The 13th series of The Apprentice was a maelstrom of chaotic project management, eclectic tasks ranging from making burgers to running a doggy day-care centre, and the usual boardroom schadenfreude. The image of Elizabeth presiding regally over a Segway proclaiming, “To infinity and beyond” will live long in the collective memory. It concluded in December with the unprecedented twist of two winners being crowned, confectionary company owner Sarah Lynn of London and Birmingham-based IT recruiter James White, who each became Lord Sugar’s business partner and received a £250,000 investment in their respective companies.
There is a distinctive brand of corporate ideology which permeates the programme, and it is through this that the candidates have to utilise strategies to navigate their route to victory. Candidates are expected to be tough, resilient and to only express behaviour compatible with business culture such as passion, aggression and dominance. They are encouraged to fiercely champion their individualistic ambitions and to sometimes aggressively defend themselves in the board room.
In Nick Couldry and Jo Littler’s 2011 article “Work, Power and Performance: analysing the ‘reality’ game of The Apprentice” they argue that whilst The Apprentice doesn’t directly reflect a contemporary workplace, its ritualization of corporate culture helps to normalise and instil a neoliberal corporate ethos. Neoliberalism is characterised in the Britannica Dictionary, as “an ideology and policy model that emphasizes the value of free market competition…most commonly associated with laissez-faire economics…sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress, its confidence in free markets as the most efficient allocation of resources…”
It is within this context that contestants have to play the corporate game, and we have identified the following successful strategies to win:
- Always make sure you can justify your contribution to each week’s task. The ‘do-ers’ of the group like Elizabeth and Michaela were often able to avoid elimination by pointing to their contributions whilst several candidates have been fired as a result of perceived inaction; in week 3 Lord Sugar fired Elliot after a task which involved the teams marketing a robot, accusing him of making little contribution and letting others “fall on their swords,” whilst Harrison too, after initially being praised for his hard working mentality, was fired in Week 10 during the fashion show task. Not being conversant with women’s fashion, he seemed bemused by Hellavagirl’s haute couture range and claimed he was “whatever” about it. He seemed glad to be somewhat implicitly relegated to the role of burly assistant and chief chair-arranger. However, beware of over-contribution as you may come across as domineering and difficult to work with. Elizabeth received a warning on several occasions for being controlling and preventing others from making valid contributions. She tried to take the lead in every aspect of the car advertising task, which culminated in a strange advert featuring her disembarking frantically from the aspirational car to chase after errant poultry. In the recipe kit making task, she yet again struggled to contain her authoritarian inclinations, managing to chop James White into pieces along with the vegetables in their cooking session.
- Master the art of deflection and bring your best fighting talk. This is a crucial boardroom survival tactic when all hope seems lost and Lord Sugar’s quill is hovering over your death warrant. Leading on from the last point, Elizabeth provided a strong example of this after the recipe kit making episode when her team lost and Lord Sugar gave her a grilling about being a control freak, “In florist terms you’re like a giant hogweed you just completely take over,” which Elizabeth quickly spun into a positive, “I prefer to call myself a sunflower –I shine.” She then completed her successful plea with an optimistic offer to make him £1 million of additional profit in 18 months, and finally begged for another chance, “I will sit in the background and work my socks off.” This was enough to give her a stay of execution. This fighting talk may also encompass ‘throwing people under the bus’ to aid your survival. In the recipe kit episode, even mild mannered Sarah was able to summon the requisite amount of treachery when it came to a board room showdown with Bushra and Elizabeth, eventually leading to Bushra’s elimination. Sarah stated some strong opinions which may have helped seal Bushra’s fate, accusing her of talking rubbish and instructing her to “take the splinters out of your backside…,” with Bushra accusing Sarah of throwing her under the bus.
- Provide strong leadership and successfully coordinate the team effort. In order to win the competition, you must prove yourself to be a credible business leader. Sarah provided strong leadership in the very first task, where the candidates were tasked with manufacturing burgers and selling them to the public. A good team player, she was able to coordinate the team conscientiously with consideration for its different members. She managed to mediate diplomatically and constructively between the girls when they argued and gave most people appropriate roles. She was able to be decisive when necessary. This enabled them to turn a reasonable profit and win the task. In the boardroom everyone unanimously agreed that Sarah was a good project manager. Conversely, the other project manager Danny struggled to provide decisive or structured leadership in the same task. His team ultimately made a loss because they missed the lunchtime customer rush, and had no concrete pricing strategy in place. This precipitated confused scenes of Jeff and Elliot trying to sell burger buns filled with salad at a desolate Brixton market. In the boardroom Danny was fired for having no strategy.
- Do your research. This was particularly crucial during the Interview stage when the remaining five candidates were tasked with unveiling their intended business plans and were subjected to a meticulous and brutal grilling from four of his most revered henchmen including Claude Littner. 23 year old Joanna’s lack of knowledge of her prospective sector – the fashion industry bore heavy criticism. Her business plan was to launch a fashion company that provides stylish women’s workwear clothing, which incorporated a philanthropic element, (a percentage of the proceeds would go to providing uniforms or workwear for girls in third world countries). Whilst the idea intrigued the inquisitors, it was met with a scathing barrage of rhetorical questions, ripostes, and convoluted tautologies, Claude Littner deemed, “You don’t know how much you don’t know, because you don’t know.” Joanna had little practical knowledge of the fashion industry, struggling to answer questions about where she would source clothing from and the accompanying details. Eventually she was fired for not having enough experience and knowledge of her field, Lord Sugar telling her to go and work in the fashion industry. This contrasted with Sarah and James who were already experts in their fields.
