Always There Are Two: A Retrospective on the Ninth Season of the Apprentice

by Dan H

Dan waaaay overthinks a reality TV show.
I've been meaning to write this article for the best part of five years (which, if you think about it, really means just over two and a half years, which is still quite a long time).

It's horribly unfashionable and unsexy of me to admit this, but I really love reality TV. Of course, because I'm a hipster dickhead, I like to pretend that I love it in a clever-clever pseudo-intellectual sort of way. When I'm defending my rather shocking viewing habits to my friends and family, I tend to tell them that I'm fascinated by the constructedness of it – that I strangely admire the artistry that allows the creators to take a bunch of random shit that happens, and retcon it into a narrative.

This is partly bollocks, mostly I just like watching arrogant people fail on telly, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm about to write a long, rambling article in which I talk about … well … how much I admire the artistry that allows the creators of reality TV shows to take a bunch of random shit that happens and recton it into a narrative.

So yes. The Apprentice. It's very easy to look down on Apprentice candidates, because they do consistently make the sorts of elementary mistakes you would expect from a tired six-year-old. People were pointing this out pretty much as soon as the first episode aired – see for example this Mitchell and Webb sketch. What I thought I'd do in this article is go through series nine, episode by episode, and talk a bit about what the candidates had to do, why (nine times out of ten) there was no way any sensible human being could actually be possibly expected to succeed at what they were asked to do, and to look a bit at the strange, almost mystical thinking that seems to go into a lot of the conversations in the boardroom.

I will also, for my own amusement, be playing what I like to call the “minimum wage game” - which is to make an educated guess as to how many man-hours the winning team put in, and compare their final earnings to what they would have made working for the same amount of time at the UK minimum wage of £6.19 an hour.

The Setup

So, if you're not familiar with the format of the show, you've got sixteen candidates competing for a £250,000 investment from (Lord) Alan Sugar, who is sort of vaguely famous in England for being a working class lad made good (and fashionable as it is to mock the guy's business credentials – because honestly Donald Trump he ain't – he's worth about £770 million which is approximately £770 million more than I'm worth).

So yes, sixteen candidates, all of whom are nicely introduced in this lovely song courtesy of the BBC. They're competing for Lord Sugar's cash, and every single one of them will, at some point, be made to look as if they can barely tie their own shoelaces.

Episode One

You can watch it here if you haven't already.

In this episode the “boys'” team (Endeavour) and the “girls'” team (Evolve) are both given a container full of crap to sell, and told to make as much money doing it as possible.

How They Were Set Up to Fail: Short version: This isn't a thing. Unless you're in an episode of Only Fools and Horses you don't try to make money by flogging random crap that comes out of shipping crates to people who you've never met.

Long version: This is best illustrated with a joke.

Two economists are in a pub when they see a fifty pound note on the floor. One goes to pick it up. “Don't bother, it's a forgery,” says the other. “How do you know?” asks the first. And the second economist replies: “If it wasn't, somebody would have taken it already.”

This principle (I believe actual economists refer to it as “no cash on the table”) scuppers most Apprentice tasks before they begin. In this case, the teams were given a shipping crate full of items, and of any given item in that crate and any person they tried to sell it to, one of two things would be true.

Either that person did not want that item, in which case they would not buy it, or they did, in which case they presumably already knew where they could get it.

This principle is illustrated fairly well by the (allegedly fatal) decision made by “Evolve” to try to sell their Chinese Lucky Cats in Chinatown. Now in the boardroom, everybody suggested that this was a stupid idea, because the sorts of shops in Chinatown that sell these sorts of things can already get them, but … well … that's true of every other thing they were trying to sell as well. It was a selling to trade task. People who want this stuff can get it, people who don't aren't your customers. The only reason either team made anything even resembling a profit was that – as near as I can tell – the contents of the shipping crate were assumed to be free. Ironically, Evolve would have come a lot closer to winning if they'd just bitten the bullet and flogged all of the damned cats for a quid each, instead of holding out for a price which both they and their prospective buyer knew to be unrealistic.

Results: Evolve sold £1,109.30 worth of stock while Endeavour sold £1,167.90, putting Endeavour ahead by £58.60. For those of you doing the maths, that's a difference of about 5%. But of course the magic of television transforms this into a veritable triumph for Team Endeavour and a disaster for their opponents. This sets something of the scene for The Apprentice, because all too often things come down to a test of who can do least badly on a task at which it is ultimately impossible to do really well.

The Minimum Wage Game: I tend to assume that an Apprentice task involves roughly two ten-hour days. So for team Endeavour, that's 160 man-hours to sort and shift merchandise worth £1,167.90. That gives team Endeavour earnings of £7.30 an hour. More than a pound above minimum wage but, of course, this assumes that the crate full of goods they've been hawking around London wouldn't have actually cost them anything...

Episode Two

On youtube here.

Episode two was all about making and selling flavoured beers. Now maybe it's because I don't drink, or maybe it's because I'm too old, or because despite being what the new UK class survey would call a “New Service Worker” I come from the kind of background where we thought scampi and chips was unbelievably posh, but I did not know that this was a thing. Is this a thing?

How They Were Set Up To Fail: I warn you now that these little asides are going to get a bit repetitive, because basically it's the same issue every time. This task had the same problem as every design task on the show: a bunch of people who know nothing about an industry, trying to design a product to launch into that industry, by committee, in two days, are never going to produce anything worth anything.

