The Apprentice, Episode 9: Old Wine in New Bottles

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.

The other members of Team Pheonix (Nick, Adam, Jade) elect Tom, the wine trader, for his second consecutive week as PM. He takes Adam to a vineyard and then runs a wine tasting, during which they both get visibly and unprofessionally bladdered for our ‘entertainment’. Tom retains a modicum of composure, while Adam possibly still has some blood left in his alcohol stream. He’s learned how to hold his glass (stem and base), but not his drink. Meanwhile, Nick and Jade brief a website, and would appreciate more input and less fizz-sampling. Jade’s contribution isn’t particularly obvious either.

They do a competent job, but by gearing the website around detailing producers, stockists (the constant maintenance of which is a no-no in website terms – I speak from 10 years’ experience producing them) and ‘where to buy’ they have drifted a fair way from the brief. This is, as Karren points out, a website for people who’ve already bought the idea and now want to simply buy the actual stuff. For the second week, there is the suggestion that Tom only feels safe working in areas where he has existing knowledge but doesn’t quite grasp the central requirement of the brief.

Their video, shot in a bistro pub as a typical English celebratory gathering (bubbles at wine bar prices in a time of austerity?), sees Jade wanting to shoot Adam but is also … competent. It mentions quality and awards, but it’s sadly lacking in excitement. The choice of a song called Regret as the backing music escapes comment, except from the world’s bloggers and forum trolls. Apart from the song’s title, I quietly wonder if rousing guitar chords say ‘quality’ to most people, even if it is the most likely soundtrack in yer average bistro boozer. At least the band (New Order) were English, but the track is also 19 years old. And as The Telegraph (of all papers) points out:

The Mancunian electro pioneers are more Boddingtons-and-drugs than champagne, I’d have thought.”

I’d have gone with Rumer: English, young, contemporary and classy. But I’m the kind of man who drinks cava on a schoolnight and actually listens to Miles Davis: I might not be the demographic.

Over at Sterling (Ricky, Jenna, Steve, Gab), they all want to lead but Ricky gets the minority victory. The programme telegraphs who will be putting the plonk into plonker from an early stage. Gab and Steve visit Tesco to look at sparkling wines. Yes, really. While Gab studies label designs, colours, logos – the things (apart from price) most of us buy wine on the basis of – Steve spends an age asking if the store has a sommelier they can consult. Behave, young man: when did your branch of Tesco last have a sommelier on hand to guide in your choice of aperitif? Slap him, someone: there’s still time.

This focused input is followed up by suggestions on brand names. Skipping over the suggestion of ‘Chink’ (streuth …), he alights on ‘Grandeur’. They are raising awareness of the quality of an English produce in a market totally dominated by the French. Belissimo! [sic] To my astonishment, no-one beats him to death with a dictionary or disembowels him with a corkscrew when he so richly deserves both. (And I’m still missing Lewis, for crying out loud.)

Ricky, who doesn’t even like wine, is making David and Goliath comparisons with Phoenix, and casting himself as David. (For those without a training in classics, a strapping amateur wrestler is casting himself as a little weed with a slingshot. We’re spared the leotard.) He is, however, totally up for the challenge, although he also has every faith in his team. (This is the kind of decision that distinguishes disaster – which can happen to anyone – from tragedy.) He takes on board the vineyard’s points and co-opts a verbal format from Tony Blair, high priest of British credible public speaking, to announce that his focus will be ‘Quality, quality, quality’.

His mighty faith is then entrusted to the hands of Steve (who’s already gifted the team not just ‘Grandeur’ but ‘Less fizz, more sparkle’ and ‘Oozes quality from every pore’) and Jenna (who wants to get married in or on a throne – hopefully a real throne rather than a vernacular one). Men in cheap shiny suits may well ooze – preferably off camera, so soon after dinner – but it’s a definite contender for a verb never to use within a million miles of any campaign focusing on quality. I don’t want to drink anything that oozes at any price.

Despite their verbal telephone reassurances to Ricky, Jenna and Steve proceed to use ‘humour’ in the video. We can forget champagne at this point: suddenly the global domination of the French cheese industry is under severe threat. An initial flavour of wood is quickly swamped by a tidal wave of cheap cheddar. Jilly Goulden would struggle for adjectives with this one. For 40 seconds or so, I’m transported to a world of ITV sitcoms from the 1970s, but less competently executed. How Ricky doesn’t weep – or, given his extra-mural pursuits, beat the pair of them to a pulp – when he sees the video remains a mystery. Maybe we should add understatement and self-restraint to his portfolio of skills? On the bright side, the website is … well, it’s ok. Black, white and gold. Looks expensive and says ‘quality’, despite that oozing malarkey. And Gab’s logo – which merges an English rose bud with a champagne glass – is possibly the one component of both team’s efforts that has actually totally nailed the brief.

