Pet food. On The Apprentice? Uh-oh, here we go. Proudly going for the obvious, the jokes about dogs’ dinners and making a meal of it all got wheeled out early on, when saving them for later might have given the episode a sense of anticipation (and helped those playing buzzword bingo drinking games stay … er, focused.) No one said anything I recall about never working with children or animals, or even with star-struck men with autobiographies to sell or Vice Chairs of recently relegated footie teams, but ‘sharp’ in this arena tends to be an attribute of ties or creases rather than minds. Another open goal was missing as no-one uttered the word ‘tripe’. But this wasn’t business about numbers so much as business by numbers. Any self-awareness having been left on the editing suite floor (if it were ever present), many of our thrusting young things ladled on the jargon oblivious of the way speaking in Three Letter Acronyms makes you sound like an Assistant Regional Sales Executive. (This week’s task is to work that one out for yourselves, btw.)

Everything continued to be ‘bold’, ‘strategic’ and ‘passionate’, but I was left remembering an old Pretenders song:

I remember the way he groaned
Moved with an animal skill
I rubbed my face in the sweat that ran down his chest
It was all very run of the mill.”

An old Graham Parker song – Passion Is No Ordinary Word – also danced briefly through my frontal cortex. Old punk songs that show my age, maybe, but songs from an era when music was responding to a period of cultural stultification. My middle-aged heart yearned for something as energising as vital. God alone knows how Mythical Steve, stuck on his sofa in Rotherham (remember him?), was doing: I prayed for him that he wasn’t watching this sober.

Meanwhile, the cabaret continued. In one recording studio, a man was literally – and unusually for The Apprentice I literally mean literally – barking. In another, a man played Glamour Puss, a fictional she cat. He was supposed (I think) to sound like Fenella Fielding, but actually sounded like a hybrid of Cruella de Vil and Edna Mode, the cartoon fashion designer from The Incredibles. Still, some of the little furry critters were quite cute. (Especially Jim, judging by viewers’ comments in some of the more ‘tabloid’ areas of the Interweb.)

The problem here is format. Pet food aside, something based so heavily on Sugar is inevitably a confection. (The irony of his name persists: the predominant flavour here is bullshit soufflé – not an enticing dish, and one that could do with a bit of sweetness to make it palatable.) The tasks are mostly variations on each other, and they arrive pre-set. Surely an entrepreneur – and these are potential business partners, not employees – leads rather than reacts? Why not set them a real challenge? Let them set the task. A single task, related to their own company. We then get to assess how well they can explain their own business, operations and model to others (ie can they convey the vision), how well the others grasp it (can they adapt to new challenges and circumstances), and how they operate on their own turf. In real life – something far removed from the programme – Sugar no more controls the business environment than his partner-to-be, so why let him do so here? Aren’t assessment centres supposed to give you meaningful information to act on? (And aren’t they supposed to last something slightly less than 13 bloody weeks?)

Sugar – and us, though God forbid we have to undergo 16 weeks of it – can then analyse and observe performance in a situation where the candidate is helping to call their own shots while wrestling with the responsibilities of real ownership. It’s a bit more realistic than ‘I want a specialist product, with research, and the branding and the marketing in three days’, isn’t it? Business isn’t an episode of Challenge Anneka (see, told you I was old) or a version of It’s A Knockout conducted entirely in formal daywear.

Out here in reality, you don’t hire telecom salesmen and recruitment executives to formulate dog food. You also conduct product development testing as well as market research. You don’t delve into the details of production: you hire operations managers or outsource. Who cares how many oranges Glen can squeeze in an hour? It’s how good he is at managing the person who manages the orange squeezers that matters, isn’t it? If orange juice was actually the right decision in the first place, of course.

As it stands, The Apprentice is as confused as a programme as its candidates are as individuals. Given that Lord Sugar starts each episode with the incomprehensible words “do you have the balls to actually smell what’s going on in business?”, I guess this is hardly surprising. As the Offices.org.uk blog commented on this inexplicable linguistic/anatomical quirk in reviewing Episode 3:

I have no idea what this phrase actually means, but it has given me a rather unsavoury image involving mozzarella, jock straps, wheelie chairs and a nailbrush.”

The working model – to use English as sharply and critically as our Hero – appears to be a) find 16 sales people b) tell then you’re not looking for sales people c) create a programme that makes them look stupid, even when some of them possibly aren’t, d) act grumpy and insult them before firing someone. (This week, two people, reviving a twist already familiar from earlier series.)

I get the whole ‘entertainment, entertainment, entertainment’ thing in terms of getting me and Poor Old Steve to watch this and ‘learn’, but I’m not getting a lot of entertainment. I’m laughing at this – well, after a fashion – rather than with it. And it’s making me wonder quite what Sugar’s own brand positioning is: selling yourself short (no offence meant) to about 7m people a week is as odd as keeping your olfactory organ in your lap.

I know enough about marketing to understand the Boston Matrix, and enough to identify The Apprentice as a Cash Cow. (That explains the lingering whiff then …) I saw a lot of Dogs last night, and a few Problem Children. I’m still searching for future Stars every bit as much as Lord Alan, but I think I might do something other than follow my nose on this one …

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