Results: Team Endeavour won with a profit of £831.56 to Evolve's £339.02. This was an interesting one, because as in so many episodes this task basically came down to which of the two teams screwed up the least.

The result of this episode was also interesting because there were little hints of the mechanics which normally tick along in the background. Every so often, on an episode of the apprentice, you'll see a candidate with a big black file of stuff, and it's fairly clear that these files contain briefing information (we'll hear more about briefing information later). You never get a clear look at these files, and so you never really find out what information the teams are working from.

This became very important, because while team Evolve probably made a better product Endeavour ultimately flogged more beer at higher prices (whatever business skill you're supposed to be displaying in the Apprentice, nine times out of ten, it comes down to flogging crap quickly). They basically managed to do this because they chose to sell at a large, busy beer festival. Team Evolve also went to a beer festival, but the festival they chose was actually just a pub with about twelve people in it.

Rebecca took a lot of flak for this choice, but from my sofa at home, I couldn't really see what she'd done wrong. Presumably the file hadn't said “Kent Beer Festival – only about ten people actually come to this thing”. It had just said “Kent Beer Festival”. Obviously it turned out to be the wrong choice in hindsight, but the first rule of game design is that a choice is only meaningful if the player has sufficient information that it isn't entirely arbitrary. Basically it felt an awful lot like Team Evolve lost because this task was structured like a Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy adventure. “Oh, you chose to go to the Kent Beer Festival instead of the Brent Beer Festival? You are eaten by a dragon.”

The Minimum Wage Game: Again, I'll assume two ten hour days, and this time the winning team only had seven members, since Tim was airdropped into Evolve. So that means they put in 140 man-hours, they would have made £866.60 on minimum wage. A figure of which even the winning team fell short by £35.04.

Episode Three

On youtube here.

Episode three is a design task. The candidates are asked to design and market a new piece of flatpack furniture. The thing I like most about the design task is that there's always some poor schmuck working for a design company who is asked to turn the half-arsed ideas of this pack of self-aggrandising gits into a halfway workable prototype, does it overnight, and gets no credit whatsoever.

How They Were Set Up To Fail: You know how many successful products that you buy and use every day were invented in a single brainstorming session by a ragtag band of business analysts, cosmetics manufacturers, historians and medical doctors with no experience in the industry into which they are launching said product? Me neither, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that “zero” is a pretty fucking safe bet.

Results: In the end both teams produced … not to put too fine a point on it … tat. Evolve wound up with the “Tidy Sidey” which, as everybody and their dog pointed out, was a box on wheels. Endeavour made an impractical side table which converted into an impractical chair. The aim of this task is always to secure the largest possible number of “orders” from retailers – there was a bit of an uproar a few years ago when it was revealed that, funnily enough, these orders weren't actually real because apparently the Great British Public believe that large retailers genuinely will buy thousands of units of a product which not only does not exist, but which nobody has any intention of actually producing.

So anyway, Evolve sold only 174 units of their box-on-wheels, while Endeavour sold 3,216 of their table-chair things. I'll observe now, and shall observe later when we come to look at the Ready Meals task, is that a lot of the time “sales” on these tasks seem to be made on the assumption that the teams will fix flaws in the product which are, in fact, integral to the way the product works. In particular, Endeavour's folding chair was, in its chair form, somewhat too tall to sit in comfortably. They could have shortened it, but then it wouldn't have been a particularly effective table.

Now as it happened, everybody was terribly impressed with the table-chair, although I suspect that a big part of that was the fact that it looked remarkably good next to the “Tidy Sidey”. But honestly, how often have you thought to yourself “what I really need in my house is an end table that turns into a chair.” I mean if nothing else the circumstances under which you need more chairs are usually also the circumstances under which you need more surfaces to put things on.

This wasn't a cash task, so the Minimum Wage game doesn't apply.

Episode Four

On youtube here.

This episode saw the staunchly urban candidates put in the position of managing a farm shop. Hilarity ensues as they show an utter inability to cope with anything even vaguely rural. This is another one of those “I didn't realise this was a thing” things. But apparently farm shops are big business now. Although sometimes I suspect that the producers decide on what tasks they want the candidates to do first, and decide that they're “big business” afterwards.

How They Were Set Up to Fail: All of the usual principles apply – none of the candidates have any experience in this area. This episode takes particular delight in portraying the candidates as bumbling cityfolk who can't tell a cow from a dog.

Results: This was yet another episode in which it all came down to which team screwed up least. Evolve got onto a winner with buffalo meat, but their fresh soup and potatoes were kind of crappy (to be fair, selling prepared food was always going to be a bit of a risk, but it was clearly something that the teams were required to do because it would make for better TV). Endeavour did better on prepared food (milkshakes) but came horribly unstuck on everything else – mostly because they'd basically failed to buy any stock at all (strangely, this was a mistake which both teams made – I get the impression that they felt that vegetables were a fundamentally unsexy thing to be selling).

Team Evolve ultimately won with a profit of £631.52 to Endeavour's £539.67.

