The Apprentice: Failing to dazzle in the land of vajazzle

So how do we get out of this warehouse again? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk) So how do we get out of this warehouse again? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

WARNING! Contains spoilers

In another reality TV mash-up, The Apprentice crossed swords with The Only Way Is Essex as the teams were given seed money to buy, sell and reinvest in the home of TOWIE, the show famous for bringing the art of vajazzle to a wider audience. (If you have to ask, just don’t.) Strategy – or the lack thereof – proved crucial, but Lord Sugar continued his record of never firing the losing project manager this season, instead making Azhar Siddique the seventh casualty of the boardroom.

So how do we get out of this warehouse again? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The biggest non-spoiler ever?

Stephen answers the phone this week. No one seems to care (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

It’s a quiet afternoon in the Apprenti-Mansion™, but even the Race to the Phone™ has been relegated to the interest levels of the Carling Cup, hosepipe bans and the latest series of Britain’s Got Talent. Stephen Brady shuffles disinterestedly over and answers it, informing the candidates of their destination: a wholesale warehouse in Essex. Gabrielle Omar notes that no losing project managers have been fired so far, while in the Apprenti-Carrier™ others comment that only Jade Nash has yet to lead a team. It’s the earliest, most obvious spoiler of this season so far – except it’s actually the biggest double-bluff yet.

At the warehouse, Sugar tells the teams how he started out just like this – because he hasn’t told us that before ever – and that they will each have £150 to invest in stock, the proceeds of which they will use to reinvest in more inventory to sell, and so on. You know, like a real business. At the end of the day, the team with the greatest total asset value – that is, cash in hand plus the wholesale value of their remaining stock – will be declared the winner. I’m a bit concerned this flummoxes a few of the candidates, who have only just grasped the idea of margin and to whom ‘asset value’ must seem like quantum mechanics. Only harder.

A second stint as PM for Nick – and a second win (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

After a couple of weeks of stability, Sugar pulls the old Apprenti-Team Shuffle™ to split up Stephen and Adam “even up the teams” by sending Stephen over to Sterling and Laura Hogg in the opposite direction, and drops a heavy hint that he expects candidates who have yet to lead to put themselves forward. While looking directly at Jade. And pointing a giant cardboard arrow at her. She duly volunteers to lead a Phoenix team of Adam ‘I’m Brilliant, Me’ CorballyAzhar ‘The Shorts’ Siddique, Tom Gearing and Laura Hogg. Meanwhile Nick Holzherr gets the nod as PM over Ricky ‘Even More Camp Than The Other Ricky Martin’ Martin and fellow Sterling teammates Gabrielle, Stephen and Jenna Whittingham.

Immediately it becomes obvious the two leaders have markedly different strategies: Nick has one, Jade doesn’t. Sterling are brisk, efficient, make sensible location choices and have a targeted product strategy. (Yes, this is still The Apprentice. I had to double-check too.) Phoenix spend forever squabbling about sites, leaving themselves to do a Supermarket Sweep-style dash grabbing products off shelves at random, with only Tom bothered about keeping track of the numbers.

So far, so predictable.

A game of three thirds

The following morning, both teams head out to set up shop. Sterling have shopping centre and market pitches in Romford, while Phoenix are at a mall in Ilford and the market in Pitsea, a considerable distance from the warehouse.

The day divides into three distinct parts: a morning phase split between the teams’ two sites, the afternoon where they reunite at their shopping centre pitches, and a final evening phase at the Lakeside super-mall, with restocking runs between them. The principle is straightforward enough. Even Jade can understand it:

I think the strategy is see what sells and then just buy more of it. Simple.

Was Azhar being paid every time he used the word ‘strategy’? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

But it’s not so simple that she can successfully stick to the plan, though. Having split stock evenly between her two sub-teams, Jade relies on Adam at Pitsea market. Not surprisingly, the market trader is quite good at market-trading. However, they’re soon out of stock, helped by some overly generous discounting – but a long way from their source of supply. Meanwhile in Ilford, Tom, Laura and Azhar struggle to sell their hotch-potch of items, but eventually discover their small toy bugs – or, as Jade previously described them, ‘vibrating novelty toys’ (get your mind out of the gutter there!) – sell like hot cakes. No, I don’t know why either. Bought at 60p each, they’re selling at up to £3 – a healthy margin. They want to focus solely on these, but Jade insists they should sell everything. (So the strategy was actually to see what sells and then just buy more of everything anyway. O-kaaay. Not so much simple as simpleton.) Such muddled leadership should have come as little surprise, though. The previous time they spoke to her, Azhar’s repeated requests for clarity on strategy was met by the response:

Our strategy is I’m leaving right now.

