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BBC The Apprentice (7) – Smelling What’s Selling Azhar: falls short.


Azhar falls short



BBC The Apprentice (7) – Smelling What’s Selling

“You have sent a message to Britain” – Lord Sugar on his favourite task in The Apprentice. The achievement this praise recognised was that 10 bright young people had fetched up at a general wholesale warehouse, bought £150-worth of randomly selected merchandise and then flogged it off as quickly and profitably as possible either in the street or in a shopping mall, in market-trader style. They then re-invested in re-stocking being enjoined to ‘smell what sells’. Project Manager Nick took this advice and his team won; Jade ignored it and her team lost. On all levels the fundamental message of The Apprentice is – do what Lord Barley tells you.

The winning Sterling team were further praised for their ability to buy self-tanning spray at £2 and sell it for £10. Despite Phoenix’s narrow defeat their talent in buying electronic bugs for 60p and selling them, largely to children, for around £3 was lauded.

This was a fairly entertaining bit of fun. A largely likeable bunch of Apprentices had a good go at it and while those not from buy cheap/sell dear backgrounds responded well outside their comfort zones, none could quite match Adam’s instinct for Dell-Boy chat and everyman bonhomie. Ricky and Steve may not offer much of a threat at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe comedy awards for their Mop Sketch – though lost in the burble of sales-speak it was a nice moment of over-selling when Ricky offered a lady moppist the special extra benefit of personally selecting her own individual mop from the dozen on show. The lady punter demonstrated perfectly that there are undefined limits to the odd conspiracy of half-truth in the impulse buy process by mocking the so-called benefit with – “they’re all the same.” Just so. Sub text: ‘I know this is cheap tat and I don’t mind you ripping me off – but don’t take the piss.’

Jenna seems so have undergone an ad hoc Thatcherite voice-job; her originally teeth-gratingly shrill somewhere up t’North whine having now modulated into a surprisingly effective instinctive friendliness at low volume settings. She was another one in her natural comfort zone this week in flogging cosmetics. I must add cosmetics to ladies shoes and handbags as areas of transactional analysis beyond the intellectual reach of a mere male. But results speak for themselves.

Nick looks increasingly impressive: he has that unflappable confidence which is the real reason rich and financially dedicated parents send their sons to Public School. But he carries this off-putting privilege lightly, venting his inner discomfort at the performance aspects of the Apprentice role with a distinctly louche flick of that rugger-chap mop of hair.

Gabrielle becomes more of a charmer week on week with that sunny-day smile and a nice line in whimsical creativity – discovering that if you are going to sell beard-trimmers to an 80% female demographic you may need a more confidential and private setting than a shopping mall. So the offendingly masculine non-movers (commerce imitating life) where transformed in a moment’s flight of fancy, into bikini-line trimmers. This, like the cosmetics, not only enters into the impenetrably, er….profoundly, esoteric world of women’s grooming, but in this instance operates in an area of feminine anatomical geography as fascinating as it is terrifying for the average bloke. I didn’t see any evidence of the promotion of the sub-text benefits of the re-designated beard-trimmer for more creative efforts at follicle-fashioning – but it doesn’t mean they weren’t there. I suppose a “just in from Brazil” sales pitch would have been a bit crass.

Laura stayed under the radar this week but does need to do something notable soon. Tom is the other quietly impressive candidate, assessing what needs to be done in a task that isn’t being done and doing it – this week controlling the numbers. He graciously accepted a role in ‘three-for-the-chop’ when it became clear that Jade had no idea either how to play the Apprentice game or the clarity of business judgement to have picked Laura instead.

Pure speculation of course but my hunch is that certainly ‘Call-me-Lord’ and perhaps other participants are under some behind the scenes pressure to try to avoid an all-male competition. Certainly Azhar’s failure was more one of vocabulary and communication than business sense. Jade was all at sea: not even being aware that she had what Azhar was constantly accusing her of not having – a strategy. This is instructive: it seems counter-intuitive that someone can have a strategy but not recognise it as such. Jade’s strategy was clear and diametrically opposed to Barley’s advice: she re-stocked with the same general spread of products as the initial buy, ignoring the experience of what was selling and concentrating there. This is a perfectly legitimate approach – and got close to winning. But the advantage of having a clear appreciation of having adopted a certain strategy firstly makes it possible to communicate to those you manage what you are trying to do, how you want to achieve it and thus providing the thread of common purpose around which team-members can contribute fully to overall collaborative success. The other advantage of this clarity of thinking and purpose is that you have something against which to measure your results as you go along.

As Jade didn’t discipline her thinking about her leadership and approach to the task with a recognised strategy she could communicate, her team were constantly having to pester her to tell them what to do next. By the same token Azhar, as is only too common, conflated a planned method to succeed, a strategy; with the plan of action designed to implement it. Sound strategies can fail because of poor implementation; just as a well-founded strategy can fail in practice because the facts upon which it was formulated were wrong; or more often, the volatility and unpredictability of customer response and other factors renders it redundant.

The lesson for Jade was: unless you know you are following a plan you can’t communicate it, test whether it is working; and thus change it if necessary. The lesson for Azhar was that he needed to be clearer: he had two legitimate objections to Jade’s approach: first that the generalist re-stock was the wrong strategy; or that theimplementation of that strategy wasn’t working.

We may be discovering The Apprentice Paradox: the nicer the candidates are; the more civilised is their behaviour to one another; the less fun we get as viewers. I have always argued that for me just as for everyone else, schadenfreude lies at heart of its appeal: we enjoy, perhaps shamefacedly, watching other people make fools of themselves and getting their often well-deserved come-uppances. The further The Apprentice gets from being a Game Show – the less entertaining it becomes: the more one takes it seriously as having anything much to do with business, the more the limitations of the concept and Lord Sugar’s presentation of it become clear.

What does Lord Sugar’s ‘message to Britain’ mean for our economy? A ‘Poundworld’‘Everything below 99p’ High Street or on-line market. The task he was so enamoured with was predicated upon immensely earth-resource wasteful, speculative, largely 3rd-world manufactured consumer baubles. Buy ‘em cheap, sell ‘em dear is a parasitic business philosophy: it risks and often does entail affluent First world consumers being endlessly coaxed into buying things they don’t need and often don’t really want, that have been produced by the underpaid, badly treated, 3rd world poor. That’s not a viable, let alone worthwhile message – to anyone.

As Azhar remarked – “it’s not just a question of selling is it?” Quite so.

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