The Apprentice Final: Does Sugar Take Him?

So here we are at The Final. Even if I’m not entirely about the numbers (as my MBTI and other psychometric experiences confirmed), I can calculate on the spot pretty well for someone whose background and strengths are mostly on the creative side of the fence. So if time really is money, I  reckon this series has cost me about a grand at my going rate. Ok, it’s had its moments, but any sense of a meaningful return has been a little difficult to identify.

Nor am I entirely proud that I’ve reviewed the episodes as if I’ve been watching televised pantomime, but that is what much of the series has felt like: the reviews are at least honest. And few reviewers – except one or two written by people taking themselves rather too seriously (or trying too hard to sell their own services) – have treated the programme with much more respect. There has been wisdom on offer, but all too often it’s been Norman Wisdom rather than Business Wisdom. No disrespect to Nick Hewer, Karren Brady or Lord Sugar himself: I’m sure your intentions are entirely honourable and your hearts are in the right places. But a lot of the audience are laughing up their sleeves rather than taking notes. There also seems to be a consensus that this hasn’t been a bumper series: the candidates have neither shone with brilliance nor dazzled with ineptitude, and the format feels tired. (If you can’t be clever, be likeable and all that …)

Indeed, the format is now an ugly cut and shunt job. The title never really belonged: whatever the programme has ever been, a structured learning programme with constant mentoring isn’t it. The task format worked while it was about picking an employee, but has not been amended now that it’s about identifying a partner to invest in. As The Telegraph pointed out, this year and last year’s eventual winners were both the candidate in the final who had been on the losing team the most often. (Although this criticism also overlooks the factor that annoys me: the worst or weakest performance can easily be on the winning team, while someone else must be fired.) The selection process may introduce a ‘reality tv’ level of suspense into the series, but as a model of business selection criteria it needs a stern word in its ear. (Claude, do you have a moment?) As models for assessment centres go, It’s A Knockout is an unusual choice.

Interestingly, the ‘The Final Five’ and the ‘Why I Fired Them’ programmes gave the viewer rather more beyond slapstick and buffoonery than the actual episodes: they had moments of a sober reflective quality that reviewed business strengths and personal qualities in ways that the tasks themselves have not. And as Lord Sugar reminded us in them, the process is also about the person: as well as an investor, Lord Sugar will be a business partner with the eventual winner. Good luck with that, as they say. And are you sure you didn’t want that dog?

Anyway, here we all are at the Institute of Directors, and each finalist gets a couple of sentences to outline their business plan. Nick offers a one-click facility for any recipe on the internet so we can buy the ingredients in one fell swoop. Tom is punting a hedge fund based around investments in fine wines. Jade is offering a call centre the size of Wales. Or perhaps Nepal. And Ricky is proposing an ethical recruitment service aimed at the scientific industries.

Given their backgrounds, none of them are proposing to plant their respective metaphorical orchards too far from the current tree. Ricky has to have two goes at expressing the plan in simple language for Lord Sugar, but that seems to be banter for the cameras more than real criticism.

And so to the ritual monstering from the interviewers. This is the traditional blood-sports section of The Apprentice. Harsh truths are revealed. Ricky, it is exclusively revealed, blagged it a bit in his personal statement. (Well I never. Maybe the programme might encourage contestants to give it no more than 98% in future to avoid that sort of faux pas, eh?) More seriously, Jade got an N grade for A-Level Business Studies (where ‘N’ stands, roughly speaking, for ‘No bloody chance, sunshine’), didn’t remember to include a cash flow forecast in her business plan, forgot to purchase all the relevant domain names, and would blow all of Sugar’s money in six months.

There are noises about the desirability of a business that thrives on cold calling, and everyone pretends there’s a funny smell for a few moments, but I suspect the ineptitude of the plan has done for the candidate as much as the chosen business arena. Her high turnover of jobs to date and rather too frequent mentions of ‘making lots of money’ also leave her looking shallow and avaricious. Being those things isn’t necessarily that bad, but looking them is careless. The BBC drag out the suspense, but it’s clear early on that Jade won’t be walking away as winner. (And, as she will confess to Dara O’Braian later on, she should have played to her creative side rather than her love of money. She has learned from the series; what she’s learned is that she actually enjoys what she truly does best – the creative element. And a twinkle of self-awareness is a good start.)

Nick’s failings are more complex. His business plan is described as a great academic example. (In business circles, ‘academic’ is usually a term of abuse: I see an early bath coming on.) The interviewers, who should remember to ask themselves if they are the real demographic, fail to see the appeal of the central idea. (I see the appeal, at least as a keen cook. But as someone who watched several millionaires turn into paupers in their haste to launch world-flattening web enterprises, I’d advise Sugar to move away from this idea as fast as a stretch limo can carry him through the Congestion Zone.) The technicalities here are potentially mind-bogglingly complicated, and the proposed investment could be burned in the blink of an eye in rising to their challenge. The technical elements (a strength for this candidate) would also need to be ruthlessly well managed (not a skill in any real evidence). The enormous scale of his ambitions shows Nick as clever but not intelligent: how exactly would people buying ingredients for cupcakes or curry make this bigger than Google, when Tesco, Ocado and the rest all let us shop online anyway? (Unless he can work free digital downloads, weather forecasts and masturbation into the mix, surely he’s not challenging enough of Google’s demographic?)

