May 2012


We’ve introduced you to the runners and riders for this penultimate hurdles challenge of the season, and let you review their form in the paddock. So let’s get the cameras rolling and take you to West London for the Burlington Arcade Handicap Chase. And who better to set the scene than contemporary business’ very own Burlington Bertie from Bow? Lord Sugar, for it is he, sets up the challenge to create affordable luxury items. Roll up, roll up, get yer entrepreneurs ‘ere, ladies and gentlemen. (One of the candidates makes a remark about the final heat being the one to sort the men from the boys. I’d man up if I were you, Jade. Or cuff someone.)

The trick of the task is presumably in the non-sequitor. Charged with creating the product, the branding, a retail environment and an industry experts pitch, market positioning and retail strategy will be critically important here. Not so much as little nuggets of poshness for poorer people, but more as the kind of pampering items that still sell even in hard times. (The BBC has presumably slipped up somewhere on the socio-economic inequality indicators, but we’ll let it pass.)

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I’m not sure about this additional episode. In one way, it’s the Personal Statement section of the application form, where we get to understand their individual drivers and see their pitch in terms of strengths. It also provides Karren and Nick – who, we should attempt to remember, are the two people who have actually witnessed and observed the participants over the long string of tasks they’ve completed. (Lord Sugar’s acquaintance with them is limited to task-setting cameos, a quick game of whiff-whaff one afternoon and the Boardroom session, which focus mostly on the losers.)

In televisual terms – and for televisual reasons – it’s also the sob story/background bit. Is this supplementary information that you’d normally welcome in a recruitment process, or sentimental special pleading masquerading as light entertainment? This is the kind of material that’s usually filler in X Factor, surely? If this was Big Brother, a cartoon Geordie would announce at this point that “You decide”.

But we don’t. Lord Alan, Nick and Karren decide, and we don’t know if they even care that so and so loves his Mum or comes from good stock. After all, so do – in their different ways – Edward VIII and bowls of dripping. I’m not sure I’d want to invest in either. What really drives them? It’s too easy and tempting to say “A cab, with luck”, but here is a summary of the runners and riders for the semi-final.

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Last week’s episode engineered a cliff hanger, which saw Stephen escape Lord Sugar’s laser-guided firing finger by millimetres. This week, he’s parlayed his way into being PM whatever the task, and winning. Assessed on past performance, he’s left himself no option but to polish his petard until it’s as blindingly shiny as his suits and pray that he’s not hoisted aloft on it like a white flag. If there’s any justice, he’ll address a few other points too: dealing with his five o’clock shadow (fine at 5pm, but all day?), curb his patronising approach to the others (and especially the female others – let’s hope Karren is taking notes), and start taking responsibility rather than directing to others the moment anything as much as threatens to turn nipples-skyward. Last week, he had what we can assume was his first real close shave, and was only spared a free cab home by the thickness of his faux mohair waistcoat.

This week, regardless of the task, it’s his own brand that sorely needs a 24-hour makeover and a drastic repositioning. So it’s very tense on my sofa this week. Not only I am missing Lewis for this, I now realise I’m also missing the final series of A Town Called Eureka. Dramatic tension, complex problems to unravel, radical innovation, rendering of justice – and all of it on other channels.

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Even the continuity girl was ready with the puns this week, and the programme hadn’t even started. The remaining up and coming geniuses of British Enterprise were going to raise awareness of British wine, so out came the phrases – corker of an episode, bursting bubbles, fizzing. For pity’s sake people, I’m missing Lewis for this, and that has moments of genuine suspense. And ad breaks. Still, let’s see what sells, eh? The market’s never wrong: tamagotchi, Justin Bieber, Greece …

We start in the Champagne Bar at St Pancras at 6.30am. On the way there in the cab, Ricky is already giving it 110% with the verbals, while Gab and Tom look like they want to kill someone. Possibly Ricky. Lordalan sets the scene by plugging the quality of English Sparkling Wine. In truth, he’s right: it really has won several credible international wine awards. But it’s up against the brand awareness of champagne, and it sorely needs public awareness of its competitive quality. The task is to prepare a website and video as an online ad. Although, perhaps with an unspoken nod to the emergence of technocratic administrations as a solution to crisis, this week’s task will be judged on the basis of the inputs of an industry expert panel. The horse may be dead, but at least they’re not flogging it for once.

