New ‘Apprentice’ Format? You’re Hired!

By Emma Jones

This year’s ‘The Apprentice’ was a misnomer. It should really have been called ‘The Young, Subordinate Business Partner’.

Its eventual winner, Tom Pellereau from London, used Sunday night’s final to propose a flawed but characteristically personal business plan. His dream: to invent a chair (aka ‘a sitting device’) that would solve the world’s back problems, saving businesses and the economy millions in lost work hours every year. Lord Sugar pledged to put £250,000 into this business plan, which he claimed simply needed ‘tweaking’.

Then on the following programme, Dara O’Briain’s ‘The Apprentice: You’re Hired’, Lord Sugar revealed that the ‘tweaking’ would involve scrapping the chair idea altogether and simply investing in the development of a product that Tom had already marketed, a curved nail file. Tom nervously pretended to be oh-so-keen about this change. Probably Lord Sugar picked him as he was relying on Tom’s reputation, gained from a prior episode, as a ‘nodding dog’. He couldn’t bark back.

Had the show’s format been the same as in previous years, with the powerful businessman simply putting his dedicated flock of 16 groupies (sorry, candidates) through a series of elaborate tasks, then it is clear to everyone that Helen would have won.

The Executive Assistant from Northumberland, Helen Milligan won nearly all of the tasks she was set (unlike Tom, who lost nearly all of them) through clear dedication, intelligence and hard work. Yet neither Lord Sugar, nor the four harsh interviewers who featured in the final, did not much like her business idea.

Poor Helen, ever the organiser, had a vision for a nationwide home-help style personal assistant service. Someone the busy middle classes could hire to book their travel plans and get their washing machine fixed, so that they could hang out with their kids more. But the interviewers shot her down. She only liked this idea, they claimed, because she herself was a workaholic and therefore assumed everybody else was too. Oh dear. They of course couldn’t touch her on the numbers, though.

One further criticism of Helen was that her business idea did not build on experience that she already had. When she defended this, saying she had spotted a gap in the market and did not believe that it should be ignored as a result of her lack of background in the area, most of us non-business-mogul types nodded swiftly in her defence. Many of us spot gaps in the market and some of us try to fill them – is this a mistake?

If Lord Sugar does indeed believe in the importance of experience, then perhaps he should have awarded the win to Susan Ma. The 21-year old born in Shanghai had already paid her way through university by creating her own skincare products, and selling them at upmarket places such as Greenwich Market. Her ambitious business plan consisted of expanding her skincare range and having them sold by big retailers. Oh but hang on, Lord Sugar does not have any experience in the cosmetics industry so perhaps his aim to break into it one day is not a very good idea. He must have much greater experience in the nail file business, presumably.

The last of the four finalists, Jim Eastwood from Northern Ireland, would probably fare better in a potential future version of the show: ‘The Social Entrepreneur’, in which every week candidates must perform tasks that in some way make the world a better place. Jim’s idea to provide schools with an e-learning service would be “initially not-for-profit”, a phrase which kicked him out of the boardroom faster than Lord Sugar can say ‘philanthropy’. His reputation for persuasiveness, almost to the point of hypnosis, could not save him in the end.

However we view the four finalists, Lord Sugar’s ultimate choice or the new format of the show, this series of ‘The Apprentice’ has proven just as popular to watch, chat and tweet about as ever.

But how does watching ‘The Apprentice’ encourage us to view business, and business people? Do we gain greater understanding and appreciation of the work they do, or do we sigh at the superficiality of wanting a life that is entirely about making money (in any possible ridiculous way)? Perhaps it is odd to watch a programme that arguably glorifies a corporate kingpin, when at the same time the news is telling us of the imperfections and prospective downfall of another.

Yet one thing is clear. This show continues to provide the same amusement in the tasks, the same clash of candidate personalities, and the same suspense in the boardroom, and does so as well as it ever has. We can still never tell who is going to be fired. And we haven’t yet got bored of trying to guess.

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