There were a couple of things that stood out for me about this episode, and the way it was unpacked later on You're Fired, the companion program that runs after the show. The first was that – at some point – a candidate suggested stocking milk in their shop, but their team leader (I think, I haven't rewatched) vetoed the idea on the grounds that milk is the sort of thing that people have anyway, and not the sort of thing you buy on impulse. This led to much mocking on You're Fired (“because obviously,” as one comic put it, “nobody says 'I'm just going to pop out for some milk'...”). But the thing is, while it's true that people do just pop out for milk all the time, it's not like you ever think “hmm, I've run out of milk, I'll just wander into town and see if there's a one-day-only pop-up farm shop I can go to.” You just go down to the nearest Tescos or, if you're feeling lazy, corner shop. But the moment people decided that saying no to milk was a bad idea, that became reality, and the person who vetoed the milk project was branded an incompetent.

The second thing that might be worth mentioning about this episode is that the fire-ee, Usma Yakoob, was actually the second highest seller on her team. This didn't come out on the show, but it was mentioned afterwards on the BBC Asian Network. Now people get fired without really deserving it on the Apprentice all the time, but it might be interesting to note that candidates to be fired so far have been Jaz Ampaw-Farr (a black woman), Tim Stilwell (a white man), Sophie Lau (a central/East-Asian woman) and Usma (a South Asian woman). This leaves precisely one person who isn't white in the competition, that person being Zeeshan Shah.

Any bets on who goes out next?

The Minimum Wage Game: Three people have been fired so far, which left seven candidates on Evolve and six on Endeavour. Again assuming two ten hour days, Evolve put in 140 man-hours, making a princely £4.51 an hour. Interestingly, Endeavour, putting in only 120 man-hours, managed to bring in £4.50 an hour, making their loss genuinely a matter of one penny per person per hour.

Episode Five

On youtube here.

Episode five is the buying task. The candidates have to go out and buy a bunch of things as cheaply as possible. This year, they have to do it in Dubai.

How They Were Set Up to Fail: Every year, Alan Sugar tells the candidates “this isn't a scavenger hunt, it's a negotiation task.” This is a lie. If it was really a test of the candidates' abilities to source items cheaply, they'd be told what the items actually were, rather then getting a list of deliberately obscure names chosen with the express intent of making everybody look like complete fools. Pretty much every year, this task is won by the team that ticks the most items off the list, whatever Alan Sugar says about it testing the teams' negotiation skills.

Results: This entire episode came down to which team managed to work out what an “Oud” was. Because this task is about negotiation. Ultimately Team Evolve won with a spend of £695.16, compared to Team Endeavour's spend of £783.36.

The boardroom this week was an interesting one, because it basically came down to whether Alan Sugar was feeling more sexist, or more racist on this particular day. Specifically, Zeeshan, Leah and Natalie wound up in the board room, and Natalie very nearly scuppered her chances by suggesting that she was only there because Zeeshan had trouble working with women. Now, to give her her due, she was almost certainly right. But strategically it was a blunder, because if there is one thing Alan Sugar can't stand it's accusations of sexism. This, for reference, is a man who thinks that since it was made illegal to ask a woman if she plans to have children in a job interview, that the most sensible thing to do is just not hire women at all. It's also interesting to notice that not only have a mere three out of eight series winners been women, but that while most of the male winners have stuck with Lord Sugar for several years, most of the women have wound up leaving within months (most recently, Stella English brought an unsuccessful case for constructive dismissal after her contract was not renewed, claiming that there basically hadn't been a job for her to go to).

Ironically I kind of felt, after watching this episode, that Zeeshan made the mistake of being not quite sexist enough. If he'd turned around in the board room and slapped Natalie down for daring to suggest that gender had anything to do with it (I suggest something like “if every time somebody has a problem with the way you do your job, you say it's because you're a woman, you're going to have real trouble in the world of business”) he'd probably have survived until the next week at least.

Episode Six

On youtube here.

This episode was super special, because it saw the teams designing and providing corporate away days. Now I admit, I'm really not the target market here, but this basically reads to me as “we are going to get a bunch of people who have no idea what they're doing to put on the kind of event which often feels like a waste of time even when it's organised by professionals and somehow expect them not to make a complete hash of it.”

How They Were Set Up to Fail: Oh let me count the ways. Let's take as read the usual factors, like “none of them having any experience” or “having approximately twenty four hours to plan something which presumably professionals spend quite a lot of time on” and go to the specifics. And the specific specific I want to go to is the fact that the teams were deliberately asked to decide on a theme, and activities for their day before they were allowed to meet the client and find out what the client actually wanted.

In a lot of ways, reality TV is like a conjuring trick – much of the time it relies on not telling you what's supposed to be happening until after it's already happened, which makes it very hard to keep track of things like the order of events. It's quite common for a magician to show you the thing that would make the trick impossible after the trick has already been done (they shuffle the deck after you've picked your card, for example). In this episode the narration only tells you that the teams are expected to meet the specific needs of the clients after we've had the scenes where they decide what they're doing. Then the show distracts you with lots of shots of Nick and Karen looking sombre, so you forget what order things happened in and can enjoy mocking the candidates for being stupid enough to pick activities that don't have anything to do with the client's stated goals for the day.

Results: This was a subjective task masquerading as an objective one. The aim was technically to maximise profit, but since the corporate clients were clearly briefed to demand a refund depending on how good they thought the event was, the task really boiled down to “whose event was least shit” not “who spent least money.”