I’ve approved of this method of judging in the past, not least because it allows the candidates to receive feedback – albeit partly indirectly – from the task’s client: the element of learning – which should be central to the concept of ‘apprentice’ – is momentarily restored. And the client quite possibly learns something about providing constructive feedback in challenging circumstances. But the actual tasks beg the question as to whether Lordalan is searching for a business partner or a PR trainee, even if they do move us on slightly from scoring people on their ability to punt tat.

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Last Friday’s Independent ran an article with a headline that raised both my hackles and my eyebrows. I speak – and react – as both a foodie and very much a ‘non-Econ’, as anyone who saw my reaction to Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge may remember. The article’s title? Eat like an economist, dine like a king. Despite having a day off at the time – when you’d imagine I’d respond like a foodie – I responded like a non-Econ. Three assumptions were immediately triggered:

  • They’re talking about dining on expenses, right?
  • Do they mean ‘dine alone’, but they’re too embarrassed to say so?
  • Do they want me to recall that bit in Nudge about a drinks party organised on strict economic principles? Because I don’t …

In the event, the article was really nothing of the sort. It was plugging a book – Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Gets Lunch – that the journalist had chosen to present as applying “an economist’s cold logic to the world of food”. Mr Cowen may be a professor of the dismal science, but he also writes a foodie blog, and reading around the reviews – no, I’ve not bothered with the book – I get the feeling the foodie in him generated the desire for a book that the economist in him has found a way to pitch.

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Something a little different this week. No whiff-whaff or studied loafing in casual attire for starters: we’re back to the 6am call, inexplicably answered by someone fully dressed, and they’re whisked off to Waterloo Station. Sadly, they’re not asked to meet Lord Alan under the clock with the rolled Telegraph, red carnation and half-chewed wasp. Instead, he appears on a huge flatscreen in a basement tunnel, grinning unusually. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be disturbing, but it looks like Sid James appearing in a version of Orwell’s 1984. Perhaps he’s smiling because he could pre-shoot, rather than hanging about at Waterloo at that time of day with this lot. That would be understandable.

Anyway, this time the teams will be picking two urban artists to represent in cutting edge galleries – which turns out to mean Brick Lane again (presumably Whitechapel Gallery wouldn’t play ball) – and attempting to complete a sale to a corporate client, who they will meet to gather information for a brief. It is mere milliseconds before the voiceover, and several of the contestants, start mentioning Banksy. The art gallery-goer in me squirms a little, until I realise that’s the point.

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We are, I’m getting the impression, having a human moment. At least, some of the online commentariat seem to be. Umair Haque – whose Betterness: Economics for Humans was an intriguing read – is pondering the socio-economic reboot most people seem to be muttering about us needing, and directing our thoughts to starting with the purpose. Or, as he put it his Next Big Thing blog post at Harvard Business Review:

I’d bet the farm, the house, and the Apple shares on the following proposition: Our institutions are failing not merely because they’re bankrupting us financially, but because they’re bankrupting us in human terms — that, having become something like Alcatrazes for the human soul, they fail to ignite within us the searing potential for the towering accomplishments necessary to answer today’s titanic challenges.”

This is heady stuff, ripe with the whiff of heavy lifting undertaken in the search for meaning, or ways of creating and unearthing it. Umair is adamant that the first great concern is with what makes us “searingly, painfully, achingly, enduringly, joyously human” – not with enhancing productivity or efficiency. As he argues, we’ve been pretty inventive at those over the centuries – even over the last few years (imagine how bewildering today would look if you stepped directly through a door from, say, 1987) – but it’s a lot less clear-cut as to what we’ve ‘solved’ has been what most needed fixing.

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