Ah yes, The Apprentice. Even when my Significant Other fast-forwarded through the opening credits and I did the crossword (as opposed to muttering a few), I’d have guessed from some of the language drifting past. Branding, new, exciting, concept, yada yada. Surely not? I thought it was all about launching something that’s been around for ages in a paper bag with no words or pictures on it. Silly me. As the series has been desperately short on marketing and sales-focused tasks, this week they set out to create, brand and market biscuits. While I was musing that, in task competency terms, biscuits really were just like dog food, Susan was making a more literal comparison. Biscuits are just like cosmetics apparently: take a few ingredients, whizz ‘em together, nice box, job done. Custard Face-creams anyone? Maybe ‘chocolate hobnob’ actually is a skin condition and we’ve never realised before.
Some competitive hissing dealt with, two food industry gurus – Helen and Zoe – stepped up as PMs for the week. Grain-based confectionary fight at the OK Corral was duly lined up, as the teams pensively fingered the holsters of multi-chambered cliché-shooters at their executive hips. Anything half-baked, and someone was going to get (slam-)dunked. Nick’s facial contortions suggested a man undergoing strychnine poisoning, or a re-run of that scene from Alien. Maybe he had been at the product tasting?
Mostly, the candidates performed to type. Jim stole a brand-name from a small child and took the credit (even after telling the child he wouldn’t: a vital early lesson in marketing ethics delivered there). Melody sang her one-note samba, the lyrics consisted mostly of how brilliant her idea was and how much she didn’t like anyone else’s. Her way with interpretation of ‘market research’ is shaping up as impressively as her interpersonal skills. Susan was very random. Helen glided smoothly through everything as only a woman whose ‘cat’s backside’ lips have been glossed to perfection can confidently do. Tom was charming, wise, intelligent and too soggy for his own good. Natasha scowled a fair bit, and got told to shut up a fair bit. Zoe sounded like a woman whose will to live was trickling away. (If audience empathy was the deciding factor, Zoe would be walking this year’s series.)
Even Lordalun’s Assistants performed to type. Nick played a hybrid of an off-duty bishop discovering a font full of semtex and a heterosexual Frankie Howard, while Karren gave the impression that the BBC had had to edit out a lot of footage of her wetting herself laughing at the contestants. (Future task suggestions: trusses for the facially herniated older man and downloadable apps for hilarity-induced incontinence. The focus groups are ready and waiting, and I can’t wait to see the marketing pitches.)
The back-stabbing went up a few notches this week too. I’d always thought of biscuits as essentially cutlery free items, but the knives were very much out. Jim was the nicest, backhandedly liking Helen because she was so ‘passive’. Zoe thought Melody was a complete steam-roller, albeit possibly less capable of running a funfair. The most tactful comment was, however, delivered by Tom. Selling her role-play pitch idea to him in the ubiquitous taxi, Melody joked that they’d be lovers tomorrow. A gentleman would not have laughed quite so loud or quite so long. In the absence of anything savoury, Melody sucked lemons vigorously.
The result was a walkover. Helen’s team landed 800,000 units (if Asda got exclusivity on the back of the multi-million pound advertising campaign Jim had promised them: he’s obviously going to be flogging a lot of chips in the next couple of weeks), Zoe’s got zilch. They may have draped half their biscuit – a compromised affair that adapted Tom’s idea to incorporate Melody’s before the pouting reached intolerable levels – in chocolate, but their attempts to cover themselves in glory had landed entirely in the drip-tray. Zoe and Melody spat at each other in the boardroom, before Zoe caught a cab home – hopefully to something nicer than a plateful of Bix Mix. (At least it wasn’t Melody’s “biscuits are just like popcorn” creation, which looked like something a small child had concocted using marshmallows and cat litter – and had held as much appeal to the focus group.)
Melody stayed, with a remark from Karren post-verdict (and sans Melody) about how her tendency to wind up the others might need a watching eye. As remarks go, that deserved a glittering award for understatement. Tom, meanwhile, is now tarred with the brush of ‘hindsight man’. Oddly, His Sweetness’s put down summed up the programme rather than the contestant, when he delivered the damning verdict: “this is not a learning process”.
Well no, it isn’t. Despite the name (a point we’ve made before more than once), and despite the contestants’ desire to learn as they ‘progress’. And despite the role that constructive observational feedback and advice plays in any working situation – including assessment centres and recruitment exercises. There’s a good chance most of the contestants already knew how to say ‘balls’ in a pseudo-shocking way and how to bang on about the striving childhoods: Sugar is often mere sentences away from reciting Monty Python’s ‘we lived in cardboard box in t’middle of t’road’ sketch.
There’s an awful lot of post-mortem going on in this series, but precious little diagnosis. Given the epidemic of crass incompetence breaking out on most fronts, you’d think someone would want to do something pre-emptive to guard against complete farce. But then if what the customer – you, me, and poor old Steve, munching garibaldis on his Rotherham pouffe – wants is complete farce, that’s where the money lies. And in this game, it’s all about the bottom line. Digestive, anyone?