The Apprentice Semi-Final: Sugar, all things nice and puppy dog’s shaving balm

We’ve introduced you to the runners and riders for this penultimate hurdles challenge of the season, and let you review their form in the paddock. So let’s get the cameras rolling and take you to West London for the Burlington Arcade Handicap Chase. And who better to set the scene than contemporary business’ very own Burlington Bertie from Bow? Lord Sugar, for it is he, sets up the challenge to create affordable luxury items. Roll up, roll up, get yer entrepreneurs ‘ere, ladies and gentlemen. (One of the candidates makes a remark about the final heat being the one to sort the men from the boys. I’d man up if I were you, Jade. Or cuff someone.)

The trick of the task is presumably in the non-sequitor. Charged with creating the product, the branding, a retail environment and an industry experts pitch, market positioning and retail strategy will be critically important here. Not so much as little nuggets of poshness for poorer people, but more as the kind of pampering items that still sell even in hard times. (The BBC has presumably slipped up somewhere on the socio-economic inequality indicators, but we’ll let it pass.)

Possibly in the same way that he did with Steven, His Lordship makes Adam PM for Pheonix. As Ricky is Team Sterling, Tom is moved to work with him. Two candidates (one with a chequered record, the other with noticeably fading form) play three (see our Final Five write up for the summaries.) Tom lets Ricky take on the PM mantle, and I think I detect an unspoken idea that he is giving his competitor what he hopes is enough rope. Perhaps I’m being cynical. Ricky says something foolish about “I’m that close to getting a piece of paper out and asking Lord Sugar to sign it”, despite most of the evidence showing The Baron as being too busy to stop for autographs.

Alpha dog status sorted, the boys decide to go for male grooming products. As both have occasionally acted as if to suggest they see ‘reflection’ more as something that you do in shop windows than as a learning technique, they might be playing to either their strengths or their foibles here but time (and several observers and mystery shoppers) will no doubt tell.

Adam grabs the PM reins firmly, immediately asking the others for ideas. Sensing even really fresh turnips might not fit the bill, Nick and Jade suggest confectionery. Hot chocolate in particular is judged to be massively underserved, although it’s not so much ideas as filtering they’re short on. Adam charges Nick with the branding (as that’s the most important bit), and Jade gets despatched to play with choco … er, sorry, develop the product. Karren is not alone in feeling this is a tad dismissive, not least as Jade’s track record in the creative side of tasks is pretty strong. Still, despite the teams having free rein when it comes to choosing what type of product, grooming product and chocolate factories have mysteriously become available for product development and filming at a moment’s notice. It must be the magic of television.

As Tom heads to a ‘traditional’ barbers (or least sometime styled to death as one) where he can stand stroking his stubble and talking about ‘channels to market’, he and Ricky discuss brand names over their Star Trek communicators. Sensing an opportunity for the jokes to write themselves, Tom wisely vetoes ‘Mens’ Choice’: his concept of brand positioning is more top notch than top shelf. After Ricky doesn’t like – or perhaps ‘get’ – Gentry, the range will later emerge as Modern Gentleman. To me, it still sounds like a magazine, but at least one you could read on a train.

Over at Team Pheonix, Nick and Adam’s brainstorming is fairly alarming. As he’s PM, no-one can prevent Adam – who gave us Utterly Delicious Meatballs (at least in name) – from chipping in, although Nick’s ideas are no better. ChoChoChoc? They will later settle for Jade’s contribution: Sweet Thing. Fitting in about 8 minutes for market research, the boys go to a very posh chocolate shop. Ginger, lavender and mint are all suggested, although we learn that salted caramel is this season’s distinguished choice of congealed diary fat flavouring. Being boys and being in a sweet shop, they get overexcited by some upmarket jellies, and rather forget to ask about prices, business models, marketing channels or any of that stuff. Hell, there’s free sweets: tuck in!

Next we see the teams wrestle with the retail experience bit. Each has a blank space and an interior designer. Tom wants dark wood, greys, suggestions of heritage (albeit a very chic, minimalist Wallpaper* magazine version of it). The boys get busy with the paint-rollers – Ricky with slightly more gusto, I notice – and their blank warehouse space is transformed into a very nearly empty gunmetal grey warehouse space. Interesting.

Adam, who I hadn’t expected to contribute to this element much, meanwhile wants bright colours and lots of baby blue. The exuberant colourfulness of the retail design scheme is getting a parallel in the product selection process, where everyone is reverting to type. Adam is being energetically chaotic, Nick senses the product range is getting a tad random but is being diplomatic to the point of not arguing his case, and Jade is being ‘assertive’. The air threatens to turn as blue as the shop. I don’t actually have a problem with variety, although a certain film is looming large in my mind. I could cast Verruca Salt very easily right now, although things threaten to be more Wonky than Wonka. (And you’ll have to do your own Willy jokes, ok?) Perhaps sensing that decisions are going to be hard to get out of the boys, Jade develops alcoholic jellies, salted caramel discs, hot chocolate paintbrushes that you stir into hot water, and the intriguing idea of free cocktails in sweetshops. I’m not sure if anyone’s doing the math here, but I’m watching this as a sweet-toothed punter, and you can count me in right now.