Nick is adamant that his prototype is fully functional and that publishers are interested. I’m not sure how they gain unless I get to buy the cookbook as well as the ingredients, but detail is never the strength of this programme at any stage. And anyway, it’s too late. The impression of a very brainy but unworldly man who wouldn’t say boo to a goose is already too deeply made. If you want to know how far being nice gets you, now you know the answer: third. Nick seems pleased enough with this. But if he learned anything from the programme, grew in any way or went on (groan) a journey, then we’ll have to take his word for it as it remains invisible to us. He leaves as charmingly blank as he arrived.

And then there were two.

Tom’s first challenge is to prove that there’s more to him than being Daddy’s boy. In pointing out his track record to date and his success at a young age, Tom makes his mark, certainly on Karren (not least by providing her with the opportunity to waive her own flag). Age, or lack of it, should not be a deciding factor here. Maturity, however, might. And that’s more difficult ground. Tom’s plans – which one interviewer describes as very sophisticated – are extremely ambitious. His love of a big risk has been seen in the tasks, but his calculations as to just how much of a gamble to take aren’t always as sharp as his grooming. And his ambitions have once or twice been rather larger than his ability to pull them off. Although history has been on Tom’s side in terms of the rising value of vintage wines, their value is both subjective and determined by fashions within the luxury end of the market. More crucially, the plan also calls for Lord Sugar’s name to be involved in a business requiring £25m of other people’s money to be obtained and invested. While the potential return is significant – and Nick Hewer for one seems highly attracted – the potential downside in terms of both money and (more importantly) reputation is equally sizeable. And gambling with other people’s money is an ethical line that, laudably, Lord Sugar is very reluctant to cross.

Ricky seems at first to get a rougher ride from the interviewers. If an actual bull had written his application form, as opposed to business plan, the bull would have required a massive dose of laxatives as a well a word-processor. Much of it – as he boldly but instantly acknowledges – is utterly preposterous. (But then Claude accusing anyone of behaving like a cartoon is also preposterous; his interviewing style could not be more absurd if he periodically dragged his cloak across his lower face and cackled. It’s rare to see this much ham without an accompanying curly tail and oink.) And even Ricky comparing himself to the Norse god Thor doesn’t quite send The Blessed Margaret into spasm: perhaps she has recognised something in Ricky that was always slightly lacking in Tom – humour. And what should be the programme’s clincher – the business plan – actually is, refreshingly.

Ricky’s business plan is simple, detailed, intelligent, and holds water from every angle. He has even budgeted for a staff Christmas party in the enterprise’s fourth year. (English Sparkling Wine all round, eh? Oh, Ambassador …) Claude is ‘mesmerised’. (Claude is also playing to the cameras, but let’s humour him.) Yes, it’s what Ricky does already for someone else, but … Ricky’s actually really good at it. And writes a bloody good business plan. And, to go back to an earlier point, has learnt more than anyone else from this series of the programme. (Including, quite possibly but rather depressingly, the entire television audience.) He also has a highly unusual quality for this series. He loses well, and learns from it. In a moment of business honesty that the programme would benefit from majoring in more strongly, the point is made that failure is not just an option but an occasional inevitability. There will be mistakes ahead. And of all the candidates in the series, Ricky has lost best. It’s a hugely under-rated quality.

Lord Sugar ummed and aahed between a ‘bit of devilment’ (Tom) and ‘a nice safe bet’ (Ricky) to spin it out for a couple of minutes, but the winner was – I thought – always the safe bet: Ricky. The Final Five programme had reminded me of the banter at a degree course examination boards, where the academics and external examiners are looking not just for absolute performance but individual trajectory. The candidate on the upward curve shines a little brighter. In this final, that description covered only Ricky and Jade, whose business plan guaranteed her departure. It could have happened to nicer guy, but the nicer guy’s business plan wasn’t up to the job. And Mr Martin could hardly be called unpleasant.

So we have a winner. I’m slightly saddened that it doesn’t seem to be the audience. The series’ format now badly needs work. To discuss it purely in brand terms, it needs totally refreshing: it’s still popular, but it’s at least into the Cash Cow quadrant. Insulting Sugar, Hewer and Brady would be churlish (if potentially entertaining), so I’ll continue to extend the benefit of the doubt and assume that they really do care about inspiring new generations of successful business people.

But if this is at least partially serious television about business, why does the programme’s concluding celebrity panel consist of Jenny Eclair, Jo Malone and Denise Van Outen? If I was asked to name three inspiring business people, I suspect that at least two of them wouldn’t be on my shortlist. The tightrope that The Apprentice walks between business and light entertainment increasingly seems to favour the latter. And there are things on this earth that are actually funnier that Adam’s meatballs and Azhar’s shorts. I know there’s a supposed to be a time and a place for everything, but the previous sentence suggests that there might be at least two exceptions to the rule …

Personally, I’d be tempted to have a change of heart. Go for the dog. Take it for a long walk and think about how to use TV to educate while still entertaining. Think about challenges that relate to the proposition and the prize, and that don’t belittle the participant or the viewer. Think about making reality TV a lot more real: this format is too artificial in too many ways. Simulations have a role in business, but they’re not the only component. Take your best business brain friends along to exchange ideas with. Hackney Marshes can be lovely in the summer. And it beats being stuck inside watching the telly.

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