In the end Team Evolve's “Back to School” themed event made £1,095.81 while Team Endeavour's “Military” event made £1,579.50. To be very upfront: both team's events were shit. It's just that Endeavour's event was measurably less shit.

There are several things I think are interesting about this episode.

Firstly, I found it interesting that Rebecca was ultimately fired for suggesting they spend £600 hiring a professional motivational speaker. Now as it happened, this £600 was superficially similar to the difference between the two teams' final results. But to blame it for the loss is borderline superstitious thinking. There is, after all, no reason to treat that £600 expenditure (on, one might also mention, the only part of Evolve's away day that the clients actually thought was worth the money) as being any more significant than any of the other things that the team spent money on during the day. It seems significant only because it happens to match the difference in scores. Alan Sugar's glib assertion that if they hadn't hired the professional speaker they would have won completely misses the point. Not only is it not necessarily true (the client could easily have asked for an even bigger refund), but you can't judge the quality of a tactical decision on the basis of its outcome. If we're playing rock, paper, scissors and I pick rock and my opponent picks paper then obviously I would have been better off picking scissors, but that doesn't make me a bad rock, paper, scissors player. It just makes the game completely random.

I suppose that you could argue that Rebecca made a strategic error in attempting to provide an element of quality service as part of an event which was clearly about palming off total shit and praying like fuck to get away with it. In this sense, it was a mistake simply because one good element in an otherwise crappy performance wouldn't placate the client enough for them not to want a refund, so you might as well save the money. Her error wasn't a failure to control expenditure, but a failure to realise that if you're going to sell shit, you might as well sell total shit.

The second thing I found interesting about this episode was also to do with motivational speeches, specifically to do with Neil Clough's extremely successful speech delivered for Team Endeavour. And when I say “extremely successful” I mean “they added inspiring music over the top in post production.” If you actually watch Neil's speech, and look at the faces of the audience, an awful lot of them look like they think he's full of shit. But through the magic of television, and one bloke saying on camera that they liked the guy, suddenly Neil Clough was the Oscar Wilde of the business world. Also, I have to confess that after seeing him give a serious, passionate speech about how his drive to succeed came from his response to the death of his father when he was eighteen, I was really, really hoping to find out that his dad was actually still alive and well and living in Basildon.

My final observation about episode six is sort of vicarious espirit d'escalier. Luisa Zissman (who I really didn't like at this stage in the competition, I felt like the only skill I'd seen her display was a remarkable ability to undermine other women) made the gloriously twenty-five-year-old mistake of saying that she couldn't stand the whole corporate world and thought the whole thing was a gigantic waste of time (to be fair, I kind of agree with her, which is exactly why I loved this episode so much). Karen Brady, with typical icy reserve suggested that if she felt that way about the corporate world she might find herself in difficulty going to a bank and asking them for a loan to help start her business. And to my eternal sadness, Luisa did not respond by saying “I know, that's why I decided to come on a TV show instead."

Although this task technically involved money, I feel like it was just used as an arbitrary scoring system, so I'm waiving the Minimum Wage Game for this episode.

Episode Seven

On youtube here.

This was another sales task. Because well over half the tasks on the Apprentice are sales tasks, and if you're bad at sales then you wind up in the boardroom with Alan Sugar waving his finger in your face saying “okay, you're not good at sales, but what are you good at?” And if you're good at sales you wind in the boardroom with Alan Sugar waving his finger in your face saying “Is all you're good at sellin'? Are you a one trick pony? Because, in this process, I'm looking for someone I can go into business with.”

So yes. Sales. And this week, Caravans.

How They Were Set Up to Fail: Much as I hate to say it, on this task they … might not have been. I mean, I'm not a businessman and I have a kind of policy where I try not to assume that other people's jobs are easy because they're usually way harder than you think, but I mean … seriously. In this episode the task was to go to a caravan show. To sell caravans. To caravan enthusiasts. Who had specifically come to a caravan show. Presumably to buy caravans. I mean. This one was pretty much a gimme.

Of course having said that the usual caveats apply – they've still got no experience in the industry, and actually I understand that trade shows often aren't particularly good sales platforms (like performing in Edinburgh, you often make a loss but go to get your name out there). But come on, I've got just over halfway through this article and I haven't made one apprentice-candidates-are-crap joke. Do you really expect me to pass up the opportunity to point out that several of these top-notch, self-made, business-savvy entrepreneurs proved that they couldn't sell a caravan at a caravan show?

Results: This one was a complete wipeout. Thanks to their extraordinary ability to sell three whole caravans, Team Evolve managed to make £33,656 compared to Team Endeavour's £1,479.

Although actually, I say complete wipeout. I think what I really mean is “one team sold three more things than the other team.” Now admittedly, this is three compared with zero, but the thing about small number statistics is that you get proportionally very wide variations between populations. Basically every salesperson in that task sold between zero and two caravans. Now it happened that all of the caravan sales were made by one team, but let's assume for the moment that sales were distributed entirely randomly (that is, there are three sales to be made and each one might be made by either team at random) there would still be a one in eight chance of all the sales being made by one team, purely by chance. I should point out that this is a gross oversimplification of the actual statistics of selling-caravans-at-caravan-shows, but the general point here is that if you're selling a small number of items with a high value per unit, it's fairly likely that you'll get a large variation between the figures at the end.

