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The Apprentice – The Final: Yas you’re hired!

The Apprentice 2009 - Yasmina

The Apprentice – Week 12: The Final

Capitalism is a paradoxical system. Sralan expressed it perfectly if unwittingly as I’m not sure he has much taste for irony. In an evenly balanced contest according to Sralan both women got it almost right. Kate won the personal presentation, her three-tiered box of ‘one for her, one for him and one to fight over’ was thought innovative; and the box received compliments though I thought it insipid. Her small range of chocolates, 6 flavours, were generally acknowledged to be delicious. After some false starts the last minute ‘Choc d’Amour’ name was good. But back in cost mode Sralan baulked at £13 a pop even though in the supermarket they researched there were premium brands at £16 +.

All the Apprentices, except perhaps for Debra have been far too willing throughout to treat Sralan as an oracle whose every pronouncement must be right; and Kate more than most. So she immediately agreed with him that she had pitched at the luxury market through the wrong outlets i.e. supermarkets rather than specialist niche luxury outlets. His argument was that the £16+ chocs got on the supermarket shelves only because they had established the brand in niche outlets first. This is certainly a realistic argument though I’m not sure that a massive ad-buy investment hasn’t launched quality brands straight in to critical mass sales levels without the slow build of niche marketing first. It is true though that Sralan likes low cost high margin products – that was the ethos of Amstrad. And I doubt very much if he is a big ad-buy launcher: like many cost-obsessed CEO’s he has a risk aversion to the investment in a market that kind of high cost launch entails.

In contrast Yasmina hit his hot button: what we might call low cost flash. He admitted later that he had been immensely impressed in week two when Yas had knocked together the cheapest, tackiest sandwiches making about a 200% margin. His enormous respect for this achievement was not diminished one jot by the fact that the ‘can-o-peas’ looked tired and unappetising and generated a significant number of complaints. Yas’s coup was a one-off success. She had a contract for the night and toughed it out. But no one would ever have gone back to her again.

This time thanks to an uncharacteristically cooperative attitude by all concerned, of which more later, Howard and Co came up with an absolutely first rate box – different, a design that was literally striking, high impact colours and an innovative slide opening. The ‘Coco-Electric’ name sucked a bit . But one can’t induce that much poetic exhilaration with the name on a box of chocs. I quite liked Shockolate but can’t disagree it’s a bit schlocky as we might say. I hate to say it but Lorraine’s mystical instinct was absolutely on the button when she saw immediately that the graphic had inherent brand impact so stripped all but the name from the box. Phil’s usual boorish disruptiveness was defused by letting him prance around like a berk with embarrassed dancers pretending he knew how to choreograph. Lighting, music, theatrical effects for Coco-Electric were buzzy and lively enough to make the Choc D’Amour show look pedestrian. But Yas doesn’t have Kate’s ease with presentation. In an echo of week two – most people were impressed with everything about Coco-Electric except the chocolates. Well you can’t win ‘em all I suppose.

The glaring weakness of the objective comparison here was not rigorously relating cost to margin and in turn to projected sales. As Yas was totally at fault on the absolute cock-up of £5 max for 500ml of Sandalwood costing about £750 and at interview seemed to find profit, gross, net and turnover conceptually slippery, I’m not sure how much faith we can place in her 6/7p per chocolate cost claim. Sounds a bit ‘sandalwoody’ to me. Kate claimed to have a good margin but this was not quantified either.

Like many cost-obsessives Sralan frequently treats ‘cost’ as an absolute concept, whereas in strictly business terms surely it only makes sound business sense treated as a relative term: without selling price you have no concept of margin: and without cost, selling price and margin one’s estimate of potential sales is a pure punt in the dark. There is a valid reason to talk of cost as an absolute but it is a managerial, not directly profit-related issue. CEO’s like to induce a sense of absolutism in the ethos of a company so that every moment, every employee remembers that minimising costs is a good thing. Except perhaps when you make something so cheap(ly) you can’t sell it.

These critical parameters were completely ignored last night. When Sralan, said that Yas had got all the important things right and that the fact that no one liked the chocolates was something that “could be tweaked” he totally undermined his assessment of the relative performance of the two candidates. How much more would it have cost to remedy the problem identified by one of the experts, that he could see the merchandising selling one box but that the crap chocolates would make it the last.

