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.
So here we go again. It’s 6am and Ricky has his tats out for the ladeez. Be still, my churning stomach. In the cars, Steve’s already giving it 110% as they head to the city. As they will be negotiating discounts on luxury experiences for a daily deals website called Quinoa (sentences deleted in interests of decency), I’m not quite sure why we’re heading to “one of the world’s great financial centres”. They could do this in bed on their smartphones, but I guess it sounds good on the voiceover. Although the deals they negotiate will be filtered by the website’s management team, we’re also back to judging the winning team on the basis of the final take. As Anita Shah has commented at The Telegraph’s website:
I’ve said it before: Sugar continues to be dazzled by numbers which never provide the full picture.”
One of the central conundrums of the last two series – and we’ve said it before too – is that the prize is an investment in a business plan. Not only are the candidates not apprentices (a title that should have its cab phoned before the first series got commissioned), they’re not candidates either. They are suitors, each wooing Lord Sugar for the opportunity to invest in their prospective enterprise. I can see a link to the ability to build and market a brand, but the ferreting about in scrapyards and the flogging stuff that’s beyond your ken has to stop. Who goes into a new business to sell something they have no knowledge of? Especially when the business’ product is something they have designed. And what needs to start is a recognition that the woo-ee should be considering cultural fit, skills in market research and willingness and ability to delegate and outsource. (Do the candidates’ need all round ability, or just sufficient appreciation of the role of different functions to hire the right people to accept responsibility for them? Are the winner and Lord Sugar really going to be just a two-man band?)
Anyway, this week’s Phoenix team comprises Jade, Tom, Nick and Adam. As Jade works in email marketing, she’s a natural for deal negotiation skills – or at least that’s her argument. (I’ve worked in email marketing and I can see the join, but she gets the job anyway.) And no doubt her experience as a former 18-30 holiday rep will stand her in good stead for sniffing out those luxury experiences.
For Steve’s Sterling team, it’s him, Ricky and Gab. If they lose, no-one will escape the boardroom. Steve demonstrates from the word go that the importance of remaking his own personal brand is foremost in his priorities:
I’ve positioned myself with Gabriella. I just feel that some things are beyond her so I have to keep her on a short leash.”
Thankfully for him, Gabriella is either out of earshot or prepared to show the good grace not to take advantage of her position by either biting his ankles or peeing up his trouser leg. This is not necessarily a programme about just desserts.
Jade’s Pheonix team appear to have heard the website’s briefing, and go for quality. Tom, who has exhibited a few fashion victim tendencies in past episodes, seems excited by the trendiness of places they can potentially talk to, although Nick counsels they should aim to snare exclusives. Spending a lot of initial time in the office identifying targets, Jade and Nick first approach luxury female-only spa, The Sanctuary. Jade leads the pitch, which goes well till the word discount gets mentioned. The Sanctuary’s all female panel of negotiators simultaneously adopt the exclusive cat’s bum facial makeover, their pores closing and their skin tightening in ways even the most expensive cosmetics can only dream. Despite this sudden emotional cold snap, Jade persists and an hour later has a 50% discount in the bag. Lesson 1: when negotiating uncharted discount levels with recalcitrant suppliers, take a television crew with you to turn up the pressure.
Meanwhile, Tom and Adam go to a luxury boutique hotel to negotiate a deal on supper for two. (Misunderstanding momentarily, I can’t help but think what an unlikely couple they make, but then love can often blossom in the most unpromising circumstances.) We don’t get to see them holding candlelit hands over the After Eights, but they do manage a 35% discount and free tea and coffee. After this winsome tryst, the boys are less successful. Tom manages – mostly down to Adam’s fast talking and copious mentions of Tom’s girlfriend – to get discount on posh scented candles, but that’s their lot. Trying to book appointments at 5pm was never really going to be a flier. At one point, Adam says something about speedboats being like dinghies. No-one laughs. (Ok, I’m excluding our sofa there.)
Thankfully, Jade and Nick have more cards up their sleeve. They don’t play them with great aplomb. Turning up at Marcus Wareing’s restaurant, they have neither done their maths in advance nor learnt how to use a calculator.
Wareing has plainly learned a thing or two from his former employer, Gordon Ramsey, and gets fairly snippy, telling them to ‘come to the table with more intelligence’. At several points, I get the feeling what he really wants to say is ****, ***** or ********, but restraint wins out. He gives them five minutes to regroup and try again – not something I’ve ever experienced in reality – and they get a 30% deal. I don’t know what Nick Hewer’s been eating while this is going on, but his expression says it was something quite sour. Even seasoning it with dry wit hasn’t helped. After that, however, they’re back to cold-calling from the car. At one point, Jade is worried she’s just called a brothel. The question as to why a brothel can’t be a luxury experience is – even after the watershed – left unanswered, as the receptionist wasn’t playing ball. So to speak.