This episode is also interesting because it includes one of the occasional moments when the curtain slips and we see a bit of the mechanics that tick along in the background. In particular, in the boardroom, Natalie is chastised for badgering one of the vendors for a discount, causing her team to lose that vendor's products (not that this would have made a difference to the final result). Surprisingly for the show, Kurt leapt to her defence with “to be fair, the briefing...” and then was promptly shut down. I'm not sure, but I strongly suspect that the briefing the teams had been given (remember those black folders they carry around) had specifically told them to push for discounts, and probably that it was very important that they do so.

The Minimum Wage Game: Team Evolve made £33,656 in (again, assuming two ten-hour days) 100 man-hours, which becomes a very respectable £336.56 an hour. But of course that kind of assumes that they get to keep all the money they made. And presumably not all of the money they made on the caravans would have been profit. In fact presumably the teams would have been selling on some kind of commission. Still, even if they only made 10% for themselves, they'd still be on £33.65 an hour, which is certainly the best pay rate the candidates have managed this season.

Episode Eight

On youtube here.

Episode eight is everybody's favourite task, the advertising campaign. The candidates design their brand and put together a combined TV and online ad campaign. This almost always goes hilariously wrong for so very many reasons. Getting the sorts of people who want to be on reality TV and putting them both in front of and behind a camera is a sure fire way to make sure things get pretty darned special.

How They Were Set Up to Fail: Chalk another one up to “this is a real job that real people are paid money to do, because it is hard to do it well.” The teams were given a shortlist of demographics to target (they always have to target a specific demographic, presumably because it makes for better TV) and, once again, were asked to start designing their website before they'd actually had any chance to talk to any members of their target market. To make matters worse, Team Evolve chose to target the over-fifties, which always goes horrendously wrong because the candidates always assume that everybody over the age of about forty three is basically a corpse. To be fair to them, it doesn't help that the “focus groups” provided on the show are almost always deliberately misleading. Now I don't think the team handled their focus group well, but since it looked an awful lot like their group consisted of a bunch of curmudgeonly old gits in a pub, it's not completely surprising they decided that their target audience just didn't like fun.

Results: Once again, both teams cocked up, because once again, this shit is hard. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be highly paid professionals out there making their livings doing this shit. Evolve's “Friendship and Flowers” was twee and awful, while Endeavour's “Cufflinks” was just bland and generic (although weirdly I thought it could have worked quite well if they'd pitched it at professional gay men). This task saw the first ever actual abdication on the show, with the hilariously posh Jason making the “courageous decision” to stand down in favour of Luisa.

Yet again, this came down to which team screwed up least. And to be honest, it was kind of a coin toss. Because as always, both of them were basically terrible. Endeavour won pretty much by default, because Evolve had been an unbelievable car crash.

Also, Jason's performance on Matt Edmonson's Awkward Conversations is kind of beautiful.

Episode Nine

On youtube here.

This season seemed to have a lot of design the product/pitch the product tasks, which I think might have been part of an overall strategy of making the show feel more like a hunt for a business partner and less like a hunt for an employee. For those who haven't followed the series, the original pitch for the show had been to have sixteen candidates competing for a job “with a six figure salary” while the new format is to get them competing for a £250,000 investment. The last couple of seasons have, I think, struggled a lot with the switch in formats (series seven in particular felt like a gigantic waste of time, because the person who won had performed poorly on pretty much every task, and won because while his skills were worthless in the “process” he had IP which was probably going to be quite lucrative).

Anyway, this episode was ready meals.

How The Were Set Up to Fail: Once again, we have a task where the candidates are asked to do in 48 hours something that real professionals spend a lot of time on. And once again we have a task where market research is carried out on focus groups whose primary purpose is to look good on TV rather than to actually provide useful information.

Results: This episode provided yet another lesson in the retroactive creation of reality. Team Endeavour put together a brand called “Deadly Dinners” - the aim being to appeal to children with a range of “scary” themed ready meals. Unfortunately, it rapidly became received wisdom that this was “wrong”. Because apparently parents can't tell the difference between a spookily-themed ready meal and a box of rat poison.

You get this quite a lot on the Apprentice - the candidates will do something perfectly reasonable, but one damned person will say that “parents” or “dog owners” or whatever the heck other target audience you're going for wouldn't like it, and this becomes gospel (you had the same issue a season or two back with “Everydog” - somebody decided that dog owners would only by ludicrously specific dog foods, and that was that).

Anyway, Deadly Dinners lost, and team Evolve won with their range of fusion meals “Oh My Pow!” Now there was a lot I thought sucked about “Oh My Pow!” - it was apparently aimed at a market of sophisticated young professionals and, I don't know, maybe it's just me but I think that if you truly want to appeal to a market of intelligent, sophisticated young people, you maybe don't want to put an exclamation mark in your name? That said, I was strangely impressed with the way Luisa handled herself on this task, not because I thought she performed well, but because I thought she gamed the system like a fucking boss. Specifically, she pushed really hard for them to put their least culinarily capable team member in the kitchen. This was a total masterstroke since not only did it provide them with an obvious scapegoat if the whole thing went tits up, but it also meant that they got a product which didn't really taste like anything.