It wouldn’t have taken long or been boring to have told us the numbers – actual costs for each, selling price and therefore margin. The balance could then be expressed by the simple equation of how many sales each would have had to make to bring in say a target gross profit of £100,000.

This is one of the paradoxes of capitalism for me: in the overall mix of so-called skill, art even science of business the actual product, here the chocolates and how they taste, becomes not just a mere single criterion but not even an essential one. As consumers we have the experience of the truth of this lunacy in our everyday experience. We have always sort of known it, found it so often true to our experience, and yet we can never quite bring ourselves to accept it because it is so manifestly counter-intuitive as to be ridiculous. If you want to see these paradoxes deliciously and hilariously explored check out Milo Minderbinder in Joe Heller’s magnificent Catch-22.

If this crazy unintended outcome is mad for products – don’t even begin to get me going on the same lunacy applied to services. To cite just a couple of the commonest paradoxes: the quality of customer service is rigorously in inverse proportion to the number of Customer Service Departments and Customer Service ‘Executives’: and ‘Quality’ as in Quality Management has nothing to do with excellence or ‘quality’ in the normal sense at all – it just means consistently of the same level of ‘quality’. Macdonalds is the paradigm of ‘Quality’ management. They may sell crap but it’s always exactly the same, guaranteed crap. Milo Minderbinder rules OK. (And I ran a Quality Management System).

With this woolly, half-baked context lacking even the rigour of which such imponderables are capable, I’m not sure whether Lorraine saw the irony or Sralan would have acknowledged it – but in the end he waffled on about ‘instinct’, ‘flair’, ‘acumen’ as being at the heart of his decision. Well with crap analysis and half-baked assessment I guess we have to accept what we knew all along – to win the Apprentice being good isn’t enough; you have to be ‘Sugar-good’. The distinction between that and plain personal prejudice is opaque to say the least. But then I have instincts, intuitions – it’s all you other b**ggers who have prejudices – right?

In the end though I guess it was a bit of a toss-up and could have reasonably gone either way. And there’s been a lot of fun to be had on the way – malicious at times but no less fun for that. Sralan’s Mr Chips act later, with his “best ‘mob’ I’ve ever had” – hear that Lee? – did set my teeth on edge and there was a distinctly dodgy outbreak of niceness that made me a bit queasy and sounded as genuine as a chocolate teapot. Char-colate?

The attitude and performance of all the fired Apprentices was transformed in this last programme when they were no longer trying to win. People listened better, co-operated infinitely better, were more relaxed, had more fun, enjoyed a challenging experience precisely because they shared it. “Doh” as Homer might say – maybe the aggressive, dog-eat-dog, selfish, egocentric, testosterone fuelled ethos that Sralan engenders and the programme exploits might not be the way to get the best out of most of the people most of the time after all.

Wash your mouth out Zettel – we wouldn’t have a programme then. Well of course that would be a tragedy for the common weal wouldn’t it?

I do find myself wondering with Jo Brand about how so many bright young people can get so ‘passionate’ about how to sell crap chocolates by ‘good’ marketing and selling: about the waste of intelligence and youthful commitment devoted to persuading people they want things they don’t need, and need things they don’t want. Is selling crap chocolates the kind of thing our brightest young people should get passionate about? But then I’ve never got used to the modern criterion of good citizenship – spend as much as possible as often as possible, even if you haven’t got the money.

The final paradox of course is that free-market capitalism in its globalised form is now the only viable economic game in town; a system with an irreducibly voracious appetite for consuming finite resources that is on a train-wreck course with the inescapable and potentially terminal environmental consequences precisely of its success.

We are a strange species: in order to feed ourselves we have to destroy our ongoing ability to do so. And the Debras and the Kates and the Yasminas with their slightly chilling passions will make sure the process doesn’t slow down.

Looks as if many of these paradoxes are getting much more rigorous analysis than mine in this year’s Reith Lectures by Political Philosopher Michael Sandel – first one today sounded very promising. Check them out.

PS: Both teams about-faced on initial strategies because a few dodgy-looking blokes claimed men don’t buy chocolates. Oh yes? You think so do you? Can I have years of expenditure back then please? No one told me.

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