I may well have sneered a little bit yesterday and I apologise because I thought their product selection was poor. What do I know?

Jane's selling approach veered from desperate to aggressive (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

If you hadn’t already guessed by this point, this makes it abundantly clear which team is destined to win. If Phoenix were headed for defeat, would we have seen this comment in the broadcast edit? Of course not.

Sterling’s Vintage Gold is late in opening up for business – not a fatal issue, as trade is usually slower early in the day anyway – but looks generally haphazard despite Gabrielle’s attempts at creating a visual identity. It’s clear that the team had no real vision of what they wanted to sell or how they wanted the shop to look. Consequently, it’s a bit of a mess. Nonetheless, they too sell well, although they have an awful lot of stock to shift – over 200 items, to Tom’s 50. And Jane ‘Let’s Sell A Million’ McEvoy‘s sales approach leaves something to be desired, making an army drill sergeant look positively empathetic by comparison. As an instructional case in how not to sell, it definitely falls into the Don’t Try This In Real Business, Kids!™ category.

Boardroom brouhaha™

Task over, everyone agrees that both project managers were good and well-liked, with Tom receiving praise for his clear strategy. As for the results, Phoenix made sales of £1,423.50 and spent just £360.10, adding up to a profit of £1,063.40 – impressive stuff. Sterling sold a shade more at £1,444.25, but thanks to their focus on buying materials to upcycle their products their costs ran to £660.76. Consequently, their profit was just £738.49 – hardly poor, but £280 short of their rivals.

Phoenix’s treat is a 1940s vintage party where they are taught to swing dance. Sterling are, of course, sent to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™ for their post-mortem where they try to figure out who will be left swinging in the wind.

Back in the boardroom, it is revealed that £232 – more than one-third – of Sterling’s total expenditure was on purchasing materials for upcycling, for which Gabrielle is squarely blamed. As Karren Brady points out:

When you had the list [of materials to buy], you were a bit like kids in a sweet shop. None of you actually knew how much you had spent.

Laura accuses Gabrielle of buying far more material than they needed, but in return she is accused of setting no clear strategy, budget or vision in terms of store presentation. As Sugar himself observes:

You bought a lot of stuff and the shop looked like a tip.

A lucky escape for Laura? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Jane then finds herself drawn into danger when it is revealed that she sold just £10 on the day, compared with £414 for Gabrielle and £407 for Jenna. Consequently it’s no surprise when Laura opts to bring Gabrielle and Jane back in with her. Fighting for their lives, Laura and Gabrielle focus on knocking lumps out of each other while Jane sits quietly by, apparently confident that she doesn’t need to defend herself against the two of them. This view seems to be backed up when Laura and Gabrielle both state that the other should be fired.

Sugar, however, sees things differently. He acknowledges that Laura just didn’t seem to get the plot and that Gabrielle spent way too much. But he likes the latter’s enthusiasm and willingness to at least take responsibility and try something, which is a fair point. Ultimately, after the by now all too predictable fake-out in which he shapes up to fire Laura, he decides that Jane has failed to live up to the promise of her impressive CV. She’s fired.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™ a tearful Jane says:

Lord Sugar mightn’t have wanted me but I will be extremely successful in everything that I do. And hopefully in a few years’ time he’ll look back and say I shouldn’t have fired her.

Was Sugar right to fire Jane? Both he and Karren were right to characterise her time in the process as having shown them nothing exceptional, other than a wild sense of ambition for thinking she could sell a million units of a one-off product to Amazon in one order. And she had certainly not impressed with her poor grasp of numbers, poor sales technique and tendency to rub teammates up the wrong way. But she certainly possessed lots of energy, drive and the persistence to go after opportunities. As the MD of her own company, she can leave an accountant to take care of the numbers, a sales manager to deal with sales and, while nice to have, it’s hardly necessary for the big boss to be popular as long as they get the job done. Most truly successful CEOs, whether it is Sugar, Branson or the late Steve Jobs, have reputations for being hard bastards who don’t conform to ‘reasonable’ modes of behaviour. There’s no reason to doubt Jane’s ability to do well with her own business – but her performances in the tasks were largely quite poor.

As for the two who got away, the jury is very much out on Laura. She gets on well with people, but can she lead and inspire? Not on the basis of this task. And Gabrielle certainly offers a different, more creative option, but although her upcycling ideas here were fundamentally sound, I still have questions about her lack of commercial nous. Again and again, we have seen her look worrying naive when it comes to costings and numbers. She’s certainly no finance guru, but could she have an investable idea? Time will tell.

Anyway, four weeks in, here’s my current view as to who the favourites, dark horses and no-hopers are:

Favourites: Duane, Jade, Nick, Tom

Dark horses: Gabrielle, Jenna, Katie, Ricky

No-hopers: Adam, Azhar, Laura, Stephen

In the fight for Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment, 12 candidates remain. But none of them will ever sell a million units in one order to Amazon, will they?

Next week: The teams are tasked to come up with a new fitness programme. It’s survival of the fittest, but who will prove to be more excess fat than fit for purpose?

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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