New Bottles, Old Whine: The Apprentice, Episode 7

This week’s task was all about breathing life into a tired media format where the Boston Matrix would reveal an over-abundance of Problem Children and Dogs: ‘freemiums’ – freebie mags that exist on advertising revenue as they’ve already calculated that no-one would pay to read them. There are many criticisms of The Apprentice – and I confess I’ve written quite a few of them – but you can’t argue that it isn’t generous in giving its critics copious ammunition to throw back at it.

Being reasonable (words they almost always indicate someone is about to be anything but, of course), this episode did see a drop-off in the verbal handbagging and Most Cliches Per Minute In A Taxi elements. It was, for once, rather less like seeing a plain dress version of It’s A Knockout: I actually made it through a full hour without my brain once thinking “Here come the Belgians!”. That said, the clangers still outnumbered the soupdragons fairly heavily: picking the over-60s as a demographic without reflecting on Lord Sugar’s date of birth, for starters.

The focus group activity underlined the programme’s predeliction with everything being possible in the shortest possible time period. Half a rugby team for one team (producing something that wanted to be a lads’ mag with A levels, and wound up something more like Viz producing an issue of Nuts), and a bowls team for the other. Neither were really listened to, although the lads’ mag team at least understood their own questions, if not necessarily the answers. Still, by refusing to over-estimate the readers’ intelligence, the lads’ mag did demonstrate they’d learn at least one lesson from the programme they were on (two actually: they did an article on how to make a grand in a day), and won the task.

Jedi Jim’s team, meanwhile started with the germ of an ironic idea (calling the mag Hip Replacement – had they had the wit to run with this with humour, as Zoe seemed to suggest, they might have got away with it) that they then undermined with a covershot with cardigans and articles about pensions. His Royal Sweetness was not alone in being not impressed. They lost by quite a margin with the advertising sales brokers too. (You don’t sell print ad space anymore: you sell ad space to people who sell ad space. I dimly remembered something from 1995-ish about new media and disintermediation in between bouts of smacking myself round the head with a cushion.)

From the office straw poll here, the problem with the episode was in the boardroom. Jedi Jim was fingered for his over-obvious desire to take the glory but share the blame selflessly, and for a manipulative approach to those he worked with. The neutering of content and the complete failure to countenance discounting for the ad card rate were very much his ideas, but he cast around for someone to delegate them to now that they had plainly not worked out. All this was said pretty much verbatim to his face. And then he stayed.

Glen, meanwhile, was fired essentially – if we are to believe the edits – for being an engineer. Lord Sugar doesn’t think they can do business. Lord Sugar hasn’t, I suspect, pondered his reflection in that Rolls Royce he’s so fond of. Lovely bit of engineering that, Siralun. World famous, profitable, English, hugely revered. Needless to say, a few successful British engineers have been a bit miffed. James Dyson vented steam in The Guardian, saying:

British companies such as Rolls-Royce, ARM and JCB are world leaders and they create jobs, technology and cash. And yet those who trade for a living still hold more respect than those who make things. But unless we invent and make more, Britain will have nothing left to export and our deficit will continue to grow. I understand the value of a good deal, but it’s a shame our trains now need to be made in Germany rather than Derby.”

Will King of King of Shaves worked himself into a lather too:

Britain has really let the manufacturing and engineering industries slide but that is a mistake that has cost us dearly. It’s time to rebalance the economy so that we’re more reliant on manufacturing once more. We need to export and get foreign currency coming in. Lord Sugar’s comments couldn’t have been more poorly timed.”

New Civil Engineer magazine wasn’t too impressed either, observing that “the preview of next week’s episode contained clips showing the contestants travelling to France from St Pancras Station, a symbol of engineering success.” (What were we saying about that Roller?)

Most of the broadsheets were on the case along similar lines, but some of the sharpest comments went to commenters to The Telegraph’s piece, who pointed out a historical example of a real apprentice (James Watt) and that Sugar’s portfolio is mostly in property (“that makes him a rentier. Part of the problem rather than the solution”) and managed to recall such historic non-entities as Brunel, Sony, Honda …

(Poor old Steve, hopefully now snoring into the sofa in Rotherham, is quite likely an unemployed engineer, and no doubt grateful to the insight and wisdom of the management accountants and venture capitalists who’ve been so keen to invest in his professions’ insights and problem-solving skills. Never mind, Steve: they’re probably glad to see you get some leisure time.)

Interestingly, one media outlet that seemed to at least partially agree with Lord Sugar at the time of broadcast was Management Today, whose Emma Haslett wished Sugar had hired better engineers for his old IT company but didn’t entirely disagree. Or at least not until 4 days later when the same journalist was arguing the UK Government might seriously get behind entrepreneurial engineering activity and “[…]perhaps, show Lord Sugar exactly what was wrong with that comment.” Our thanks to Management Today for showing the importance of receiving, valuing and acting on feedback to all those in leadership positions.

So that’s the engineering entrepreneurialism challenge sorted. What’s next? Standards of light entertainment and management journalism? Anyone know any fish and chip shop managers we give 48 hours to sort it out?

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