Now you'd think that this would be a problem, but it actually completely saved their arses. Just like on the flatpack furniture task, the winning team wound up being the one that most successfully pretended to be able to fix the integral flaws in their product. Oh-my-pow-exclamation-mark was fusion cuisine. Fusion cuisine is extremely hard to do right. Too often you wind up with problems like the ones Julian pointed out in his 2010 review of Fire and Stone - just coming up with something that sounds weird or cool without actually working out whether it would be nice to eat. The fact that Evolve's “Jamaican Chicken and Thai Noodles” tasted utterly bland actually probably saved their ass, because if it had actually tasted like, well, Jamaican chicken and Thai noodles, it would probably have been actively unpleasant. I mean what would the rest of the line be? Tandoori Yorkshire pudding? Ma Po Tofu a l'Orange?

So yes, a win for Evolve as a result of gaming the system perfectly. And again, there were no actual profits here, so the Minimum Wage Game doesn't apply.

Episode Ten

On youtube here.

This is apparently Lord Sugar's favourite task. The task where candidates have to buy things cheaply, and then sell them for more money, and then use that money to buy more things and sell them for more money. And so on.

He's a simple man at heart.

How They Were Set Up to Fail: This one is tricky. From a certain point of view this is actually a pretty straightforward task, and historically candidates seem to have done well on it. But having said that, I keep coming back to those black folders.

There was a task on last year's season (series eight episode two, I believe) in which the teams were asked to produce “a household item” and the losing team produced a splash guard for a bathroom. The fired candidate mentioned in passing that part of the problem they'd had was that the winning team had “taken” the kitchen item, which implies to me that the teams had to do either kitchen or bathroom, with one team doing one and one the other.

I'm not certain, but I do wonder if there wasn't a similar situation here – with the teams having a choice of selling either fashion items or ceramics. If so, it might explain why nobody brought up the frankly bizarre choice of products in the boardroom (or at least, nobody complained about Myles' overall strategy of selling only high-end ceramics despite the fact that they were working off a market stall). If I'm right, then this task was basically won or lost on a coin toss, with the win going to whoever wound up selling the low-cost-high-volume items.

Results: Team Endeavour got completely trounced. Although again it might be worth saying that by “completely trounced” I mean that they made £550.26 to Evolve's £850. Perhaps the first notable thing about this episode is the fact that the team who did everything right only actually beat the team who did everything wrong by about 35%.

The second thing I'd say about this task is that, ironically, Myles seemed to get fired because Lord Sugar, Karen and Nick made exactly the same mistakes which had led to his losing the task in the first place.

Myles' strategy had been to go for “high margin” products. Now I confess that I'm not very up on my business theory, but a quick trip to wikipedia informs me that “margin” in the business sense can be calculated in two ways, and by neither of those calculations were Endeavour's products actually higher margin than Evolve's.

Specifically, as far as I could tell from the episode, Endeavour were basically buying bespoke ceramics for about £10 and selling them for £15, giving them a gross margin of 33% or a unit margin of £5. By contrast, Evolve were buying hats for £2 and selling them for £10, giving them a gross margin of %80 or a unit margin of £8. I know that maths isn't the strong point of most Apprentice candidates or, it seems, Lord Sugar, but I'm pretty sure 80 and 8 are bigger than 33 and 5.

But somehow everybody got distracted by the fact that Endeavour's products cost more. These experienced, dedicated businesspeople honestly seemed to feel that selling a £10 pot for a £5 profit was better than selling a £2 hat for an £8 profit. Even more intriguing, when the candidates had to defend themselves in the boardroom, Myles was called to account for his current line of work. Myles buys and sells luxury brands, dealing almost exclusively with rich people in Monaco. This, according to Lord Sugar and his aides, means that he should already be rich, and shouldn't need the £250,000 prize money.

Again, surely this is basic business stuff. Just because you are dealing in goods with a high per-unit cost, that does not mean that your business makes a lot of money overall. Basically none of the richest people in the world got that way selling luxury goods to rich people. I mean by and large, rich people don't buy things from large companies with wealthy owners, practically on principle. If you want to make money out of chocolate, you don't do it by selling luxury chocolates to the wealthy, you do it by selling to as many people as possible, through as many outlets as possible, as cheaply as possible. Which is why Forrest and Jacqueline Mars are the 36th and 37th richest people in the world, and most bespoke chocolatiers, well, aren't.

The Minimum Wage Game: I'm sticking with my default assumption of two ten hour days, and this time it's a team of three, so sixty man-hours, so £14.17 an hour. Which to give them their due is actually genuinely more than they could have made waiting tables or stacking shelves in supermarkets.

Episode Eleven

On youtube here (labelled as episode twelve, because there was a mini-episode “the final five” before this one).

The interview task! Historically speaking (insofar as something can be “historical” with respect to a TV series that goes back to 2005) this was the penultimate episode, with the final episode seeing the two finalists go head to head to launch a new product. This changed when the premise switched from “£100,000 job” to “£250,000 investment” and the series was, in my opinion, the worse for it. It made everything that came before feel like a gigantic waste of time.

They've now put the interviews back in the penultimate episode, so it feels less like “piss around for ten weeks then hire the person you wanted to hire all along”. Which is cool.