Sterling get off to a much better start, but their day is not without mishap either. Their sales strategy is clear from the outset: household goods at Romford market, beauty products in the shopping centre. At the former, Stephen and Ricky cobble together some patter about their extendable mop helping to solve Stephen’s back problems to pull in the punters. It’s enthusiastic, certainly, but like so many of Stephen’s ideas just seems a bit naff. I was half expecting a fat bloke and a thin bloke in bowler hats to suddenly appear chasing a runaway piano.

The arrival of rain finally dampens their efforts, and they offer to do a warehouse run for Nick’s mall team. With Gabrielle and beauty salon owner Jenna in particular going great guns selling their fake tan, they’re in need of topping up. As Nick Hewer observes, straight-faced:

We’re here at the shopping centre. 70% women. 70% Essex women. The fake tan is shifting very rapidly. Soon everybody in Essex will have one.

Who’d have thought it, eh? Nick sends Ricky and Stephen off to reinvest all their cash in the tanning spray, but the pair get stuck in traffic, leaving the rest of their team with nothing to sell for a long spell in the middle of the day. Oops. They do eventually return, having cleared the warehouse of their entire stock of fake tan, but Ricky is less than pleased to be despatched back to the warehouse later in preparation for their final push, having had limited opportunity for the adoring public to ‘witness The Fitness’ in full-on selling action.

It could be worse. At least they know what they have to do. As opposed to Phoenix, where both Azhar and Tom are becoming increasingly frustrated by Jade’s lack of direction. The best she can seemingly come up with is “It’s up to you how much you buy now”, which prompts the usually placid Tom to rage (well, slap down his pen in mild irk):

It’s not a strategy. It’s a bit like … nothing. She hasn’t thought about it, has she?

Indeed she hasn’t, Tom. In fact, it’s a lot like nothing.

Jenna utilised her beauty salon experience to drive sales of spray tan (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

For the final phase of the day, prime pitches have been laid on for both teams to ply their wares to late-night shoppers at the giant Lakeside mall in Thurrock. In many respects this is the most important part of the task, and unlike many Apprentice challenges it is not just about sales, sales, sales. I’ll come back to this later.

Jade’s ‘strategy’ it to tell her team to “just get rid of them” and “just do deals”, looking to win solely through sales. Nick adopts a more measured approach, keeping prices high and not discounting excessively. It means lower volume, but higher margins. It’s how a real business would operate. But, of course, whenever did real business sense ever impinge on the economic reality of The Apprentice?

Well, as it happens: here.

Boardroom brouhaha™

In the boardroom, even the previously upset Ricky acknowledges Nick worked with his team not against them. It’s credit which is fully earned. Despite an awkward grilling on why he insisted Ricky and Stephen headed straight from the market to the warehouse without transferring their stock over first – a blemish on an otherwise flawless performance – it’s clear the team are happy overall.

Jade did everything but fire herself, but somehow survived (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The same could not be less true for Jade. She sided with the equally impulsive Adam over the more thoughtful Azhar and Tom. If looks could kill, the sideways glance Azhar gives her across the boardroom table – and the subsequent bitch-off that ensues – would have required a coroner and a lot of industrial cleaner to get the blood stains out of the carpet.

The task result is inevitable, although closer than expected. Phoenix ended the day with £422.61 in cash and stock valued at £415.60, giving them assets of £838.21. Sterling, however, amassed £681.30 in cash plus £273.90 of inventory for a total value of £955.20. The margin of defeat – £117 – is closer than Jade had any right to expect.

Having started out the task with just £150, both teams have performed well, prompting Sugar to start speechifying about how this all shows people can start up businesses from scratch with no bank loans and without the aid of Powerpoint presentations and venture capitalists. And while that is true, forgive me for also pointing out that being handed rent-free selling space, having zero overheads and being followed around everywhere by a TV crew does help somewhat as well.

To be fair, this wholesale task is about as ‘real’ as any Apprentice task gets – even if that is still ‘not very’. But it does at least measure success by measuring the enterprise’s value as a going concern which, given some of the loopholes teams have driven Apprenti-Carrier™ sized vehicles through in recent weeks, can only be a good thing.

As a treat, Sterling are sent to a bar where the UK Bartender of the Year makes cocktails for them. (Was I the only one half-expecting it to be that utterly useless JJ from season three of The Restaurant?) Phoenix head to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™, where a mug of char with a splash of semi-skimmed is the most sophisticated cocktail they serve. Jade maintains they didn’t need a strategy, while Adam turns the whole affair into a commercial advertising how brilliant he is. No change there, then.