The following morning is retail outlet opening day so the team can fine tune their offerings before the pitches. Nick is pitching indulgent luxury ethical fun for people ranging from ’15 to old’. (I’ll think you’ll find WOMAD and Waitrose Deli counter have beaten you to those ideas, son.) That said, the signage is great, the ‘Naturally indulgent’ strapline is brilliant (though we’re not sure who contributed it – I suspect Jade), and the jellies taste utterly wonderful. Pear cider jelly? I’ll take a kilo …

Pricing, being a strategic issue, comes less naturally. Nick suggests a price and then caves in instantly as debate ensues. Yo-yoing between 2.99 and 4.99, they set Karren’s tresses tossing in despair. Someone give the poor woman some chocolate. Have a heart. And maybe a plan? Jade, who plainly has a better idea of how to deal with a crisis, books a cocktail waiter. The customers – industry experts and Lord Sugar among them – have a ball. And a few highballs too. The products taste good, the shop is fun, warm and friendly: if this was going to the popular vote, this would be the winner. A sweetshop you can get drunk in. What’s not to like? But, of course …

The lads will be offering the traditional wet shave, as well as their underwhelmingly presented products – which have avoided being ‘too fruity’ after Ricky intervenes at the factory. They plainly do know their grooming. Ricky has already waxed lyrical about rehydration during product development, and Tom has now visibly volunteered for the wet shave experience. His bare chin meets the camera for the first time in the series.

But even the voiceover can’t resist pointing out that things are more sober at Modern Gentleman. The minimalist has been served very, very rare. Ricky, rather bravely, performs a wet shave on a bald man, and it’s not clear if this is a previous hair style choice or if his follicles have evacuated themselves in trepidation. The patter – or rather the business patter, which talks about restricted outlets, flagship stores, product vs service income stream, revenue balances and the like – is, however, smooth as a bald man’s pate. It’s just not the kind of banter I typically indulge in while someone glides a sharp knife across my face in a Scandanavian-design take on Dickensian Knightsbridge.

Regrouping before their pitches, Pheonix estimate 62 to 75% margins, fret – without doing anything about – potential confusion of brand identity, and congratulate themselves on a strong retail experience. Sterling acknowledge their packaging is a mistake and spend several hours nailing every detail of the pitch and rehearsing like majorettes for the FA Cup Final. Only in a rather more manly fashion, of course.

Pitch day arrives, and AMS1 touches down in the carpark, allowing Lord Sugar to convene with his industry experts – Green and Blacks, House of Fraser, Debenhams and a grooming brand that’s new to me called Bulldog. (Not something I’d want to smell of, but I’m a committed Clinique/Issy Miyake man.)

Tom and Ricky pitch smoothly, calmly and like two young men who’re really absorbed in grooming products and who’ve been up all night rehearsing and challenging each other on every aspect. A mediocre, undistinguished product is presented brilliantly, with a clear business model and a real handle on pricing and costs.

Adam, by contrast, pitches like a dinghy in a Force 9. He shakes, coughs, dries, and talks gibberish. Jade brings her characteristic energy and exuberance, recognising that the day – despite a winning retail experience and product – needs salvaging. Nick chews his lip. Silly boy, you needed to chew Adam’s lip. And ears. And you needed to do it two days ago. Tsk. Nick’s best contribution – that they are branded as confectioners, not chocolatiers – is somewhat lost as it becomes clear that they’ve not thought through margins, price points or lead products.

Shepherded back to the Boardroom, the verdicts are announced after the reactions are summarised. Phoenix had delivered on wow factor, but the business model was lacking and the presentation was poor. Sterling had delivered a dull product, but the business proposition was polished, detailed and slickly sold. Tom and Ricky win.

Ricky gets a win as PM, and his diligence on this task has probably done him a big favour. Tom’s form has partially returned, although he was responsible for the uninspired branding and he continues to come across as a candidate who is fading as the series progresses despite some obvious strengths. Given the importance of Lord Sugar liking you, the business plan and interview will be critical tests for both men.

As it’s now time to decide who goes, battle commences. Adam is, predictably, gutted. Although he sagely points out that strategy is a word that everyone leaps on when it all goes wrong, but are reluctant to use until then. So he has been listening all this time? Nick, identified as a technical man, has to concede there was no proper pricing strategy and the product range was confused, and that he had the opportunities to prevent both failings and didn’t take them. Jade, who can defend herself better than many a fortress, has little need to: her contributions made the retail experience and the products, which were their strongest suits. Her sidelining by Adam is also raised, although her handling of relationships is again seen as questionable. She’s also plainly extremely eager to try running her own business: her chances will be determining by the business plan and interview sections, but also by the balance between abundant enthusiasm and a lack of a volume control.

As Sugar reviews with Karren and Nick (Hewer), they confirm Jade’s contribution, Adam’s huge enthusiasm and tiny leadership skills, and Nick’s weird reluctance to step forward that has failed to save either his own skin or his team’s. As PM (whether he would have wanted to be or not), Adam is left to carry the baby, which he gets to take it home in a complimentary cab.

Jade has strengthened her case. Nick, meanwhile, has – as Adam observes – ‘fluked his way to the final’. As the Final Five programme argued, this was his chance to show what he can do and make a positive impact. In failing to do so, he is arguably lucky to be in the final. But he’s a good talker, and has already set up two successful businesses. He may surprise us yet.

(Personally, however, I’d have phoned two cabs and sent him home too.)

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