The panel, despite looking like they’ve been served chilled in pre-frosted glasses, are surprisingly polite. That’s true class for you. Perhaps they could consult for Mr Hewer on eyebrow deployment? Even Karren is developing facial tics. The Pheonix website and ad don’t visibly move anyone, but they don’t totally distress anyone either. The unspoken conclusion – which Lordalan will later amplify – is that they are knowledgeable, reasonably well executed, but somewhat off the point. A pitch for the existing wine connoisseur who right now might prefer a mug of cocoa.

For Sterling, Ricky pitches with his usual confidence and skill (he really is good at delivering a pitch – even this one), the logo is admired, and the website leaves eyebrows unmoved in any direction (12 hours after taking notes while watching the programme, I can barely recall it) beyond those straplines. And then they show the ad. Somehow managing to leave their pistols in their holsters, the panel ask if they have found similarly flippant adverts on other champagne websites. As questions go, that’s up there with “Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?” In a moment of undoubted innovation, Jenna and Steve had brought new meaning to the phrase ‘disaster movie’.

These tropes get rehearsed again in the Boardroom before it becomes apparent that this was a challenge for one team to lose rather than win. Despite Tom repeating his weaknesses of focusing on his knowledge rather than the brief, that video has holed Sterling below the waterline. Team Tom go off to toast each other in a rooftop Jacuzzi. An episode that has already tested my stomach lining treats me to some rather pasty and surprisingly flabby young entrepreneurs wearing too little for comfort. Dear BBC: this isn’t Miss World. We can live without the swimwear round, ok?

Gab, who had grasped the requirement (we need to brief a design team and understand the competition) and contributed a fantastic logo, was duly spared blame and further embarrassment. And when she outlines Steve’s failings, he demonstrates his listening skills by asking for specifics: this is like watching a drowning man asking for water.

Ricky, who must be feeling monumentally let down at this point, correctly brings back Steve and Jenna. They choose to demonstrate their self-awareness by electing to stand totally behind the decisions they made. They continue to do this even after Lordalan (who – whether or not he wrote his own words– shows the on-screen awareness to admit people compare him to Sid James) nearly explodes with disbelief at the video’s sub-Carry On aesthetic. Even a Victoria Wood song about British wine drinkers who put their sprouts on in November couldn’t have done a worse job of raising brand visibility. They even play the responsibility card, despite all the evidence that what they had been responsible for was ignominious defeat.

Nick Hewer backs Ricky’s assertions that he had adamantly stressed the need to promote quality above all in the video. Jenna finally calls the video ‘a mistake’. While Ricky might have chosen to visit the shoot, Steve – for his articulacy – was there, and didn’t stop her. Ricky, who has now lost twice as PM, points out Steve’s main skill: deflecting accountability. It’s not a great self-defence speech, but its accuracy saves him.

Steve bangs his drum by pointing out he won as PM, has been on 6 out of 8 winning teams, and has never been in the final three before. No-one has the nerve to point out just how lucky he’s been. Jenna maintains she doesn’t shy away from anything and works hard consistently. She has, however, lost five times and her ability to take it on the chin is starting to look like lacking the awareness that it’s time to step out of the ring. Her cab is called. Steve is told that’s he’s amazingly lucky not be joining her, and that he’s a PM next week no matter what the task. In a week of understated judgments, how lucky he’s just been is possibly the most glaring.

In showing that – in real life – winning is sometimes a matter of losing less thoroughly than the others, the episode has sounded a rare note of actual reality. By avoiding a mercenary ‘counting the float’ judgement, it’s also chosen to avoid making decisions on the basis of a very flaky simulation of actual business practice. As a recruitment practice example, I’m still scratching my head a little. Steve and Jenna should both have been shown the door in no uncertain manner, preferably by having their heads slammed into one. Of all the contestants, only Gab emerged with any real glory by making a good contribution despite circumstances. Nick’s lack of questioning of the slant of the website should have attracted more attention. Jade continued to be better at criticising others than offering a better alternative. Ricky’s input was fine, but his faith in Steve and Jenna was misguided and he needed to rule with a firmer fist. Adam ‘choreographed’ an uninspiring video: he didn’t mess up, but it didn’t strengthen his case either.

Tomorrow night, I can go home and watch Lewis on the TiVo. Fingers crossed that the whodunit will take more deciphering. In the meantime, the closing words of Regret:

Just wait till tomorrow
I guess that’s what they all say
Just before they fall apart”

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