Tom’s ‘reward’ for being the most useful member of Jade’s team was a place in the final boardroom (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The subsequent boardroom paints Jade in a poor light, but not before Adam blots his copybook on an otherwise good week for him when he backs her up by agreeing that he doesn’t consider strategy to be important either. His project leader, however, proves to be surprisingly inarticulate (she blames Azhar for the unspecified crime of “causing a problem”) lacking in perception and utterly indecisive (“I don’t know who to choose”). She compounds her failings with repeated claims of not having heard Azhar say things that he clearly did, and on at least two occasions resorts to outright lying in a desperate attempt to save herself. And to put the cherry on the icing on the cake, she chooses to bring Azhar (no surprise) back in to face elimination along with … Tom, who shows remarkable restraint in questioning her judgement sanity by commenting “even though I made all the right decisions?” (Which he did.)

Jade’s only response is to mutter “Don’t worry” to him in a stage whisper, followed by an admission that “It was a mistake and I apologise.” Her only real defence of herself is a desperate claim that Sugar needs to see her business plan because:

My plan … will be a group of multi-million pound companies.

Which sounds rather a lot like Del-Boy’s ever-optimistic “This time next year, we’ll be millionaires!” or the sort of plot concocted by Dr Evil, does it not?

If Sugar had poured petrol over her and handed her a box of matches at this point, I’m pretty sure she would have lit the fire herself. As Apprentice boardroom performances go, I’m not sure I have ever seen such a dramatic case of self-immolation before. Whenever you’re in trouble, Don’t Try This In Real Business, Kids!™ Jade’s toast, and it looks like she knows it.

Except she isn’t. Despite Azhar making valid points about her lack of strategy and being out of her depth (both true) Sugar, after pausing only to tell Tom he is under no threat at all, speculates that he is the kind of person people don’t listen to, and who offers problems but not solutions (both heavily skewed half-truths). On that shaky rationale – and the fact he likes Jade’s enthusiasm – he directs the Digit of Doom™ at ‘The Shorts’.

Disappointingly, I was hoping the Groove Train would arrive to sweep Azhar away, but no, it’s just the usual Taxi to Obscurity™, where he says:

I do feel robbed. I was wrong to be fired, and I think Jade should definitely have been fired. I think she’s out of her depth. She had no strategy in place.

I think there’s people in this process who are playing a game, playing a strategic game, and I think they wanted me out of the process. They see me as a threat. They see me as one of the stronger candidates, and obviously they’ve got their way.

Decisions, decisions

I’m not going to get too much into whether Azhar deserved to stay. He had had a couple of good weeks, but my view of him was always influenced by a poor performance as project manager in the household gadget task, so I never really saw him as a favourite. I will say that Sugar’s reasons for firing him were hardly robust, though. Saying ‘people’ don’t listen to him when the people who most ignored him are the reckless Adam and Jade is a bit like criticising someone who condemns Adolf Hitler as ‘not being willing to give people a chance’.

What I will focus on briefly is some data given in the boardroom which underlined just how shallow Jade’s appreciation of the distinction between sales, profit and asset value were.

Sugar revealed the fast-selling spray tan product achieved an average selling price of £6.71 for Sterling, but only £3.50 for Phoenix – barely half. The product cost around £2 – let’s assume exactly £2 – meaning Sterling’s average profit per sale was £4.71, versus £1.50 for Phoenix, so their profit was less than one-third their rivals’. Of course, the upside to lower pricing is higher sales. (Economists call this ‘price elasticity’.) Let’s say that halving the price doubles sales, and I’ll demonstrate the impact below:

Measure for judging task Sterling Phoenix Winner
Sales 5 x 6.71 = 33.55 10 x 3.5 = 35.00 Phoenix
Profit 33.55 – 20 = 13.55 35 – 20 = 15.00 Phoenix
Asset 13.55 + (5 x 2.00) = 23.55 15 + 0 = 15.00 Sterling

In the table, both teams bought ten cans at £2 each, with Phoenix selling all ten and Sterling five. In the asset calculation, Sterling therefore have unsold assets (five cans) worth £10 – Phoenix have none. These figures, while hypothetical, demonstrate the real-life principle that if your business is a going concern, panic discounting can destroy value rather than add to it, even if you are still making some margin on sales – which was Jade’s justification. In a more standard Apprentice task where straight sales/profit is measured, Jade’s approach would have won. But in this asset-based assessment – which is closer to how real businesses are valued – her strategy (such as it was) was fundamentally flawed. On some level Nick understood this, as I suspect Tom also did. Jade did not, and neither would several of the others – certainly not Gabrielle, Adam or Jenny.

Here endeth the lesson …😉

In the fight for Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment, nine candidates remain. And, after that performance, absolutely none of them are afraid to be the losing project manager ever again.

Next week: The teams must organise the sale of urban art. Which, where I come from, we call ‘graffiti’.

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

Season 8 reviews

Preview

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