- Watch your attitude. This was the undoing of many candidates who struggled to monitor their mercurial temperaments and were duly admonished by Lord Sugar in the boardroom. In the Robot task the conflict between the girls reached fever pitch, the arguing causing continual disruption and distraction during their pitch, with Karren Brady commenting “the bad blood is costing them.” Elizabeth was repeatedly reprimanded for being domineering whilst Joanna was dubbed “very, very argumentative.” However it was Andrew who was eventually fired for his laddish behaviour. In the Bruges episode he seemed to think he was selling a Stag weekend not a beer tasting session, offering tourists the opportunity to “get off their nut” and he was fired after swearing in front of clients in the doggy day care episode.
- Know how to select and negotiate commission on a product. In the fashion show episode, Jade became Project Manager and went to meet with the fashion suppliers to negotiate commission, despite the fact she had no experience in this and Sarah was seasoned in dealing with suppliers. Jade chose a very high-end expensive designer, and was only able to negotiate 10% commission and neglected to push for a discount for multiple purchases. This proved the crucial deciding factor as Joanna’s team selected a much more affordable men’s range of clothing which led to a higher volume of sales. She managed to negotiate 17% commission and an additional 10% discount for customers who bought the whole collection. Of course it didn’t help that Jade got the brand name wrong, and used celestial looking balloons to spell out the designer’s name (Helen Woollams) instead of her brand name (Hellavagirl).
- Be pitch perfect. Mastering the art of knowing how to sell is very important within The Apprentice. Harrison provided a strong pitch in the recipe kit making episode when he presented their healthy chicken curry product, Natrofuel. Calm, collected and affable he helped redeem his team and detract attention away from their less successful endeavours. Both Sarah and James also delivered strong pitches in the final aiding their joint win for their respective businesses, confectionary gifting and IT recruitment. Many of the tasks included an element of branding which was also an important aspect in producing a successful product. In week 3 Jade’s winning team marketed an educational robot, which was accompanied by a succinct and coherent pitch board and a consistent brand name, ‘E.bot.’ Alternatively, poor branding could be the undoing of a team, as when Michaela was project manager for the robot task. She disastrously changed the name of her robot from Jeffrii to Siimon, despite the fact that the original name was already embedded in the robot’s programming. She also managed to complete only half of the accompanying pitch board, which included a glaring grammatical error. Unsurprisingly her team lost and she narrowly avoided elimination. As well as presenting to a boardroom, making sales in the field is vitally important. In the Corporate Box task, an awestruck Claude Littner described Jade as an “absolute sales machine,” when she sold candy and souvenirs off a stall to football fans. James too demonstrated his sales acumen in the episode that saw candidates acquiring items to commemorate Lord Sugar’s career. When his team were negotiating for rugelach in a bakery, James built a rapport with the owner and negotiated for another of the requested items to be included with the deal, a birthday cake for bulk buying the rugelach. He was also able to recall this rapport later when the bakery owner helped him acquire a Westham scarf. This contrasted with Sarah’s team’s pitch in the recipe kit episode, an unequivocal failure which saw Elizabeth cook burnt food whilst narrating uncertainly, and Bushra and James dressed as salt and pepper pots allegedly providing a humorous element. Karren Brady summarised this mise-en-scene as “toe curling.”
- Dress the part. In terms of The Apprentice 2017 this means donning painfully obsolete 1980s corporate regalia and struggling Atlas-like under the weight of superfluous spectacles.
- Always follow the money. Ultimately the success or failure of each task is normally determined by the group who makes the most profit, and in several cases this has not necessarily meant the team who provided the best quality product. For example, in the football corporate box task in week 4, the boys’ team won despite providing a meagre and rudimentary experience for their corporate guests. The girls’ team Graphene gave their guests a much better experience (including 8 glasses of wine for each guest), but fell behind in terms of profit, leading to project manager Siobhan’s elimination. Lord Sugar qualified this decision with the edict, “over-ordering is really a crime as far as I’m concerned.”
- And most importantly of all; cultivate a rapport with Lord Sugar. This seems to be a strategy that candidates such as James, Elizabeth, Sarah and Michaela employed successfully. Preferably, present yourself as a reflection of Lord Sugar’s younger self and label yourself a “grafter.” Allow Lord Sugar to use you as a narcissistic mirror into the halcyon days of his bygone youth. Ultimately if you can accomplish this then none of the previous points matter much.
We can help
Mobilus Ltd are a boutique recruitment agency specialising in Marketing services, IT and digital sectors, with an in-depth knowledge of our marketplaces. Like the success Sarah and James experienced in The Apprentice, we can help our candidates to optimise their potential and successfully obtain roles they are well suited to. We believe the personal approach is integral and we meet our clients and candidates to meticulously establish their unique needs. This enables us to forge the most successful working relationships between these parties. Get in touch to see how we can help.
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