For Sterling, Steve and Gab’s first port of call is a dentist. Gift horse jibes aside, they snag two teeth whitening deals. Ricky meanwhile, gets a very long tour of a posh 24th floor restaurant, free hot scallops and a complimentary cold shoulder at the merest hint of the idea of a discount. Despite his negotiating skills including emphasising how little time he has, he’s there for an eternity and gets only a free brunch. He should now be off to Champneys, but is now worrying about the travel time eating into the deal-striking window. At first Steve puts his neck on the line: sadly, that’s not the East Coast Mainline as it’s becoming obvious no-one knows where Tring is. Half way across the country? Map, anyone? After fretting with Gab in the cab, Steve has obviously decided a railway sleeper makes a poor pillow, and phones Ricky back to get him to book more London appointments. This moment of history will later be comprehensively rewritten.
Ricky proceeds to visit posh restaurants, hoovering down free scallops wherever he goes. I thought Azhar was the shark in this series? Maybe it’s the protein rich diet, but he snares three more deals. Unfortunately, the hell for leather approach to tasks presumably meant they had no time to ask questions at the outset, as he has no idea what quantity of deals to negotiate. Steve and Gab meanwhile appear not to have taken in the briefing they did get, and it appears the plot has been lost when it comes to luxury experiences. So we get deals on fish pedicures (perhaps Karren’s had a bad scallop, but she seems to be wrestling to keep something down as she watches), and urban golf. Hitting golf balls at a screen, apparently: it’s not a luxury experience, but Team Sofa think it could catch on. (We need a new telly anyway.) They might be making multiple deals – this is Steve’s ‘strategy’ – but luxury isn’t creating my multiplication of the mediocre. You don’t turn warehouses into temples simply by shovelling in more tat.
At 7pm, the clock strikes, and they all turn back into pumpkins. (Ok, that bit was wishful thinking.) They hand in their deals and Quinoa review their offers. The acceptable ones will go live at midnight and run for 24 hours. Once again, it seems the contestants are the last people in London with no web access, as they seem oblivious when they return to the boardroom for the results. For heaven’s sake, someone, phone a friend.
Steve’s multi-deal strategy (9 deals from 5 vendors) plays well with Lordalan, while Ricky’s timewasting on the first appointment doesn’t, although he puts his hand up and admits the failing. Jade and Nick struck deals with every visit, despite annoying the bejasus out of Mr Wareing, and the exclusivity approach gets a muted ripple. Tom and Adam aren’t flavour of the week: their concept of a good deal is deemed a little iffy.
And so to the figures.
Sterling: 3 out of 9 deals accepted. Steve’s raised £350, while Ricky’s restaurant deals almost sold out and brought in £6090.
Phoenix: 2 out of 6 deals accepted. Tom and Adam’s were all rejected, but Jade & Nick’s lunch deal snared £5950 and the spa £8613. Tom and Adam are a little lucky to find themselves sipping afternoon tea at Cliveden, and the waiter is forgiving about their jeans, banter and social skills.
Back at the Losers Caff, they’re not giving doilies, let alone discounts. The Boardroom session doesn’t pamper anyone either. The health spa was the golden goose, so why didn’t Steve visit it if it was so important? Why negotiate deals on fish pedicures and teeth whitening when you can practically get those in Asda nowadays? Steve, who’d been giving it 110% before breakfast, applies his own rate card in proclaiming he given it 100%. Even at a reduced rate, no-one’s buying. Steve had positioned himself as the strongest element of his team, and brought in just over 5% of the team’s take. Ricky, despite his fourth appearance in the final three, had brought in 94.57% single-handedly.
Having played the Teflon Contestant for so long, Steve’s “I’m A Contender” speech slides off the panel like English sparkling wine off a dead parrot. Gab’s enthusiasm and fight is deemed to be ebbing away from her, despite everyone liking her immensely. As Lordalan announces the biggest factor in the decision will be contribution to the task, it’s obvious that her role as stooge is going to mean her departure. Characteristically, she leaves with grace and a smile.
Perhaps hearing the nation chanting ‘Stephen Out! Stephen Out!’ even through the thickened glass of the high-rise C-Suite, there is to be more blood on the carpet, however. That hubristic petard comes back to haunt Steve, who is hoist aloft on it before his cab returns him to obscurity. He asked for it, and Lord Sugar obliged. It was the least he could do. Even Steve admitted he deserved it.
Ricky is congratulated for his precision, his presentation skills and his willingness and hunger to learn. But he lost as PM and has made fresh mistakes. Lord Sugar’s gut speaks – thankfully, not a euphemism – and he returns to the house. Next week, he gets another stab at creating and launching a luxury product in less time than most of us spend picking wallpaper for the spare room. Lucky boy.