How They Were Set Up to Fail: This series placed a lot more emphasis on the business plans, not in terms of the tasks but in terms of the rhetoric around the tasks – candidates get asked about their plans a lot, so it feels like they're a part of the series' through-line, even though they're basically irrelevant up to this point.

Unfortunately, the moment the candidates, or at least some of the candidates, walked into the interview room, it was clear that two of them should never have been in the process in the first place, and I was left with the strong impression that at least one of them had been kept in the process up to this point specifically because his business plan was so batshit insane that they really wanted him to survive to the interviews.

Results: The interviews are always kind of delicious carnage. Dr Leah Totton came out extremely well, giving the impression of really knowing her sector and having thought things through in incredible detail. Jordan, by contrast, was actually pitching a business which not only already existed, but which he also did not actually own any part of. Neil Clough pitched a business that made no sense whatsoever, and which basically seemed to involve creating a website through which he would get other people to pay him money for work that they would do themselves. Luisa and Francesca both basically pitched the businesses they were already working in, which at least meant they had a proven track record.

Alan Sugar seemed almost hilariously sad to fire Neil Clough, because every year there's a candidate who is basically crap, but who Alan Sugar randomly really invests in. To give Neil Clough his due, he'd been generally competent on most tasks, but his business plan showed that when it came right down to it he had the business acumen of, well, an Apprentice candidate.

Anyway, the completely hopeless people went out, Leah was always pretty much safe, and in the end Luisa had the edge over Francesca. Partly, I suspect, because it would have been visually uninteresting to have two blonde women in the final.

Episode Twelve

The two candidates go head to head to pitch their businesses. This was kind of a stroke of genius, but also a very risky move on behalf of the producers. It was a stroke of genius because it allowed them to keep the “head to head” format that worked so well in seasons 1-6 and to integrate it into the “investing in a business” theme that they've crowbarred into the later seasons. But it was also risky, because if the candidates pitched their businesses, and they were shit, it would undermine the whole credibility of the series. Basically the final episode has to be a triumph for both candidates, because if one or the other of them fucks up, the whole concept of selecting your employees/business partners on the basis of their performance on a long-form game show starts to look silly. Okay, sillier.

How They Were Set Up to Fail Succeed: For the last eleven weeks, the candidates (and Karen, Nick and Alan) have nitpicked and overanalysed every damned move their colleagues made, turning every misstep, run of bad luck, or failure to be actually psychic into a Fatal Error which the candidates Should Have Known Better than to make.

Suddenly, it's the final, and it's like Alan and his advisers have been abducted by aliens and replaced by the candidates' grandmothers wearing unconvincing fake beards and wigs. And whatever the candidates do they get a “ooh well done, that was a really good try, because you know it isn't as easy as it looks, and the other boys and girls, they didn't get as far as you did, did they?”

Results: So Leah wins. Let's get that out now. But more generally, this is where I think my running analogy with stage magic reaches its, I don't know, grand finale? The thing about stage magic is that once you start to look at it as a constructed work of trickery, you basically can't stop looking at it that way, and it makes it very hard to get swept along with the sense of wonder, because while everybody else is saying “wow, I can't imagine how they possibly did that” you're either saying (if you're lucky) “gosh, I am impressed with how skilfully they executed those well-understood techniques of misdirection” or (if you're unlucky) “wow, I actually saw you stuff that up your sleeve.”

So yeah, good episode, but once you start to look for the artificiality, it sort of slaps you in the face. For a start, both candidates make the sorts of mistakes that would have got them fired on any other task, no questions asked. Leah took a dictatorial, micromanaging approach to her team, and completely stuffed up her branding. “Niks” is not a good name for an aesthetic medicine practitioner no matter how you … umm … cut it. Even if you ignore the fact that it sounds a bit like the name you give to small cuts with a razor, and the (I would argue more important) fact that it sounds more like a pub than a clinic, and just focus on what the name is supposed to call to mind, which is the word “skin” spelled backwards, it's still kind of … well … tacky.

Luisa also got her branding utterly wrong – and seemed genuinely unable to distinguish between a product designed for the trade and a product designed for home use. Specifically, she seemed to get caught up on the idea that her trade customers might want to sell her products on to home users, but I kind of think if that's your plan, you're selling to home users, not to trade. I mean I could be wrong, but I assume that professional bakers don't buy their ingredients in the same packages that home bakers do, and presumably they don't go for the same branding either. On top of that she completely blew her presentation, and knew it (she was in tears when she'd finished). Alan Sugar insisted that her presentation had gone fine, but this wasn't because it had, it was because at this stage in the competition he basically has to pretend that the candidates' performances are flawless, or else he has to admit that the people who win really aren't demonstrably much better than the people who get fired three weeks in.

The episode was immediately followed by a You're Fired special (called, originally enough, “You're Hired”) in which they have the usual post-mortem interviews with the candidates. They also had cameo apearances from the last two winners, and strangely enough I thought that this was the part of the show that validated the process the most for me. Both former winners were clearly doing okay, but also clearly hadn't become billionaires, they were basically running small businesses which were doing alright, paying the bills and employing a small number of other people. In a funny way it brought the whole thing back to reality, with Alan Sugar pointing out that these guys were basically not very big fish in the business world, because most people who start their own business don't wind up being Zuckerbergs. In a way, all you win on the Apprentice these days is somebody to make sure that you won't go out of business in year one. And in a way, that's probably more valuable than anything you'd win anywhere else.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 17:29 on 2013-07-31
(and fashionable as it is to mock the guy's business credentials – because honestly Donald Trump he ain't – he's worth about £770 million which is approximately £770 million more than I'm worth).

My understanding is that Donald Trump has regularly blundered into spectacular pits of failure which would have wiped out folks who didn't already hail from an obscenely rich family, so eh, I say Sugar's ahead on points.
Melanie at 20:20 on 2013-07-31
Episode two was all about making and selling flavoured beers.

in two days

Wait, what? I know someone who brews as a hobby, and while I only have a casual interest in the process it does seem to take a lot longer than two days. Especially the part where it's sitting around fermenting. Was there a time skip or did they add stuff to pre-existing beer or what?

milk is the sort of thing that people have anyway, and not the sort of thing you buy on impulse. [...] “because obviously,” as one comic put it, “nobody says 'I'm just going to pop out for some milk'...”

Weirdly enough, being at home and seeing that you're out of something, then going out and buying it specifically, is the opposite of an impulse buy. So the joke doesn't really hold up to scrutiny.
Dan H at 21:36 on 2013-07-31

My understanding is that Donald Trump has regularly blundered into spectacular pits of failure which would have wiped out folks who didn't already hail from an obscenely rich family, so eh, I say Sugar's ahead on points.

Fair point. Although I'm slyly amused by the fact that they stopped mentioning Alan Sugar's net worth around series five, presumably because it had started decreasing (to be fair, that was also around the time of the Credit Crunch).


Wait, what? I know someone who brews as a hobby, and while I only have a casual interest in the process it does seem to take a lot longer than two days. Especially the part where it's sitting around fermenting. Was there a time skip or did they add stuff to pre-existing beer or what?

They added flavours to preexisting beers. Which to be fair seems to be how these beers are made.
Shim at 21:54 on 2013-07-31
I feel highly vindicated in not watching this.

I am 99% sure you're right that, while the show presents it as candidates making daft choices, they are actually highly constrained in their choices and approaches to problems. TV really hates things that depart from their expected format. My favourite story here is from a uni friend who went on the gameshow with the frowny woman whose name I'm forgotten... apparently in filming the contestents were really quite feisty (all of which was cut) and one was forced to reshoot his departure because he didn't look sad enough when he lost.

Also: surely if anyone set you a task to 'sell some beer', you contact the nearest students' union and offer them at a good rate to both union and students, one day only?

The milk thing is spot on though. It is daft to sell milk on a little stall - do you see milk, white sliced and Tetleys on the German markets when they come a-calling? People buy unusual stuff off there, not groceries.
Melanie at 22:04 on 2013-07-31
They added flavours to preexisting beers. Which to be fair seems to be how these beers are made.

I guess that makes sense. But it seems so... perfunctory. Admittedly all the tasks sound sort of perfunctory.

And whatever the candidates do they get a “ooh well done, that was a really good try, because you know it isn't as easy as it looks, and the other boys and girls, they didn't get as far as you did, did they?”

That part sounds hilarious. Did they manage to look sincere? at 23:56 on 2013-07-31
I don't think I've ever watched an entire episode of a single reality tv show, mostly because I get crippling embarrassment by proxy and can't stand to watch people make fools of themselves.

Still, this was a pretty fascinating read. It's always interesting to see the artifice of these things stripped away to reveal how they actually operate underneath.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 11:48 on 2013-08-02
"My understanding is that Donald Trump has regularly blundered into spectacular pits of failure which would have wiped out folks who didn't already hail from an obscenely rich family, so eh, I say Sugar's ahead on points."

Really, the thing hinges on aesthetics: Trump's hypnotic hair or the name Lord Sugar. Basically I would want to court the favour of a man that is lord over all sugarkind.
Arthur B at 12:44 on 2013-08-02
Basically I would want to court the favour of a man that is lord over all sugarkind.

As the Perry Bible Fellowship has observed, you wouldn't want to cross such a ruler.
Robinson L at 15:06 on 2013-08-16
I hardly ever watch reality TV, not because I'm above that sort of thing, but because it tends to bore me. Not that ignorance of the subject matter has ever stopped me from liking an article on this site before, and this one was no exception.

From Episode 4:
it's not like you ever think “hmm, I've run out of milk, I'll just wander into town and see if there's a one-day-only pop-up farm shop I can go to.” You just go down to the nearest Tescos or, if you're feeling lazy, corner shop.

Lazy, or self-righteous socially conscious. (*whistles innocuously*)

From Episode 9:

Usually, I avoid nit-picking in comments, but um, you mention how Luisa's gambit in this episode "actually completely saved their arses" and then a few sentences later opine "The fact that Evolve's “Jamaican Chicken and Thai Noodles” tasted utterly bland actually probably saved their ass." It's a pretty glaring case of repetition, but what really baffles me is the way you switch from the British term to the American one within the same paragraph.

From Episode 12:
Suddenly, it's the final, and it's like Alan and his advisers have been abducted by aliens and replaced by the candidates' grandmothers wearing unconvincing fake beards and wigs. And whatever the candidates do they get a “ooh well done, that was a really good try, because you know it isn't as easy as it looks, and the other boys and girls, they didn't get as far as you did, did they?”

And we have a highlight for the review - that's hilarious.
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